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STUART HOPKINS

TSUNAMI

© 2017 by Stuart Hopkins

Cover design © 2017 by Stuart Hopkins


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PART I: THE WAVE IS COMING

Saturday 25th December 2004, 19:00 hrs: 15 hours until disaster.


I settled down at my beloved grand piano in the lobby bar of the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa, and played mostly Christmas carols.

Every seat was taken with guests enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Families were laughing and joking; children were wearing their new clothes, and were playing with the gadgets that Santa had delivered to them just a few hours previously.

Throughout the evening, the odd drink would appear on the piano, sent by guests enjoying my music. Those with whom I’d already socialised would know to send me a Glenmorangie or a Long Island Iced Tea.

I closed my piano, put the cover on and headed home, after once again having wished each guest merry Christmas, and having had a quick chat with the bar staff, with whom I’d arranged to have a beer with on Nai Yang Beach after their shift had ended.


23:00 hrs: 11 hours until disaster.


The Nai Yang Beach - a mere five minute drive from my home – of 2004 was largely unspoiled. It was featured in the second installment of Bridget Jones’s Diary, the scene where she took the magic mushrooms.

With white powdery sand, just one hotel and a row of around 20 bamboo shack bars along the beach front, it was the idyllic place to enjoy a few cold beers under the starry sky, with the only noise being the waves gently breaking onto the beach.

Of all the little bars from which to choose, my regular was Mama Mia’s, and that is where we would all meet in the fresh hours of Boxing Day morning.

Mama Mia, as she was affectionately known, was an elderly Thai lady with a personality as warm and bright as the sun itself.

During the filming of the Bridget Jones movie, the cast and crew – including Hugh Grant, Rene Zellweger and Colin Firth – all used to have drinks and food at Mama Mia’s. Hanging on the wall behind the bar was a giant version of the official movie poster which had been signed by all cast and crew, thanking Mama Mia for her hospitality. This poster was among her most prized possessions.

Just after midnight, my friends and colleagues from the Marriott had finished their shift and had started to arrive, as well as some other friends that I had made in the local area.


Sunday 26th December 2004, 00:30: 9.5 hours until disaster.

With too many of us to fit into the small seating area around the bar, we decided to form a circle on the beach. We lit a small fire upon which we cooked some basic BBQ snacks. We would sit there chatting and imbibing until around 04:00.


04:00: 6 hours until disaster.


Most of us were very drunk. A lot of the group – including me – had the day off with it being a Sunday. Even those in our group who were due to work didn’t have to clock in until 17:00, and were therefore in no hurry to rush off.

We tossed around a few ideas and agreed that with this in mind, we would sleep on the beach until sunrise, have a swim to wake us up, and then take breakfast right where we were.

One of those present in the group was Lek, the executive assistant to my boss, Theera Kanjana, director of food and beverage at the Marriott. She’d brought a friend called Jun along – not a hotel employee – and had introduced the two of us.

I do not recall why or how, but we had all decided at some point not to sleep on the beach, and I’d somehow ended up at home.

Had we gone ahead with our original plan, my life, along with that of everyone else in the group would probably have ended that morning. Had we gone ahead, I would not be writing this now; you would not be reading this now.

Jun, as it turned out had asked me if she could stay over at my house as she lived far away. Not wishing to offend her, I had agreed. Ever the gentlemen, I was determined to keep the British end up.

Due to what was obviously Singha Beer Syndrome, I had no recollection of leaving the beach when I woke up at 10:30 that morning. Without knowing it, we were 30 minutes past disaster: it had already happened.

Planning to go home, Jun had woken up early. She’d cooked herself some breakfast and turned on the TV while I’d continued snoring. It goes without saying that every channel was dominated by the unfolding news.

At this time, not much was known and the news stations were still concentrating on the main earthquake which had struck off the western coast of Sumatra earlier in the morning.

Jun spoke very little English. She shook me awake and I smiled – happy to see that Santa had been kind to me that Christmas – and, referring to the earthquake, she said, ‘This morning, the ground move.’

I was still drunk, a hangover was setting in and I’d had little sleep. Having only been awake for a few seconds I had yet to engage my brain.

Here I am, a beautiful Thai girl looking over me to wake me up and telling me that the earth moved for her. It doesn’t get better than this. You’ve still got it, Hopkins!

Acting like a complete prat, moron, wanker, arsehole – choose your own adjective – I looked at Jun, smiled, thanked her for the compliment, and told her that she was welcome to visit any time.

I’d already learned to speak Thai to a reasonable conversational level, but I’d never looked up the Thai word for dumbass. Whatever the word is, it’s likely to have been what she was thinking of me as she left.

I crawled out of bed and took a long shower to wake myself up, still oblivious to the tragedies that were happening in so many countries; totally oblivious to what I would be seeing and experiencing over the coming weeks.

I sat outside in my garden to get some sun and to have a smoke. It was eerily quiet. No neighbours around; no cars in our cul-de-sac, no kids playing outside. I thought it was a little odd, but not enough to cause me any concern.

After I’d had my cigarette and felt vaguely human again, I jumped into my car and headed back to Mama Mia’s with the intention of getting my usual Sunday treat, which came in the form of a British fried breakfast.

Halfway there - literally three minutes driving - it became apparent that something was very wrong. The police had blocked and closed off the road leading to the beach.

I wound down my window and asked what was happening but did not understand the reply. I asked in my broken Thai if I could park my car and walk to the beach, thinking that there had been an accident, not an unusual occurrence on Thailand’s roads. The police allowed me to pass on foot.

As I walked, I started to see what I never would have believed was possible had I not seen it with my own eyes. Approaching the beach, I didn’t even recognise my surroundings. I hardly knew I was at Nai Yang Beach.

Palm trees were torn down. Cars had been tossed around and flipped over like little dinky toys. The bars all along the beach were not only gone, but had been smashed into thousands of pieces when the wave had impacted. There were a few locals, mostly bar owners including Mama Mia herself, rummaging around for anything left that had value, material or sentimental. There was very little.

On December 26th 2004, many people had headed to Nai Yang Beach to start work just as they had been doing for years. Nineteen of them would never return home.


PART II: INITIAL SHOCK

I walked back to my car in absolute bewilderment, and for some reason elected to drive to the Marriott rather than returning home.

I headed straight to the lobby bar which was full of guests and staff. Every single person was staring into space, in a dazed silence.

I saw my boss, and noticed that his hand was bandaged. I asked what had happened, and he, in typical Theera understatement, told me, ‘It’s nothing’. I asked if there was anything I could do, he pointed to the piano, and said, ‘Play’.

Having originally left home to enjoy breakfast on the beach, I was attired in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. Normally, I would never dream of going to my place of work dressed in such a way, not even in my downtime, but the things that had seemed important just the day before, were now shrouded in insignificance.

It’s impossible to know what to play under such circumstances, there are no right songs. I’ve always prided myself on playing music that fits the atmosphere, age of guests and what my audience wants in general. But what does one play when a tsunami has just struck? I can’t remember exactly the music I played that day as I too was in a daze, but I do know that it would have been very soothing.

Later in the afternoon I took a break and walked around the hotel. The beach, pool and gardens had been wiped out. The wave had struck the grounds of the Marriott.


PART III: A QUIET HERO

As the day progressed, I would learn that just a few minutes before the wave had struck, a member of staff had been on the beach setting up sun loungers and towels, ready for the arrival of the guests. Though still quite early, there were some already sunbathing and swimming.

The staff member had noticed the sea going out and he later said that he’d felt a chilling sense of fear. He called Theera on his cell phone and asked him to go to the beach as something strange was happening with the sea. Theera went, took one look, and taking no chances, decided to get everyone off the beach.

He ran around telling all guests and staff members to evacuate immediately. He stayed there, ensuring that no one had been left behind.

As the wave was coming in, Theera started running back towards the hotel, but not before the water had caught him. He managed to hang on to a tree, but upon falling he smashed his wrist, leaving the bones in small fragments.

Theera cleared the beach that morning and possibly saved lives, but, with him happening to be one of the most modest and humble men in this world, he’d never suggest as such.

A couple of days later, I walked past his office. It was full of flowers, bottles of wine and champagne, along with notes of gratitude from the guests who he’d helped.

Despite the terrible pain from his injuries, he worked solidly for the next two days. It wasn’t until the general manager, Craig Smith, insisted he get treatment that Theera finally took a break. He flew to Bangkok where he underwent surgery for several hours, having his wrist rebuilt.

A few weeks later, Bill Marriot flew Theera to the US to thank him personally.

From Bill Marriott’s blog:


We have a lot of heroes here at Marriott.

People like Theera Kanjana at our JW Marriott resort in Phuket, Thailand when the Asian Tsunami hit. After he noticed the sea acting up, he ordered everyone off the beach and away from the pool. He put his life at risk – even suffering severe injuries, but, again, he protected our guests and associates.’


Due to Theera’s actions that morning, we suffered no loss of life at the Marriott. This wouldn’t be the last time I’d experience him thinking of others in a kind and compassionate way.

We had been lucky. Other hotels in Phuket, and up to 100km north on the mainland had lost many guests and staff. One of the worst affected was the Le Meridien Hotel in Khao Lak. When rescuers arrived, they had found the general manager, in his suit, sobbing, while walking along the beach looking for survivors. He wouldn’t find any. An estimated 4,000 people perished in that town alone on that fateful morning.



PART IV: WITNESSING DEATH AND SORROW

A few days after the event, I, together with a couple of friends drove to Patong, the major tourist destination on the southern tip of Phuket.

The beach road, together with the palm trees lining the frontage, had been torn up like confetti. Buildings had simply vanished. We saw a leg sticking out from under a pile of rubble. Aircraft accident investigators say that once they’ve experienced their first crash scene, they never forget the stench of death. That day, I understood what they meant.

The night before all hell had been unleashed, people had not only been partying, but had also been celebrating Christmas in that very place. Now it was desolate, deserted and haunted with tragedy.

For me, one of the saddest stories that I heard regarding Patong had happened at the Ocean Plaza Shopping Mall. Situated right on the front, one needs to drive off the beach road and down the steep ramp to access the underground car parking area. When the wave came with inexorable force, it literally filled up the entire basement. Everyone who was there at that moment, in excess of 100 people, drowned. The poor souls hadn’t stood a chance.

Bar girls, ladyboys, families with children, the wealthier staying in the better hotels. It hadn’t mattered who people were, for the wave had offered no discrimination.

Famous film director, the late Sir Richard Attenborough’s family was holidaying in Phuket at the time. Sir Richard lost his daughter Jane, 49, Jane’s mother in law Audrey, 81, and his granddaughter Lucy, aged just 15.



PART V: THE FORGOTTEN

The worst affected areas were Khao Lak and Nam Khem which are both towns located on the mainland, 63 and 82km north of Phuket respectively.

Official Thai government figures put the death toll in Thailand as a whole at 5,500, with 4,000 of them being in Khao Lak alone. Nam Khem is a poor Thai fishing community where I would later visit. When I did so, I spoke to a Red Cross volunteer and he told me that the real figures – just in Nam Khem - were estimated to be 5,000 fatalities. It’s easy to forget the poor when there is a tourism industry to protect.

The Marriott was, at the time, the first major hotel to be found when arriving on the island of Phuket by road from the north, and was also the closest major hotel to Phuket International Airport. With the hotel being relatively intact, we were besieged by members of the press from all over the world. They’d take buses from the hotel each morning to Khao Lak, where they would snap their pictures showing how the tsunami had destroyed the big hotels and write their articles accordingly. Very few visited Nam Khem; 5,000 deaths in a poor Thai fishing community doesn’t sell newspapers.



PART VI: FULL CAPACITY

There were three other categories of guests who came to stay with us: those displaced from severely damaged hotels; people from all over the world trying to find loved ones, and members of the world’s emergency response organisations offering their assistance.

Some hotels in the worst affected areas were damaged so badly that they’d have to close their doors for almost a year. The aforementioned Le Meridien in Khao Lak, as an example, did not welcome guests again until the following November.

With the runway at Phuket International Airport having been damaged (the airport is situated right on Nai Yang Beach and the wave had swept away a portion of the threshold), there was no quick escape from the island. Like other hotels which had escaped severe damage, the Marriott took in tourists with no place to stay. The entire hospitality industry came together as one and, although a mere atom in the chain, I was proud to be a part of it.



PART VII: FEELING THEIR GRIEF & PAIN

There were families comforting each other in the lobby bar, happy to still be together. There were guests comforting complete strangers. Staff were hugging and crying with guests. But the most heartbreaking thing I saw were the guests who’d come to Thailand with their loved ones, but who would be travelling home next to an empty seat.

There was a gentleman who sat at the table in front of the piano every night. He was alone and I knew just by looking at his face, that he’d lost someone dear to him. There would be times when I would play a certain song and his face would buckle. I’d struck a chord; not only on the piano, but in his heart. Maybe it was the song that had been playing when he proposed to his wife, or maybe it was the song they’d listened to as young sweethearts while sharing their first kiss together. I’d never know, but I so desperately wanted to take some of that man’s pain away, if only just a little bit, for a little while.

A family was sat in the bar one evening: mother, father and their daughter, who was around 10 years of age, and was sitting in a wheelchair, her legs badly lacerated. When I took my break, I went over to them as I often did – it’s part of my job to socialise with guests – and I sat down. We didn’t say much, but I looked at the little girl, offered her a smile, and told her that everything was going to be just fine, that they still had each other. The father looked at me and said, ‘She lost her sister.’ He was a broken man, and I will never forget the pain on his face. He’d lost his princess, his baby. They’ve only come here as a family for a Christmas holiday. What could they possibly have done to deserve this? That was a question I would ask myself over and over again. I stood up, looked at the three of them and walked away without saying a word. I knew that telling them so much as how sorry I was would send my emotions into overdrive. As much as I did want to say it, and as much as I did want to cry with them, I was at work.

I still think about that family today, even after 13 years.



PART VIII: IMPOSSIBLE TO DO NOTHING

In early January 2005 I visited Nam Khem with a Thai friend of mine, Khun Tdoo, who was a fireman at Phuket Airport. We drove up early one morning together, a journey of around two hours.

There had been little coverage on the town in the news; we’d only heard by word of mouth that things were bad. The lack of media interest was, as it had turned out, inconsequential to us because nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared us for what we would bear witness to.

We first stopped at a Red Cross tent which was being run by volunteers, and met a young man who offered to show us around the town and fishing community. His name was Taan. He was the one who had told us that in Nam Khem alone, the death toll was estimated to be 5,000. He was qualified to know, he lived there. He later told us that out of those 5,000 deaths, eight had been from his own family. He’d lost both parents, all of his siblings, plus his pet dog. Nevertheless, there he was, working all hours of the day, helping those who needed help, postponing his grief for another day.

When I read newspapers, I often think that the word hero is overused. A sports personality scores a goal, and he’s suddenly deemed as being hero. Are they talented? Perhaps. Are they heroes? They most certainly are not. It’s the Taans of this world, along with firemen who enter a burning building to save a baby, and policemen who get stabbed to death because they were protecting innocent members of the public who are our heroes.

We walked around the port. Thousands of tons of fishing trawlers were now mere scrap, having been obliterated by the very thing that they had been designed to spend their lives with - water. The port’s population had been in the thousands, but we saw not one house or any other structure standing.

We spotted a pickup truck which had been swept into a hole full of water. Now partially drained, we could see a hand pressed against the inside of the windscreen. That sight stopped us in our tracks. We both cried.

When one considered the rebuilding which would have to take place, it seemed impossible to find a starting point. Houses in which to shelter people? Infrastructure to facilitate access to food and medical supplies? Schools to enable children to continue their education? Where does one begin?

The following Sunday I had, as usual, driven to Kamala to give one of my students, Sophie, her piano lesson. Her British father was away at sea, so it was just Sophie, her Vietnamese mother – Ha - and myself.

After the lesson, Ha served me some wonderful Vietnamese soup for lunch as had become customary. We were chatting, and I told her about my experiences in Nam Khem a few days previously.

She made a suggestion that we contact all of our friends and raise some money with which to buy some urgently needed goods. I readily agreed.

With the money we’d collected, we drove to a wholesaler in Phuket Town where we purchased essentials such as baby powder, toothbrushes and nappies. We also bought a few toys. God knows, those kids needed something to make them smile again.

We drove to Nam Khem together shortly after our shopping spree, and Ha reacted just as I had done on my first visit.

By now, the authorities were concentrating on building emergency shelters in the form of basic wooden huts. There were thousands of them. I stopped the car, and immediately upon opening the doors we were mobbed by children and parents. They were desperate, hungry, tired, confused – and very afraid.

We tried to hand out our offerings fairly, but it was impossible. People were just snatching from our hands.

International goodwill was showing signs of coming through. We saw mountains of clothes, blankets and canned food.

In countries such as Thailand, it’s always better to donate physical goods rather than money. Millions and millions of Thai Baht sent by good Samaritans globally went missing. It was quite simply stolen by corrupt officials. They’d go home to their huge mansions at the end of each day with a smug grin on their faces, leaving those with nothing to fend for themselves or die.

They have no shame whatsoever.


PART IX: SCOOBY

I'd heard that a temple in Chalong, just south of Phuket Town, was taking in dogs which had been left ownerless and homeless. As a dog lover, I decided that I was going to give one of them a good home. I drove to the temple, got out of my car, and was almost trampled by what I estimate was around 300 dogs of all shapes, sizes and age. I'd almost given up being able to choose, when I spotted a tiny ball of black fluff in the middle of the crowd. That little gem was the only dog not barking. She just sat there, looking up at me with pleading eyes. I walked over to her and scooped her up. She was my girl! I drove her straight to a vet, had her cleaned up and vaccinated, and then took her home.

After a few days of feeding her and building her strength and confidence, I started trying her with a few games. The shiny tiled floor inside my house would always become extremely slippery whenever it got wet. After I'd showered my new friend in the garden one day, I threw a ball inside the house for her to chase, and because of her wet feet, she started running – her legs a blur – but she didn’t move an inch. Despite her being a girl, it was at that very moment when I decided to name her Scooby!



PART X: ROTTEN BLOODY LUCK

Later on in January, I decided I wanted to do something significant for the people of Nam Khem.

I'd spent a large portion of my younger life in Norwich, so with logical reasoning, the people of my old home town became my target.

I contacted Derek James, a columnist for the Eastern Evening News, who had written about me on numerous occasions in the past.

The newspaper agreed to sponsor me to fly back to Norwich to play a series of performances, and take questions from the audience, a project aimed at raising money for the children of Nam Khem. The plan was to use any funds raised towards rebuilding the school which had been destroyed. The Ambassador Hotel at Norwich Airport had agreed to provide the venue. Theera had agreed to give me time off in order for me to push through with everything. We were all set. My flight was booked. Tickets, advertised by the newspapers and radio stations in Norwich were selling well. I was ready to go in just a few days.

One morning, I drove to Phuket Town - a drive of around 40 minutes from my house - to meet someone for a light lunch.

Like we British, Thais drive on the left. The main road going south from Sarasin Bridge in the north of Phuket is largely dual carriageway, dissecting the island in half.

I left home, drove through the small town of Thalang where the road narrows to a single carriageway. Once on the open road again, I was keeping left and approaching a big, slow moving truck. I checked my mirror, everything was clear, I indicated and pulled out to pass the truck.

As I got closer, another car came from nowhere. The driver decided that she didn't want to wait for me to finish overtaking, so she undertook me, obviously thinking that she'd then pull out again, using the gap between myself and the truck, overtake the lorry and be on her merry way.

Unfortunately, she misjudged the gap. It was a lot smaller than she'd thought. She pulled out quickly and the rear of her car clipped the front of mine, putting me into a spin at around 70 miles per hour. There was absolutely nothing I could have done.

One of my front tyres hit a high kerb bordering the central reservation, and that was the specific event which would end my chances of coming out unscathed. My car flipped and went airborne. Witnesses would later say that my car had performed a full roll in mid-air.

As the world spun around me, I remember thinking, 'This is gonna hurt'. I was right.

I came back down and landed with such force on all four wheels that I suffered a compression fracture to my L5 vertebra, as well as many other bruises, cuts and scrapes.

I had a very distinctive bright yellow car which everyone at work knew to be mine. Shortly after the collision, the Marriott’s staff bus was on the way to the hotel, and drove past the scene of the accident. Everyone saw my car; everyone assumed I was dead.

I was taken to the Bangkok Phuket Hospital in Phuket Town by ambulance. My entire body was in unparalleled agony, but my first concern was work. I handed someone in the ambulance my cell phone, asked her to call the hotel and inform Theera that I May need the night off. She told Theera that I would be needing much more than the night off. The following morning, I received the most beautiful bouquet of flowers from the staff and management. It was a wonderful gift which made me feel valued.

What wasn't wonderful, however, was that the planned trip back to the UK was off. I was absolutely devastated.


PART XI: GREAT MEN AND WOMEN

The initial shock had started to die down and therefore the members of the world's media had returned to their home countries. It was now time for a new batch of guests, members of the disaster and relief organisations, to arrive.

The following paragraphs are not only about these ladies and gentleman, but are a tribute to them.

They arrived in Phuket, as well as other badly hit areas all around the Indian Ocean. They came from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Europe, Japan, Korea, and everywhere else you can think of. Predominantly, they were members of the rescue services, as well as the armed forces in their respective countries.

The actual rescue phase had passed. There would be no more survivors found. It was now time to manage the situation.

No one plans for thousands of people to be wiped out in a few small towns overnight. It's just not something which one expects. The biggest challenge therefore, was quite simply where to put the bodies.

For the victims in Phuket, a makeshift mortuary was set up at the airport. There was no refrigeration; it was just a series of very large canvas tents provided by the Thai army.

I lived in a small cul-de-sac off the main road leading to the airport. At the bottom, there was a little bar where I'd sometimes visit after work for a few nightcaps with some local friends. When the cleanup operation had started, trucks would drive past the bar carrying their cargo, heading for the tents. They'd come mainly from Patong, as well as other resorts such as Kamala, Karon and Kata, and were taking bodies to be identified. We knew that to be the case, because as each truck passed us, we would once again have the stench of death in our nostrils.

Part of the emergency response team's job was to identify each victim by DNA. From all over the world, families were sending DNA samples to Thailand in the form of toothbrushes etc., to try and find out if their loved ones, who they'd not heard from, were among the victims. The DNA identification procedures were overseen by respected Thai forensic pathologist, Pornthip Rojanasunand, MD.

Some of the relief workers were assigned to Phuket resorts, but the majority were sent to Khao Lak. They'd leave the hotel at 6am, and work 11 hour days in 30 degree heat along with the typical high humidity that Thailand is known for, all while wearing body suits, and being surrounded by hundreds of corpses.

In the evenings they'd hit the lobby bar at the Marriott and drink. Who wouldn't? They were only allowed to work for three weeks before returning home. Any longer would have been too psychologically damaging.

I became close with many of them. I'd drink with them during my breaks. One, John Rivers, was Chief Superintendent of the Wellington Police Force at the time. He came for three lots of three week tours over as many months.

John would buy me a beer or two most evenings whenever he was staying with us. We formed a close bond and are still in touch today.

On his first tour, after we'd already shared a few beers together, John approached me at the piano. He asked me, using his strongest possible Kiwi accent, ‘Stuart. One of the girls behind the bar has told me you have a puppy. She tells me it's a girl, and she tells me you have named her Scooby. Is all of that correct?'

I confirmed his line of enquiry. With him being a chief superintendent, I saw no point in lying. They’re usually pretty good at picking up on things like that.

He continued: 'Well, in that case, until you give your puppy a sensible name, I will, every time I walk past this piano, call you Wanker.'

And so he did. Good evening, Wanker, as he'd arrive. I'll be right back, Wanker, as he'd walk to the bathroom. Any chance of you playing some decent bloody music tonight, Wanker? You want a drink, Wanker? With me refusing to change Scooby’s name, we found ourselves at an impasse, and so it goes that I became a long term wanker.

One evening after work, most of the team had gone to bed, but not John. Along with a couple of other guys from the US, he was still in the lobby bar drinking when I finished for the night. They told me they'd had a particularly harrowing day, so I suggested that the four of us head to the Timber Hut - a well-known rock music venue in Phuket Town - where they could forget things for a while.

Boy, did they forget things that evening.

I remember Alan, a huge British guy with a big bushy beard who resembled Grizzly Adams.

Alan was a wonderful man. Always friendly, always jolly. One evening he was sitting alone close to the piano, unusually quiet. I asked him if he was OK. He told me that during that day, he'd identified nine members of one family, including one baby and three young children. It had really affected him. It affected me, and he'd only told me about it. The lobby bar was quiet on that particular evening. Rather than return to the piano I sat with Alan, and just listened.

Wolfgang was another great man who I had the privilege of getting to know. He was representing the German Bundespolizei.

He too wanted to do some good for the local people. He suggested that I produce a CD of my music. I told him that there was no recording studio in Phuket, so out of his own pocket, he paid for me to travel to Bangkok on my day off every week for one month, and I recorded an album of 12 songs. He then sold many copies to his colleagues, raising hundreds of Euros for good causes.

Towards April, the need for the relief teams was winding down. Most bodies had now been identified. Thais had been buried or cremated, foreigners had been repatriated.

One of the last groups of these special guests to stay with us included Mark. He was a former Australian policeman who owned a flying school in Swan Hill.

We hit it off because of our mutual love of flying, plus he played the piano a little.

On his last night, in typical Ozzie style, he came to the piano and told me to stop that bloody racket for a few moments. His team also gathered around.

Mark thanked me on behalf of everyone for the music, entertainment, conversation and company I'd extended to them during their three week tour. He then gifted me a polo shirt with his flying school's logos embroidered onto it, something he'd had made up while in Phuket just for me. I was very moved by his generosity. There was no other single gift which could have been more appreciated, or more appropriate.

I still have that shirt today. It has holes under the armpits, several cigarette burns, loose threads, and I look like a down-and-out when I wear it. Nonetheless I do still wear it, and I wear it with pride.

Through the evil which fogs our world nowadays, there are still some true giants of humanity. I'm honoured, humbled and privileged to have had the chance to meet so many of them.



PART XII: GOOD EVENING, MR PRESIDENT

A few weeks after the tsunami had struck, we saw the number of repeat guests increase. Some who had stayed with us as recently as late in 2004 were coming back. They weren't returning for macabre reasons, they were coming because they loved Phuket and wanted to spend their money there to help keep the tourism industry afloat.

Two particular guests who stayed at the Marriott for one night were, however, definitely not repeat guests.

Among their stops while visiting tsunami affected locations was Phuket, and as such, we welcomed Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.

To get to their rooms from the hotel entrance, there is only one route, and that's through the lobby bar.

Knowing that President Clinton loves music and plays the saxophone, I'd got my line rehearsed which I'd use to lure him for a picture with me at the piano. Also knowing that he loves George Gershwin's Summertime, I started to play that as they arrived just outside the hotel.

Good evening Mr President, welcome to the lobby bar, this song is for you. Could I possibly trouble you for a picture at the piano?

Craning my neck, I could just about make them out in the distance, shaking hands with guests and slowly making their way towards the bar.

Good evening Mr President, welcome to the lobby bar, this song is for you. Could I possibly trouble you for a picture at the piano?

They were besieged by everyone wanting to meet them, and my George Gershwin song was becoming the extended version of all extended versions. Finally getting closer, there was still enough time to go through it in my head once more while playing the 23rd verse of Summertime.

Good evening Mr President, welcome to the lobby bar, this song is for you. Could I possibly trouble you for a picture at the piano?

Finally, they broke free of guests and were in the lobby bar.

President Bush didn't stop, he ran off like a bullet towards his room.

President Clinton did however stop, not more than three metres away from the piano and looked directly at me, smiling and obviously listening. It was time.

Unfortunately, my brain and speech muscles decided to stop cooperating right there and then.

Good evening Pister Mresident....

I stopped right there.

Presidents and Prime Ministers are so used to meeting people from all walks of life - and of varying degrees of intelligence and articulation - that they are highly skilled at hiding their thoughts and feelings, especially negative ones. I swear though that President Clinton, just for a second, let down his guard and allowed onto his face a 'WTF' expression.

I never did get my photo.



PART XIII: RENE ZELLWEGER

She's a star on screen, and on this occasion, she proved herself to be a star off screen too.

In February 2005 I wrote to Rene Zellweger, telling her all that had happened in Phuket over the previous few weeks, focusing on Nai Yang Beach. I also told her what had happened to Mama Mia's bar, how she was slowly rebuilding it, along with the fact that she could never replace her beloved poster.

Time passed and I'd honestly forgotten all about writing that letter.

One evening towards the latter end of March, I went to work as usual and there was a card waiting for me from Thalang post office telling me that there was a parcel addressed to me which needed to be collected.

The following morning I drove there, not knowing what to expect. I thought perhaps Mum had sent me something for my birthday as a surprise.

Having presented my ID, a long cardboard tube was handed to me which had been sent from the United States. Curiosity got the better of me and I opened it right there and then. Inside, there was not only a signed poster, but Bridget Jones branded t-shirts and baseball caps, along with a beautiful note from Rene addressed to Mama Mia.

I called a couple of friends and asked them to join me for a beer at Mama Mia's that evening after I'd finished work, telling them that something very special was going to happen.

I arrived and Mama Mia, as always, was there serving her customers.

I handed over the goods, and told her in Thai that it was just a little something for her. The tube was then opened for a second time that day.

Mama Mia broke down in tears. She was old, she was tired from the challenges of the previous few weeks, and this was possibly the first time that something nice had happened to her since the event.

Her smile was magic, and the new poster hung in its rightful place the following day.


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