Grace among the ghosts

Thais count the miracles as they sift through bloated bodies

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Khao Lak, Thailand – When you’re working with thousands of corpses, you can get away with just about anything.

So no one reprimanded a Thai forensic doctor for telling Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and top Australian journos over a loudspeaker at a Thai temple last week that they’d better put on protective masks, or else.

“I know this is an important moment for your careers,” said Khunying Porntip Rojanasunan, Thailand’s so-called “Doctor Death,” who’s become a media darling here for daring to handle bloated bodies. “But remember that this is an infected area.”

Though they’ve lost much of their tourism and fishing industry, as well as more than 5,000 citizens, the tsunami has given Thais new confidence. Like September 11 in North America, this disaster has united Thais in grief and inspired thousands of volunteers and a series of charity concerts and TV galas. And they are refusing Western aid.

Thais are moved by the generosity of their beloved king, who, having lost his grandson, has promised free education through college for hundreds of tsunami orphans.

Even billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom critics have called an elected dictator, has won respect by moving swiftly to clear debris and rebuild, instilled pride in Thais. His wife, not known for getting her hands dirty, even stepped into a temple to inspect hundreds of corpses, winning over her harshest critics.

Many foreigners here are amazed that Thais are handling this disaster with a kind of mirth born of their Buddhist faith. Locals are finding symbols of hope in the liberation of dolphins sea-swept into a lake, and the miraculous survival of Buddhas at a temple on Phuket Island.

The tsunami wiped out most of Wat Kamala, killing three monks and 62 others. But amazingly, the golden sitting Buddhas were spared, even though they’re closest to the sea. Phra Poonsawast, the head monk, who survived with leg injuries and a stomach full of black water, said, “The Buddhas were saved by the good karma built up from the prayers of worshippers.”

Thais have always been proud of their “nam jai,” literally “water of the heart” or compassion – and it has never before flowed so generously.

I went to the Khao Lak killing fields, a 20-kilometre stretch of ravaged resorts and corpses, prepared to bring water to desperate locals. Instead, they insisted on giving this shocked and disoriented foreigner their water.

Muangkeaw Jindaporn, who sells fruit in the Takua Pa market, and her husband adopted me like a pet. They spent the afternoon taking me on a tour of destroyed Khao Lak resorts that they’d never been allowed to visit before.

Most Thais in the tsunami zone lack insurance and Western-style perks like workers’ compensation or severance pay. But they do have a welfare state built into their Buddhist temples. Orphans living at the temples often become monks. Buddhist rituals tell Thais exactly how to deal with birth, marriage and death. Funerals here are raucous celebrations of life.

The gargoyles, tonsured monks, cremation ovens and smokestacks of Thai temples have always seemed to me darker than Christian churches. But in times of trouble, people know where to go – to the temples.

In Phang Nga province, where thousands died, the scene at Wat Yan Yao resembles a temple fair bustling with Thai soldiers, socialites, students, monks and foreigners. Free food abounds. Everybody stands around slurping instant noodles amid the stench of rotting corpses. Doctors, forensic scientists and volunteers in rubber boots, white gowns and surgical masks stuff food and drink in their mouths.

I feel like vomiting, not eating.

Among the volunteers are two women right out of the MBK mall in downtown Bangkok. Tomoko Nasuho and Tipsuda Osothroop came down from Bangkok University hoping to practise their English with foreigners.

“I wanted to be a volunteer, like, a translator,” explains Tomoko, removing her mask. “But there were too many translators already. So now we have to carry bodies.”

“I cried at first,” says Tipsuda. “There were too many bodies. But they told me to take a deep breath and help. Now I’m used to it. I don’t fear corpses. I fear ghosts.”

Like tour guides in hell, they keep large, squeamish foreign males from fainting. “People in this town are very ‘naa raak’ (cute and cuddly),” says Tomoko as we nearly trip over a rotted, ruined body that is impossible to identify. “They give us rooms to stay and food. We don’t have to pay for anything.”

As I exit the death zone, a cigarette-smoking Australian sprays me with disinfectant as Thais unload another batch of corpses from a truck.

Many foreigners who left before the tsunami hit have actually come back to support the Thais. They’ve set up a mini-UN of consular desks in one room of Phuket’s provincial hall, and tent canopies on the lawn. The Trauma Therapy and Counselling Centre is covered by a canopy advertising Coca-Cola.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Thaksin, head of the Thais Love Thais party, summed up the mood on the ground when he said, “It’s amazing what’s happening here.”

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