Ko Phra Thong, Thainland 2005.
The Unite Hope angel was placed at Golden Buddha Beach on the island Ko Phra Thong in Thailand the 26th December 2005, as a memorial of the tsunami victims 26 December 2004.
The day began, again, with a bang. All through the Christmas night of 2005 the sky screeched for attention like a child, bursting into white as if teasing us with temporary dashes into daylight. The thunder, a later arrival, clapped in applause. At first mere background to the light-show drama, the boom soon dominated the main act with crescendo roars and torrents of rain. It was impossible to ignore it, so I lay awake, flat on my back in prostate attention.
It was a demonstration of raw power, an unscheduled December monsoon. It was as if it were saying, “I remember.”
A kilometre or so away in the rebuilt Mr Choi’s bar, which now boasts an ocean view, the Needham boys and friends had returned, just as they did that Christmas night a year ago, to drink into the night. Whenever the tsunami entered their conversation, its presence would be accompanied by a thunderclap, a supporting soundtrack to their stories. No one mentioned it at first, but after a time they began exchanging furtive glances with each other. Finally Bodhi spoke it. “This is so weird, whenever you mention Robin, the sky goes CRASH,” he said.
But by morning, the show was over and the beach sparkled, golden once more, in the soft sunlight. I rose and stretched out into a few yoga poses, then hurried down the path to meet Robert and Dan, Alexander’s godfathers, and install the angel sculpture they had brought with them from Sweden as an anniversary monument. It was tiptoe quiet. Even the hornbills, who had announced the end of the stormy night with a barking
cacophony, had retreated into the high branches in silence, as if pausing for a morning cup of tea.
We climbed Hornbill Hill to select a site for the angel. It took us only a moment to pick a spot that would allow the statue to keep a vigilant eye on that straight blue horizon while watching over future beach frolickers. We began to dig.
We had feared the hill would be too rocky to allow us to make the hole for the angel’s concrete foundation. But instead, beneath the crust of a few craggy rocks, the earth was pliant and rose easily under the Yao’s hoe. Minutes later Robert announced: “I think that’s enough.” For good measure, Yao scooped one more pile of dirt, revealing a ceramic white circle, perfectly placed in the centre of our hole.
“We’ve finally found the buried treasure,” I joked, but as Yao gently prised the object out it was clearly no Golden Buddha. It was a small urn filled with sand and decorated with two snakes sliding towards a central design like a stylised hood of a cobra. Slowly, Robert pulled out a piece of laminated card that was buried inside the sand in the urn. It was a drawing of a mermaid rising out of the ocean draped in a shawl of serpents. On the back of the card was writing in a script I thought might be Sanskrit.
“There is something else,” Dan said, pointing to a small green cloth with a gold symbol on it tossed on the pile of unearthed dirt. I picked it up gently and noticed that the pottery piece that had once been inside it was smashed. I feared it had been broken by our violent disruption of the burial site.
“I don’t think we should put the angel there until we know what this is,” I said, thinking the urn a relic unrelated to our tenure at GBB. “It could be a terrible thing to do. I’m going to ask the Rinpoche. Perhaps he reads Sanskrit.” Yao, seeming to think that we had brought him up with his hoe precisely to uncover this treasure, misunderstood our pause and began to shuffle the dirt back into the hole.
Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche was Lucy’s Katmandu-based Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who had come to GBB at her request that day along with French monk Matthieu Ricard, to conduct a Puja, or ceremony, in honour of those who lost their lives in the tsunami exactly a year ago. I had seen them that morning as they left their room, tentatively gathering up their maroon and saffron robes as they left Baan Tokay, cautiously negotiating steps still broken from the tsunami. They could have been mistaken for Thai abbots, except unlike most monks in Thailand, the Rinpoche had the build of a roly-poly laughing Buddha and had not shaved his head for some weeks, so that it was covered by a dark cosy of hair. I stood watching them for a moment, until I realised I was readying myself to offer a wai if the holy men turned around and saw me. Such an action would have been culturally inappropriate. What would I do instead, I wondered? The wai is such a simple way to show respect to an eminent stranger. A cheery wave - good morning! - seemed so clumsy in comparison. But they did not see me standing some way behind them, and, greeting postponed, I had hurried on down the path.
Now clasping the urn and cloth and looking for them, I could not see them at all. I tried the restaurant but found only Happy and Barbara. “That’s not Sanskrit,” Happy said as I showed them the card from the piece. “That looks like Tibetan. For sure the Rinpoche will be able to read it.”
I started to get worried. If it was Tibetan it was probably put there for Robin. I dared not think the worst: that we had uncovered some secret shrine. Whoever had buried it had buried it deep and had not intended for it to be unearthed. I rushed to Lucy’s house and came across Nat emerging from sleep.
“Where did you find that?” he asked, seeing the urn. When I told him, he took it from me, turned it in his hands and said, “I think we put that there in the summer.”
“I was planning to ask the Rinpoche,” I said, all in a rush to cover my anxiety. “I don’t know what to do now, should we put it back, should we put the angel on top?”
Nat seemed unperturbed. “Yeah, ask him,” he said, and gestured to the beach where the two monks were walking with Lucy and Steve.
I struggled to catch up to them, running through the thick sand like a toddler just learning to walk. I knew that Lucy was hoping the Rinpoche would advise her on a spot to place a stupor and she was indeed taking him on a tour of the resort. As I neared she was pointing out the sites of vanished houses and what was left of the homes of our lost members.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” I said. “But do you know what this is?” Lucy paused and introduced me. Rinpoche, literally meaning Precious One, is the name given to a reincarnated Tibetan lama who is has dedicated his life to teaching others. Many of them are thought to be bodhisattvas, beings who have reached enlightenment but have chosen to return to the perils of human existence in order to pass wisdom to others.
In my preoccupation with the pot, I had forgotten about my anxiety greeting a Precious One, so was completely disarmed when the Rinpoche looked me straight in the eye and held out his arm for a soft handshake, again demonstrating another cultural difference with his Thai counterparts, who are forbidden physical contact with women.
I quickly handed over the urn, suddenly wishing we had simply left it in its place, covered the dirt and erected the angel elsewhere. I couldn’t imagine that its excavation would be acceptable. The Rinpoche looked at it for a moment and said, “This is the Naga water blessing. Who put it there?”
Lucy answered for me. “I think the boys did,” she said, explaining to me that the pot was one of hundreds blessed by Tibetan monks that had been sent into the world to distribute
“Is it ok?” I asked, relieved that I had not disturbed Lucy’s husband’s remains. “Can I put it back?”
“Yes, you can put it back,” he said. “It only has to be buried under the ground. That is it.”
“We wanted to put the angel on the hill, can we put the angel on top or should we move it?”
“It does not matter,” he said.
There must be more, I thought. “Should I do anything, you know, to apologise?”
He chuckled and shrugged, as if I had said something slightly childlike and amusing to him alone. “Yes you can apologise.” His eyes twinkled, and I understood it depended only on my
It seemed settled, and the walk continued. But then Matthieu, who had listened to our conversation in silence, spoke. “Is there any fresh water on the hill?”
“No,” Lucy and I both replied.
“I think it needs to be where fresh water is,” he said. “It is a water blessing. We should bury it near fresh water.”
“What about near the well?” Lucy suggested.
“Yes,” the Rinpoche declared, and the conversation was over.
We slowly walked toward Hornbill Hill, Lucy pointing out tsunami landmarks: Michel’s house that had suffered the post-tsunami hurricane; the rope swing still hanging, without its seat, on the strong bough of a tree; and the approximate site of the massage sala, where Lola had been before the wave carried her kilometres away and deposited her on the water tower behind Kratom Moken. When we reached the base of the rock, the conversation turned to the stupor’s ideal location. “I think up there is good,” said Matthieu, pointing to a point about half way up the hill, facing the sea, where the rock had carved itself a natural platform, framed by two trees that leaned out over the water as if for a better view. The space was roomy and flat enough for a two metre stupor and Lucy, Steve and Matthieu began to climb the rock to confirm its appropriateness.
“I will sit here,” the Rinpoche said as he watched them climb, and plonked himself on a small rock, wiping his forehead with a corner of his robe. “I am melting off my rolls of fat.”
I decided to stay with him because I had also had enough of physical exertion in the warming morning. But I was also secretly curious about where a private conversation with an almost-enlightened being might lead.
“What do you think of Golden Buddha Beach?” I asked, in perhaps the most pedestrian opening line of all.
“It is very beautiful,” he said, nodding slowly as if this had only just been discovered. “But there is always risk.”
He seemed to be intently interested in a small pool of water lapping about at a rock on the edge of the ocean, and I found myself, too, staring at it with him as if we would shortly begin discussing it. We settled into a short silence.
“I have been to Phuket and you hear the stories about the people that were on the beach and then the children said ‘I want to go’, so they left, and other people who had planes delayed so they thought, ‘we will go to the beach’. Just those moments that made the difference,” he said, as if he too were searching for a conversation topic.
“Yes,” I said. “For some of us, that knowledge makes it very difficult now to make simple decisions, as we know how catastrophic the smallest decision can be.”
“We say it is karma,” he said.
“Karma?” I asked, let down by the simplicity of his offering.
“Yes, karma.” He seemed to think my question mark denoted miscomprehension. “Umm, you would call it … destiny”.
“I am familiar with karma,” I said softly, referring to the word, rather than demonstrating any conscious understanding of the reward cycle. I turned it over in my mind. Was that explanation enough for me? Was it only my karma that sent me up Hornbill Hill and rushed other people towards their deaths? And how did karma account for the dozens of near-deaths? Did it change its mind at the last minute for those who were struggling to find gills? “Oh, sorry, I made a mistake. It’s not your time yet. Here, have some air …” Or was it their karma to experience, for a moment or an hour, their hearts, minds and stomachs vacuumed of everything but fear? What past-life behaviour would warrant that?
I didn’t debate the point because Lucy jumped down from the hill with the news Matthieu had decreed the lower platform as a perfect place for a stupor. But I probably wouldn’t have done so anyway, as I don’t have quite the courage to challenge the wisdom of an enlightened sentient being. I regret it now. Of course, if the Rinpoche has chosen to come back and teach us the path to enlightenment, then presumably he is open to pesky questions and cynical defiance. I found out later that that he had once told Lucy living through the tsunami had given survivors an opportunity to wipe off a massive amount of karmic debt in those soaking moments. Would he have told me that, then, as we watched the water’s steady breath brush over the rocks in front of us? Would it have quietened my heart?
As it was, I left them to continue their tour and went back to the restaurant, a temporary dining area below the new workers’ cottages, for breakfast. A short time later, Nok, Andrew, Roddy and I slowly walked down the beach towards the Puja ceremony site. People were bustling around placing key objects in various positions and the activity suggested the Puja had not yet begun. Roddy and Andrew paused to sit watching the sea, alone for a moment. Not far from them, the Facchini family also used the summit of the steep stand to take a moment for quiet togetherness, looking out to sea.
But as I got closer to the ceremony site, I saw that the monks were already sitting side by side on a small table, chanting. They were facing the beach and a smoking fire. To their right was a small table of Buddha images gathered up from the jungle in the weeks after the tsunami, including a large wooden one covered with gold leaf that had lived in Baan Ana but was later found on a tree stump way behind the property. I took a place on a mat someone had put on the ground behind the small altar. There was another mat directly opposite us, so that we formed a U shape facing the beach, as if we were indeed seated in the old Baan Tokay sala that had once nestled in this spot.
The small group of GBB people I had spent the past few days with had grown as the date had drawn near. Along with Lucy and her family, Sergio and his family, Roddy and Andrew, Nok and myself, there were others who had not been here this time last year but had come to mourn and share the sadness: Peter and Geoffrey, Penny and Steve, Happy and Barbara and their daughter Apple, Bodhi, his mother Chris and her partner Craig, Jesse and his son Forest and friend Sion, Robert and Dan, Christopher, along with most of the current Thai staff were gathered around in the semi-circle. Others sent their messages by SMS, including Helen, JK and Carmine.
There appeared to be no moment that defined the beginning of the ceremony. We just arrived as we did and settled down, slowly turning our attention to the chanting monks. They themselves each seemed to be absorbed in their own routines, turning over tiny sheets of paper on which were printed the words of the prayers in Tibetan script. One, and then the other, would occasionally lift the chant above a mumble and it seemed to me like they weren’t always chanting in unison, kind of like they were engaged in private musings and only peripherally aware of our presence. Every so often, Rabjam Rinpoche would loudly clear his nose and throat of phlegm, as if pushing away unpleasantness. I recognised only one word – tsunami – but it came only once and I immediately wondered if I had imagined it.
Lucy’s son Robert and daughter Sonali were sitting closest to the monks’ platform, and after a time the Rinpoche leaned forward and plucked a Casuarina twig from a bowl of water, scattering the drops over the table of Buddhas and a bowl of what looked like bark and herbs that sat beside him. Then he scooped part of the bowl of herbs into a metal plate and handed it to Robert, who walked over and sprinkled it on the fire, tinging the smoke with earthy fragrances.
When Robert returned, Rabjam Rinpoche paused in his chanting to whisper to him: “Too much fire.” But Steve had already pre-empted the move and had began piling green leaves on the flame, smothering it and achieving the desired effect of steaming smoke, which drew up directly away from the beach and towards the two monks.
I looked at my watch. It was 10:35. This was the turning point, a year ago, where the first wave crashed on the beach and we jumped to attention, ready without knowing it to face whatever was coming. Our karma? Fate? Or just our entry ticket for a life and death lottery?
I looked into the distance. The teal water twinkled as it absorbed the powder-blue sky. There was no white fury to delineate the horizon, to separate turmoil from constancy. For now, no impending doom.
The sea had changed everything, it seemed, except itself.
The monks continued with their chanting, eyes half closed, rocking slightly back and forth, whether from discomfort or trance I couldn’t tell. Sometimes the Rinpoche clicked his fingers dramatically as he chanted, or he held a bell in one hand, pressing the brass tongue against the rim in a lulling rhythm. At other times, he half closed his eyes and moved his fingers along a chain of prayer beads as he chanted, blinking away the drops of sweat that fell from his forehead.
Every now and then they would break a more complicated chant with something that sounded like “oo mao mao mao mao mao”. It began audibly and faded quietly into the backs of their throats, like a train disappearing into a tunnel. I had come to the ceremony without any expectation that it would touch me, so when I felt the mantra resonate deep in my body, tears began to flow. I later learned it is the mantra that multiplies the blessings into infinite, but then it just felt so terribly sad, the fading away of life and hope.
It was hard to turn my eyes away from the horizon, so I stared at the sea and wept and remembered each of them, one by one. I tried to picture their last moments of courage: Michel close but not close enough to Hornbill Hill; Marina separated from her since-childhood sweetheart; Lisa giving away an offered lifejacket, Kenneth trapped by mangroves; Lung Phan running like hell along the path he had meandered along thousands of times; Duan knocked from his tree by a falling house; Thomas and Thisbee grounded in their kayak by water then that rose up like a cobra to devour them; Ae running from the beach; Lung Loei tripping over in front of the water; baby Alexander lost and alone and Robin laid down in the mangroves like a baby an impossible distance from home.
I thought of the survivors, now etched with scars of sadness and trauma deeper than the caverns created by the waves, and their individual moments of reckoning.
The Rinpoche blessed some rice with his splashes of water, then tossed it around and over the Buddhas. Then he blessed the prayer flags in the same way. Lucy stood up, handing people white ceremonial scarfs, which were each woven with eight auspicious signs. One by one, we filed up to Rabjam Rinpoche, offering him the silk kata, only to have him return it, placing it around our neck with a blessing. Lucy had not scarves enough for everyone, so some of them recycled, passed on to those at the end of the queue in a quaintly communal end to the ceremony.
We stood in groups and pairs, hugging and holding each other. Bodhi handed around tiny black seed-like globs, called mindrup, which we allowed to dissolve in our mouths until the
bitter flavour gave way to permeating woodiness.
With the Puja finished, Rabjam Rinpoche sat tying knots into a long piece of string, and indicated he would be happy to answer questions about the ceremony. He said he had blessed the five elements – earth, water, sky, fire and space and filled the sky with offerings of jewels, food and fragrance. He had chanted so we would be free of suffering but also mental poisonings. He made offerings to all buddhas, past present and future; made offerings to all sentient beings; made offerings to our karmic debts; made offerings to the protectors of teachings.
“We focussed especially on those who passed away, beginning with those who died and those who suffered,” he said, in what was his only direct reference to the events of a year before. The evening before, he had conducted a sur, or food, offering to them, he said. “When people die from great suffering, the psychic residue can linger on. So the sur offering is to soothe their mind, soothe the torments.”
Lucy asked him to explain the significance of installing a stupor at GBB. Buddha images, he said, were representations of Buddha’s body; the scriptures and his teachings are representations of his mind but a stupor is a concrete symbol of that which cannot be easily manifested – Buddha’s wisdom.
It wasn’t so much an offering for the Buddha, he explained, but an offering to all sentient beings, like putting seeds in a field and growing a crop. First a tree would be cut down from the wild, covered with painted prayers and mantras and placed inside the stupor facing the same direction it had stood in nature. Mantras dispelling natural catastrophes, wars and epidemics, evoking the Buddha’s name and also those of Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) would be painted on the walls outside. “The stupor helps to discard outer and inner obstacles”; he said, “including war and calamities as well as the inner obstacles to enlightenment such as mental pride, hatred and jealousy.”
“It is just an object, but it can be mentally peaceful.”
Steve asked him his thoughts of Golden Buddha, in a question wondering, I think, what the Rinpoche thought of the future of our place here. But he answered like a diplomat.
“It is difficult to say. It is a wonderful place but there are tragic memories here at the same time. It is hard to say whether there is danger again. Where in the world is their no danger? It might be a perfectly peaceful place for hundreds of years. There is no need to take an unreasonable risk to one’s life, for life is precious. It is hard to give advice. It depends how people
feel about it.”
It had been a little more than an hour since we had sat down on the grass and we ended it with exchanges of hugs. Nat came to me and wrapped his long arms around my shoulders. “I just wanted to say, I dunno, I think it is really weird that you found that stuff I buried. I mean, I just think it is so kind of weird but right.”
After lunch Robert and Dan and I climbed back up Hornbill Hill, panting in the hot midday as we clawed our way up the rock. The workers were waiting for us with a bucket of concrete and were patient as we held the angel over the hole, moving it this way and that in order to decide the direction of its face. When we had settled the matter, they poured the concrete into the hole, but the bucketful was insufficient to fill it, so we had an unscheduled break for half an hour while they went to the other end of the resort to collect more cement. Robert spent those moments prodding the concrete with a twig, nervous it would set by the time the two men re-appeared on the beach, walking single file and carrying the extra cement between them on a pole. By the time the angel was in place, resting on two pieces of wood to support it until the concrete set, the day had zoomed towards sunset, the time we had told people we would have an unveiling ceremony.
As the worker’s left, Giat carved the date in the concrete that had spread to the side of the angel, though he mistakenly marked it December 25, not 26, 2548, using the Thai number for the year which counts back to the death of Gautama Buddha. It gave me an idea. I picked up a small stick and wrote the names of our 13 lost friends in the concrete base of the angel. It was crude but that didn’t matter; it wasn’t meant to be anything more than a hidden symbol. We planned to cover the concrete with dirt and grass and allow the angel to look like it was sitting directly on the earth.
After I had finished I rushed back to Baan Tarntawan to collect the silk kata Lucy had allowed me to keep after the Buddhist ceremony. I planned to drape it over the angel so we could perform an “unveiling”, but by the time I had raced all the way up the path to the furthest point in the resort and back, everyone had already gathered around the angel.
We had no plans to conduct any significant ceremony and the sky had suddenly turned grey and seemed to threaten a repeat of its overnight performance, clouding our planned sunset ritual. “I don’t want to slide down the mountain in the rain,” Lucy said, and most people nodded in shared anxiety. A few drops of rain pressed us into the sala, where Robert explained the Unite Hope project that had given birth to the angel. Swedish artist, Lehna Edwall had wanted to create something to symbolise our connectedness to each other. So she made seven angels and put them in random points across the globe, for example, Peru, Hawaii, Norway. Then she drew lines of intersection between them and hopes to eventually install 49 angels in those intersecting points. “Whenever a group like us buys an angel,” Robert said, “It is like a donation to the project so that another angel is made and sent to one of the connecting points.”
“So this angel becomes like a god-parent to the other angel,” he said. Then he produced a certificate she had made us, noting that our donation would mean an angel would be installed to spread light and hope and love to the Orkney Islands in Scotland.
“She particularly liked this, that we were on an island and this next one will be on an island,” he said.
After he had finished his explanation, we shared an unplanned minute of silence. It was a peaceful and comfortable quiet, as if we had each given each other permission to simply sit with grief and memories too overwhelming to be expressed.
Eventually, Steve spoke. “I hope that in the memory of and in the spirit of everyone who lost their lives last year and suffered in the tsunami, that we can keep going with the same ideas and aspirations we had with them to make Golden Buddha a great place for us and everyone who comes here. So I hope we can somehow get along, work compassionately with each other and get it all going again - in their memory.” There were murmurs of agreement.
“I’m glad this year is over,” Lucy said with a sigh. Then she frowned at the ocean, where a grey curtain was advancing from the south. “And now I have to get down, as I really can’t risk breaking my neck,” she declared, and everyone began to climb down the hilltop.
I was left alone with the angel again. It looked exactly what you would expect from Scandinavian art – white and smooth and simple. The moulded concrete gave the angel a bell-shaped base, with a smooth bald head marked only by two tiny incisions, as if the eyes were semi-closed and downcast, in consideration of an important question. The wings grew lightly from the back, neither folded away nor open for flight. The entire piece was the height of a small child, perhaps the exact size of toddler Alexander. Despite the wet cement at its feet, it felt to melike it had belonged there forever. It is our unmarked grave. One day, perhaps this time next year, a plaque will prevent us from forgetting the names of those old and new friends lost here.
I thought again about the ceremony, how it had direct reference to those thirteen people, and somehow it felt right, like the monks were acknowledging that this event was now such a part of our us that it no longer needed to scream for attention. I wondered how the ceremonies had been in Phuket, Khao Lak, and imagined a media and political circus. I felt no part of that; it had no claim on me.
After dinner, we drifted down to the beach where Yao had prepared a huge stack of wood, bundled together like a tepee with a central buried trunk, for a bonfire. Bodhi, Lucy and others tossed some mindrup and herbs into the fire in order to create fragment smoke, but these effects were wiped out by Yao’s regular gleeful tosses of petrol onto the flames, turning the bonfire into a launch pad without a rocket.
I later learned that hundreds of kilometres down the beach in Khao Lak, the Thai authorities were lighting 5300 kom, those hot-air balloons JP and I had enjoyed so much in our first Thailand new year, one for each of the estimated lives lost in Thailand. I hope each of them reached the stars.
A few days later, the Facchini family prepared a sunset party, complete with Italian meats, cheeses, olives, wines, dates and even a panettone they had brought from their home in northern Italy, Brescia. Marina’s absence was palpable, but so was her presence, in the smile of her daughter, their pride in their brand-new cushions and patched-up deck and the enthusiasm in which they described how, earlier that day, they had sat with Roddy and planned the first sketches of the replacement to Baan Ana. It was meant to be pre-dinner drinks, but the party drifted into the evening as we stretched out on to the cushions and into conversation. Someone suggested setting up a group photograph of all the people there who had lived through the tsunami. We were squeezed and directed into the frame in front of half a dozen flashing digitals like we were a class giddy from graduation. There was laughter and silliness. It felt like a community once more.
I asked Marina’s children, how difficult it was for her family to decide to come back to GBB without her. “It was not really a decision,” Elisa said. “It was just right to come back.”
“This is where we come and say hello to our mother,” agrees her brother, Mickey. “It is where she is”.
In the meandering conversations that evolved that night and those around it, Beth told me some Sharman friends of hers had recently visited GBB and decided that the place contained equal parts of beauty and grief, so that one kept the other in perfect balance.
Golden Buddha Beach was much more aesthetic, to be sure, when the trees formed a canopy of comfort as we strolled through our days, with no knowledge of anything to fear than rainbow-coloured snakes and monkeys testing new territory. Now, limbs from the skeletons of those majestic trees crash through the stillness without warning, revealing their shattered hearts by exploding into thousands of fragments when they hit the dry ground. A few buildings display their injuries; leaning on the ground as if they were giant beasts resting from exertion. Others are buried just beneath the sand, out of sight, but not memory.
This sorrow will always hover in the air. But its presence also sharpens the beauty, as bitterness strengthens sweet. I never expected to find solace here, but when it comes, I realise that here is where it belongs – the home of our joy, and our pain.