A Somber Afternoon in Koh Phi Phi

I've been in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand for about a week, and the experience thus far has proven to be full of beautiful beach landscapes, a neverending Spring Break party scene (which is not quite as charming as it sounds, depending on your perspective) and moments ripe for self-reflection. A few days ago, however, I stumbled upon something that took my thoughts outside of myself, for a moment anyway.

I was about to enter a quiet beachside bar to check out their happy hour situation, when I spotted a sign for the Phi Phi Tsunami Memorial Park. I had already passed numerous tsunami evacuation route signs during my walk, so I had already been thinking about the tsunami that hit Thailand in December 2004. Up to this point, those thoughts had mostly been of the "I know it's unlikely, but what would we do if a tsunami hit while we were here? Would I be able to get to safety? What if that's how I die? Is the evacuation route actually of use to anyone or do most people die anyway?" variety.

The memorial park was quite small: a few thick overgrown flower bushes, three benches and a stone memorial covered in plaques naming those who had died. Aside from three cats sleeping on the benches, I was alone in the park.

As I stood in front of the small memorial, I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach. That vaguely nauseous one that creeps into the gut when presented with the reality of death, and of lives that ended abruptly, without any warning. 

A handful of pictures and letters had been placed around the memorial by loved ones who had come to pay their respects. The photos are now faded from the elements, but most of the faces are still visible, and haunting.

One plaque described a man and woman as "missing in the tsunami disaster on 26th December 2004." Somehow that chilled me more than if it had simply said "died in the tsunami of Dec. 2004." Immediately I imagined the man and woman, whose names had been Craig and Barbara. I imagined what death had been like for them, and for all the others listed there. How their bodies had washed away, and were never seen again by those who loved them.

The tragedy felt immense to me. I found myself crying as I read the other notes and inscriptions that had been left, ones that recalled a man named Jeremy's sense of humor or one survivor's hope that he would live a life of which those who had perished would be proud. 

The three benches had been purchased in honor of two young men who died that day in Koh Phi Phi. One's name was Connor. His parents had purchased not only the benches, but another plaque as well. There was an inscription promising to honor his memory, and below that a photo. The tears welled again as I looked at the picture. It was a graduation portrait, perhaps from university. He was probably about the same age as me.

The other bench bore simply the name of another young man, James, and below it the word "Irreplaceable." He was only two years older than me.

The stories, and the photos, went on. Just beyond the small park was the water, calm and beautiful, receding to low tide. I thought of all the people I had just seen on the beach, all also young, on holiday, happy, partying, most likely all with the expectation that they'd make it home, or on to their next destination, safely from Koh Phi Phi. I thought of Will, and Kelly and Phil, who were off snorkeling for the afternoon. I thought of myself.

I shuddered imagining the morning that tsunami hit, the fear, the panic, the desperation that must have seized people. I cried thinking about lives ended so quickly. One night you're out playing beer bong and socializing at tacky Banana bar, the next you're dying, killed by a force of nature you neither expected nor could have escaped.

As so often happens in those moments, the mild irritations I had been nursing earlier in the day seemed far less important than they had 15 minutes ago. The idea that I could die tomorrow has always been one that helps shift my priorities into perspective. I know it's cliche, but it's a good way of recognizing what's actually good and bad in your life, and what's absolutely of the highest importance imaginable and what doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

I tried not to dwell on the thought the rest of the day, though. I tried instead to be present and appreciate the incredible beauty surrounding me. Sure there were a few empty beer bottles sullying the otherwise lovely flower bushes, and sure it would have been more pleasant if the beach had been a little emptier and less riddled with drunk Euros today, but are those really problems to be dwelled on? No.

The rest of the day I spent indulging innocent whims: walking and shooting photos along a seaview path, savoring a glass of chilled white wine while lounging in a hammock and reading A Dance With Dragons as the sun began to set over the water. They were small pleasures but they mattered. I decided then that if I should have the great misfortunate to meet my end in some tragic way, the way those poor souls when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi, I would like to know that the day before, I paused for at least a moment to remember what was important and to be present for the little things that make up a life.