The Koh Phi Phi tsunami scare was one of the strangest adventures that surprised me on my inaugural backpacking trip to Southeast Asia.
I first wrote this in 2007, but even publishing it this many years later caused my hands to grow cold and clammy!
Here’s the story about what happened on March 11, 2006, in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.
I fought to control my trembling hands as adrenaline rushed through my body.
My Dutch friend and I huddled in the humid darkness, gasping for shallow breaths of green jungle air. We waited with several others on a tangled hillside in total silence, afraid to even swat at the insects feeding hungrily on our exposed skin. All eyes and ears were focused on what was happening below us.
Then the screams came.
Faint at first, the cries of terror slowly built into a crescendo loud enough to drown out the many night sounds of a tropical island. Their noises of panic drifted up to us from the brightly lit streets below. The chorus was chilling—it can only be described as the sound many hundreds of humans make when desperate to survive.
From our hillside perch, we saw a throng of bodies clog the narrow streets of Koh Phi Phi island. The snake of runners was pointed our direction. Many men, women, and children were frantically pushing toward the refuge of higher ground.
Suus and I watched carefully behind them for the first wave of water, afraid to even blink and miss something.
Before the Koh Phi Phi Tsunami Scare
This night on Koh Phi Phi island off the west coast of Thailand had started out like so many others on my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia in 2006.
Suus and I enjoyed a lazy day of lounging around in the sand and taking dips in the warm, shallow sea. We had recently completed our advanced scuba diving certifications and were feeling celebratory. Earlier that day, the Andaman Sea was a perfect blue color and so tranquil you could see puffy white clouds crawling across its surface.
In the near distance, Koh Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited sibbling of our island, rose up out of the water in a spectacle of impressive limestone with a green coat of tropical growth. Koh Phi Phi is a photographer’s dream, a cliché snapshot of paradise often used as backdrop in movies.
Only an hour or so away, Koh Lanta (my favorite island for escaping the Rat Race), was visible on clear days.
After splurging on a sushi dinner, Suus and I scouted the narrow streets of Ton Sai in search of a party. There was always one somewhere on Koh Phi Phi. March was high season, and the island was jammed with travelers carrying out the same daily ritual as us: sunbathe or dive, watch sunset, eat fish, find a beach party.
The island had pretty well been completely restored since the horrific Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Just a little over a year before our visit, the worst tsunami in history had claimed over 2,000 lives in these very streets. Sadly, more than 1,200 of those tourists and local residents still belong to the blue depths of the Andaman.
Bodies are recovered every now and then as construction to rebuild Koh Phi Phi continues. One in five of the estimated 10,000 people who were on the island in 2004 lost their lives.
Restoration had given Koh Phi Phi a makeover. Swarms of Burmese migrant workers still worked to piece the island back together. The only signs anything devastating had happened were the occasional monuments where people placed flowers. Some bars had painted marks indicating how high the water had risen during the 2004 catastrophe.
Miraculously, the Thai people with their mai pen rai (no worries) attitude, had managed to put their famous smiles back on and welcomed us travelers to the new island. They needed the tourism to survive and finish rebuilding their lives. I heeded the call, and Suus flew in from Laos to meet me.
March 11, 2006
The night was muggier than usual. We chose one of the many open-air bars at the end of a busy street. The crude stage was occupied by a local band playing covers such as “Sweet Child of Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle” The singer was doing an impressive job of hitting Axl’s high notes.
Around midnight on March 11, 2006, life was good. I was recounting diving adventures with a beautiful woman on an island in the Andaman Sea. A pleasant breeze was keeping the savage Thai mosquitoes under control. A very white moon looked down at us from above. Little did we know all hell was about to break loose.
The Tsunami Scare Begins
First, a couple of Thai men ran by the front doors of the bar. A few seconds later, another small cluster of people went by at full speed.
The band kept playing. I looked across the round table at Suus to see if she had noticed. Her eyes told me she had indeed seen the runners. Both of us now watched as more and more people ran by the front entrance. The lead guitarist began his solo anyway.
The first thought in my head was that maybe there was a fight outside. We were next door to a bar that boasted a regulation Muay Thai fighting ring. Staff encouraged backpackers to climb inside and demonstrate how much liquid courage they had consumed over the evening.
We had no idea at the time we were actually succumbing to Normalcy Bias, a phenomenon that costs lives during survival scenarios.
Instead of taking action, the band’s playing somehow kept me in my seat. My brain was striving for normality. You can see some shocking photos here of the dangers of normalcy bias during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. (Warning: the first few photos show normalcy bias of people not running when they should. Some of the photos farther down are more disturbing.)
Curiosity turned to fear when two Thai girls in their twenties ran inside our bar screaming something in Thai. The big doorman spun around, and the look on his face froze my blood.
It was a look of a man about to die.
Retreat to High Ground
Whatever the women had said caused the staff to panic. They spun on their heels and ran past us into the kitchen to my left. We sat with a handful of other backpackers, completely bewildered, until the owner of the bar approached our table. With a forced calmness he said, “It’s time to go now, friends.”
The man quickly led us through the kitchen where woks of oil still gave off their hot aromas. He gestured to a large hole that had been cut in the back wall of the building. A pile of concrete blocks at the bottom provided a wobbly set of stairs to the elevated ground outside. I helped Suus through the hole then climbed through behind her.
We were the last two out of the bar. Ahead of us, Thai people were running blindly up a steep hillside lit only by the same moon we had admired earlier. At this point, we still had no idea what was going on. Our innate human instinct to stay alive told us to run, and that’s what we did.
We struggled to catch up with the others who had been in the same bar with us just minutes earlier. Knee-deep vegetation cut at our bare legs; tangled vines tried to trip us. We were already drawing the attention of insects in the brush. The jungle run was reckless. I had a feeling, one way or another, we were probably going to get hurt.
When we stopped running, we stood close to some Thai people. There were maybe a dozen or so of us compressed on a sloping hillside. Everyone had their small phones up to their ears (smartphones weren’t a thing yet). They chatted nervously with friends and tried to reach relatives in different parts of the island.
Earthquake in Phuket
A young Thai girl told us there had been an earthquake in Phuket, the big island just a quick hop to the west. Those same neighboring island tremors were the only warning that any of these same people had felt before the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Island residents were still jumpy, for good reason.
Calls from relatives warning of the earthquake in Phuket had triggered a mass panic among the workers on Koh Phi Phi. The Koh Phi Phi tsunami scare of 2006 began because relatives reached out to warn loved ones.
Below us in the brightly lit streets, we could see dozens of people on the move. Locals and tourists alike were literally running for their lives. Many years later, I would experience something similar while running with the bulls in Pamplona.
I watched the throng struggle to reach the precious high ground where we now stood. I listened carefully, but no tsunami-warning siren wailed in alarm. The alarm did not sound in 2004, either.
When we heard the Thai girl’s explanation, I groaned in disbelief. A happy island reunion had somehow morphed into a survival scenario.
My mind jumped around in panic as I struggled to remember everything I had heard about the last tsunami. I thought of my medical training received years earlier in the Army. Would I still know what to do? Then I remembered how the survivors in 2004 had waited for many days to get clean drinking water and evacuation—what was my plan?
Suus stood close to me, her body trembling. Like all of us, she was stricken with fear but bravely stayed calm. I remembered that many people lost track of friends and loved ones during the tsunami in 2004.
I knew we had to stick together no matter what and let Suus know. My mind continued jumping around. My passport was back in my bungalow. Did it matter? Would there even be a bungalow in a few minutes?
My thoughts were interrupted by an announcement over loud speakers from the streets below. It was only done in Thai and not followed up with English. Considering the number of tourists on the island, I found this annoying.
We looked to the friendly Thai girl for an explanation. She said that Bangkok had confirmed there was no inbound wave, but we were ordered to return to our rooms and collect our passports in case something happened.
I rolled my eyes.
The local government didn’t exactly have a shining track record, in my opinion. Was a descent worth the risk to get a passport? I didn’t think so. Suus agreed, so we stayed put alongside the others another dreadful 30 minutes.
We waited until the last Thai person had slowly made their way back down to the street below. Soon after, we decided that taking our chances with the sea would be better than feeding the insect cloud that was feasting on us. We trudged down the steep slope behind the others and dropped into the village below.
Aftermath of the Koh Phi Phi Tsunami Scare
The time was now nearly 1:30 a.m., and the streets of Ton Sai were buzzing with activity. No one had any hope of going to sleep after such a dose of adrenaline. Tourists were already queuing up at the travel shops to book passage off the island in the morning. The 2006 tsunami scare on Koh Phi Phi had been too much for them.
All around me, wide-eyed travelers comforted their tearful partners and families on Skype. We went directly to a busy internet cafe where I quickly checked every news website I could find. My fingers worked as fast as they could as I looked at weather radars on CNN, BBC, and others. The overloaded connection was even slower than usual, causing news from the mainland to trickle in.
I never found our tsunami; it had been only a scare. The sacrifice in 2004 must have been enough to satisfy the Andaman Sea for now.
The Next Day
The next day, Koh Phi Phi was nearly deserted. I did speak to an older English couple at breakfast. Like us, they had stood their ground and decided not to let the tsunami scare on Koh Phi Phi ruin their holiday. They showed me that our event had made the The London Post.
The earthquake felt in Phuket had been felt as far away as Indonesia. The tectonic shift could have easily triggered another catastrophe. The newspaper also claimed that geologists were concerned about the increased seismic activity in the area. The panic and reaction the night before had actually been warranted.
The night after our Koh Phi Phi tsunami scare, we ventured out to a beach party and watched an excellent fire show.
We had a good time, but my eyes kept nervously scanning the black water just a few meters behind us. I wondered when it would grow restless again.
I also whispered a silent “thank you” and prayed that I wouldn’t be here to find out.