Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Southeast Asia > Southern Thailand & Cambodia

Southern Thailand & Angkor Wat, Cambodia


December 18, 2005

Back in Bangkok, we have been busy preparing for the next phase of our journey... India! Our friends, Faang and Noy, helped us deal with Thai postal bureaucracy and eventually secure our first care package of the trip from Peter’s distance learning geometry teacher, JoAnn Rachor. How fun it was to open that package and uncover all manner of delights—chocolate bars, travel games, magazines, books, and milk chocolate icing so Peter and Paul could make that vanilla cake we all so craved! Once again, we are staying at my friend Bill Savage’s house, though he’s out of town. We are very grateful for this home base from which to stage our thorough assessment of our belongings at this juncture in the trip and restocking of key supplies.


Noy also took us on the grand tour of her children’s school, an international school housed on a college campus. We were impressed with the variety of activities, richness of the educational curriculum and superb quality and diversity of the facilities. We visited several classrooms, watched children playing alternative games, sat in for a few performances in the singing competition of the afternoon, and admired the very original and talented student artistry in painting sets of recycling bins. Paul salivated over the multiple soccer fields and numerous other athletic opportunities available to students on this college campus. And we all salivated at the vast array of enticing snacks served in the cafeteria, it seems at all hours of the day. It's no wonder that the cafeteria was still crowded at 5 p.m. in the afternoon!    


December 12, 2005

We designed our own itinerary for our last day at Angkor and the first stop of the day was Bayon, our family’s favorite temple. The first order of business was to help Paul find the exact face that was pictured on the postcard he had purchased the night before at the old market in Siem Reap. This was a daunting task as there are 216 faces in the Bayon temple. Our mission required a systematic approach, and we began circling the lowest level, carefully examining each face, and worked up. The faces multiple at the higher levels and it grew difficult to be sure that we had cataloged each face. After a couple of rounds, we began to wonder if we would ever find this particular face. We asked a guide and he said it was virtually impossible. But, Paul is a determined fellow and doggedly pursued his goal. I got distracted and became absorbed in an engaging and passionate discussion about U.S. politics with a group of travelers from Canada, when I heard triumphant hoots from Paul. He had found the face in the postcard! Sure enough, it was indeed the face, identifiable by the unique character of its expression, cracks through both sides of the face and scratch on the neck. It had been particularly difficult to find because the photographer had flipped the orientation of the photograph 180 degrees so the background vegetation wasn’t at first glance in the right position. Paul and I found a perch to sit and admire “his” face for a good long while. Then he accompanied me on my mission to find the bas relief carvings on the outer walls of the temple that depicted various scenes of life during the ancient Khmer Kingdom. Elaborately detailed, we saw royal processions, religious celebrations, praying Buddha and other religious icons, lotus flowers, battle scenes, boats transporting royalty and cargo, elephants in various poses, market scenes, wrestling and kick boxing matches, and rivers overflowing with fish.


Also built by the prolific King Jayavarman VII, Preah Khan is similar to Ta Prohm, only this monastery was dedicated to his father and it’s massive. I found myself lured by the ancient rubble and sequestered myself in one chamber to contemplate its grandeur.


A sea of rubble surrounds me,

Rubble fashioned by the human hand,

In an ancient century and far-away land.

These are the relics of Preah Khan.


Boulders strewn pell mell,

Carved with ornate patterns and images,

They tell of a Kingdom and its many faces,

Gargoyles, gods, great beasts of burden.


Among these palatial halls

King Jayavarman VII and his courtesans cavorted.

And to another age we are transported

On the strains of music from a long-ago century.


For in my mind’s eye, the pillars are all neatly assembled

In gloriously robed royal chambers

The scene is illuminated in flickering embers

From the torches at the corners of each ballroom.


It is the scene of the Khmer people triumphant

Fierce battles have been bravely waged.

Enemies from neighboring lands vanquished.

No more subjugation to foreign invaders.


Peace and prosperity reign

Industry, invention, intellectual creativity

An explosion of human virtuosity

A veritable cerebral symphony of achievement.


It’s the cultural renaissance of the Angkor era.

Resplendent thinking, inventing, creating, and living

Driving a people to the greatest heights of being

Making an imprint on the course of history.



Of curious note are the Greek-like cylindrical columns on a building west of the main temple. Along the entrance to the monastery is a long line of giant bodices again sporting various expressions. Unfortunately, many of these sculptures have been beheaded and I thought I might supply one or two with my head to see how I fit-in to the entourage.


We found a late-afternoon respite at another baray, Neak Pean. It is the last reservoir to be constructed by a Khmer King. The small temple sits in the center of a cross or lotus pattern made up of eight pools and since the lay-out is simple compared to the larger and more complex temples of Angkor Wat, the symmetry is very obvious.  As we climbed along the perimeter and the symmetry unfolded in relief, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “It’s living geometry, Peter and Paul!” On one circumnavigation, we looked for the phallic heads of the pools’ fountains but couldn’t find them. We fell into meditative reflection, though the pools are no longer reflective but rather filled with algae!


We returned to Angkor Wat to experience it in the afternoon light and found it to be far more vivid and compelling. Peter and I were hungry so we stopped at the same little sidewalk restaurant where we had eaten fluffy pancakes the day before. The family that runs the restaurant recognized us and was grateful that we had returned. A flock of young children descended upon me as I waited for my food, eager to sell me postcards, books, and other trinkets. I maintained a firm composure and was ultimately able to distract them with Paul’s notebook and some basic Algebra problems. They were eager to learn and we began swapping problems. Pretty soon, we had quite a gathering for this cross-cultural math showdown! I left our family photo with our web address and a magnet with the leader of the pack and he was surrounded by a curious group of onlookers as we said goodbye to our little friends.


As the sun began to fall, we hiked to the oldest of the ruins, Phnom Bakheng, a temple on the top of a hill. Peter and Paul made it up like gazelles while Steve and I plodded along eventually making it to the bottom of a series of very steep stone stairs that led to the top of the temple. Young and old alike were scaling these and we joined the throngs of people heading up. When we made it to the top, Peter and Paul had already secured a spot for us and we joined the hundreds of other tourists to watch the sun set over Angkor. Brilliant orange and pink hues swept the land like the stroke of a painter’s brush over his canvas and I was overcome with the grandeur of this land and its people. In latter centuries, the Cambodian people have suffered tremendous oppression and yet their resilience, industry and intellect prevail. Despite the ravages of war and genocidal atrocities, these people have rebuilt their country and heritage with grace and dignity, proudly manifesting their rich artistic and cultural legacy. As we left Angkor and the Siem Reap area the next day, we watched people working in the rice fields, transporting pigs to market on motorcycle, bicycling to school and work, selling goods, and finding any number of ways to be productive. We passed homes that were modest but solidly and artistically constructed. In many of the temples of Angkor Wat, groups of musicians, all victims of landmines, played traditional instruments and music for donations. Throughout our visit to Cambodia, we were also impressed with the level of English proficiency the Cambodian people have acquired. They were by far the most fluent English-speakers in all of southeast Asia. This is without question a people whose spirit cannot be squelched. My admiration for the people of Cambodia is immense.


December 11, 2005

The temples of Angkor Wat are indeed magnificent. The main temple complexes of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat alone encompass 26 kilometers, and there are temples as far-flung as 40 kilometers away from Angkor Wat, the principal temple and the largest religious building in the world. This vast expanse was at the height of the Age of Angkor, literally meaning “Capital or Holy City,” a thriving metropolis of over a million people. Like the Mayan civilization of Central America, the Khmer Kingdom exercised economic, cultural, and military influence over all of Southeast Asia with its contributions to art, architecture, mathematics, and engineering. During this renaissance of thinking and invention, vast waterworks and grand temples were constructed. Over the centuries, it is these stone constructions, reserved for holy buildings and the residence of the king, that have survived, while the wooden dwellings of the millions of common people who filled the empire have since decomposed.


Today, as we traveled through stone archways lined with the faces of kings, Hindu gods and Buddha images, walked along moats,that surrounded grand temples and monasteries, and surmounted towering sacrophages silhouetted against the sky, it was if we were transported back in time 1,000 years into the heart of an ancient kingdom. If it wasn’t for the hundreds of thousands of modern tourists from all over the world that swarmed the grounds, you might have actually forgotten you weren’t in the 1100s in the reign of King Jayavarman VII. Even still, a couple of times in the sheer vastness of Angkor Wat, we did find a quiet passageway filled with the essence of incense from a nearby Buddhist altar and were able to escape the pressing crowds and reflect on the grandeur of this ancient Khmer dynasty.


These vast excavations cover a period from 800-1200 AD. The first kings of Cambodia were Hindu but by 1100, the country had largely converted to Buddhism. As a result, many of the temples at Angkor incorporate both Hindu and Buddhist icons, and many relics stand side-by-side, a curious juxtaposition, a female Hindu god in bas relief next to a sitting Buddha carved in stone or a stone sculpture of a Hindu god clothed in an orange Buddhist robe.


We arrived at Angkor Wat in early morning and basked in the relative peacefulness of the temple before the throngs of tourists descended upon the palatial complex. At the core were the most sacred temples and we scaled the stone steps to dizzying heights and walked along the upper perimeter of the temple. Most of the temples have a similar symmetrical pattern and consist of progressively smaller concentric geometric designs at the heart of the structures. Peter has become my muse for overcoming my fear of heights and I have made terrific progress since my early attempts to scale (with only limited success) the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala and Xunatinich in Belize. At Angkor Wat, I was able to follow my kids to the heavens, no matter how steep the ascent, and since it appears I didn’t remain in the parapets of these temples, I somehow, by the grace of God and steeled nerves, made it down as well! As I was confidently climbing the first set of steep stairs at Angkor Wat, however, Steve managed to completely zap me of my confident stride by looking at me from the top stair with a wary expression, and saying, “I don’t know, Therese.” Already midway up, I started to panic and exclaimed, “Sweet Jesus,” my mantra in times of peril. Steve overheard an Indian man at the top chuckle and remark that that was the second reference to Jesus he had heard that day in this land of Hindu/Buddhist pilgrimages! Peter, in the meantime, came to my rescue and talked me up to the next level.


At the temple of Bayon was an ancient version of the “How are you Feeling” chart, where the facial expressions depict a gamut of emotions. Here, however, it was gargantuan stone faces silhouetted against the sky and surrounding forest, each with its own unique expression. The faces apparently bear the uncanny resemblance to King Jayavarman VII, who built this temple and may represent his creative way of exercising control over his subjects. Though some of the expressions are jovial and kindly, many are stern and haughty and certainly very effectively convey the message of the king’s supremacy, actual god-like status, and his subjects’ corresponding subservience! Another interpretation is that the faces depict Buddhist virtues of compassion, or perhaps a combination of both.


From the terrace of the elephants and leopards, we saw lively cultural dance and music coming from large tents in the open area below and ventured down to find out what the gathering was all about. It turned out to be a UN-sponsored exchange to help develop sustainable tourism between Korea and Cambodia and we were invited to partake in Korean food and view the fantastic photography exhibition of Korean and Cambodian cultural attractions. As we were sampling the delicious Korean specialties, we met an American family. The father of the family is a prosthesis doctor who teaches the fitting and making of prostheses to Cambodian, Thai and Laos practitioners in Phnom Penh. Millions of Cambodians are amputees because of the pervasive land mines that were used in Cambodia during the Vietnam conflict and the genocidal Khmer Rouge revolution. His son lives at the Lowell Fire Department as he works toward his EMT degree at Lane Community College in Eugene! We enjoyed conversation about familiar places and Southeast Asian destinations with our new friends.


Believe it or not, I made it to the very top of the royal temple of Phimeanakas, the tallest scalable temple in Angkor Thom. This entailed climbing several series of steep staircases and eventually ascending to the parapets of the temple where a Buddhist altar was housed. There are actually photos to prove that I made it to the very top and waved to my mother-in-law, a wee speck far, far below. Even though it was a tight chamber at the top, I kept losing my agile sons who kept dodging in and out of the four archways looming high above sea level! 


Our next destination was Ta Prohm, where the filming of Tomb Raider took place. What a perfectly eerie setting! The tentacles of the roots of sponge trees slither, like serpents, along and through the walls of these ancient ruins, in some cases literally pushing brick walls out or compressing them down with their awesome weight. Embedded in one wall, the roots surrounded a sculpture of the small, delicate face of a lesser Hindu god, appearing to strangle its neck. These trees, some of them 300 years old, along with the fica trees that choke live trees and grow off of them, weave in and out of these ruins, literally and figuratively penetrating these centuries-old ruins. Constructed by King Jayavarman VII during the apex of the Khmer civilization, Ta Prohm was a Buddhist monastery, dedicated to the king’s mother. As we slinked through the endless corridors and chambers, I could see the monks of old in secluded meditation in some remote niche, contemplating the higher virtues, while outside the monastery’s walls and moats the hustle and bustle of the work of the kingdom hummed.


We rested at Srah Srang, an ancient baray or reservoir, while local children performed flips from the shore for the admiring tourists. We were approached by a very entrepreneurial and spirited little girl. She said she was 14 years old but didn’t look it. She was wheeling and dealing, circulating her wears among the weary tourists seeking a quick respite. Peter and Paul caught her attention, however, as they were similar in age, and she paused to find out how old they were and what grade they were in and to point out that her older brother, who was overlooking the interaction and glowering down on her, was the bane of her existence and she’d like to give him a “blue eye.” Her mother or an older relative entered the scene hoping to capitalize on the connection, and, though we enjoyed this young girl’s wit and intelligence, we were eventually driven away.   


December 10, 2005

Despite all the hype about getting to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the only trouble we encountered was a government lock on transportation at the border town of Poipet, which translates into only one transportation option at an inflated cost. So, all the horror stories about the dirt road to Siem Reap being the worst stretch of road in Southeast Asia were unfounded. We definitely experienced worse conditions in the middle of the monsoon season in northwestern Laos. Of course with a little imagination and a whole lot of rain, we can imagine a similar scenario along these predominantly dirt and pot-hole-ridden roads.


We arrived in Siem Reap by government-contracted taxi in early evening and, after passing one luxury resort after another, settled into Home Sweet Home, one of the many moderately-priced but still lovely and well-equipped guest houses in town.


December 8, 2005

We finally found sunshine at Ko Samet just south and east of Bangkok. We had hoped to go to Ko Pha Ngang but found out from fellow travelers that it and Ko Samui were flooded and the conditions were miserable due to an abnormally long monsoon season this year. As a result, we took the night train to Bangkok, boarded a bus to Ko Samet, and arrived at the islands, located in the gulf of Thailand by early afternoon.


For the past few days, we have conducted a strict regimen of study from beachside reclining chairs. For a healthy balance of work and play, work has been interspersed with raucous play in the ocean, evening movies and delicious vegetarian cuisine at a nearby guest house. Read Peter and Paul’s essays about their tsunami relief volunteer work and Indonesian cultural reflections, composed and refined during this work session!


December 3, 2005

For the past week we have worked at the Cape Pakarang Boat Yard project on the southwest coast of Thailand, helping to build traditional Thai fishing boats for fishermen who lost their boats in the tsunami that devastated this region last year. A serendipitous encounter with a Finnish couple who had just finished a 2-week stint at the Tsunami Volunteer Center based in Khao Lak helped pave the way for this experience. It seems that at every turn on this trip we have been well-guided by providential intervention. We met this lovely couple while in Ko Lanta when we were deliberating the next week of our itinerary: Steve was keen on visiting Ko Phi Phi, what is considered one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, before heading to Khao Lak to volunteer for tsunami-relief efforts. Unfortunately we were encountering an extended monsoon season along the beaches of southern Thailand, snorkeling and fishing tours had been cancelled for several days as a result of the stormy weather, and so far we had not been able to enjoy the islands at their best. Then, after meeting Mona and her husband and getting more information about the tsunami-relief effort in the Khao Lak area, we decided to sacrifice our visit to Ko Phi Phi and head directly to Khao Lak the next day, Sunday, as orientation for new volunteers typically began on Monday. For Mona and her husband, this trip had been a journey of spiritual healing as many Finnish people as well as other people from Scandinavia, died in the tsunami. As she and her husband helped dig ditches for a sanitation project, she realized that no matter how physically grueling the work, it paled in comparison with the devastating loss and pain the Thai people of this region have suffered in the aftermath of the tsunami and that she could endure this back-breaking work for the limited two-week commitment. The experience for them had been immensely gratifying, as well as moving. While they were there, a funeral was held for another tsunami victim that had just been found and identified. Thousands of people remain lost, leaving their families in a state of constant unrest.


On the bus to Khao Lak, we met Scott, a Peace Corps volunteer who was part of crisis team in this region. He was helping build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Whole villages were leveled during the tsunami and initially only temporary houses were built to provide immediate relief. Habitat for Humanity is now trying to meet the need for long-term housing in the area. It was already dark when we arrived in Khao Lak. Scott took us to the Khao Lak Inn where we checked in for the night.


Cape Reshaped

The next day, we started at the Cape Pakarang boat yard. When we arrived, we met Kong, one of the Thai operational coordinators of the project. He told me about how the tsunami hit this cape from both sides and literally re-shaped it. We were surrounded by a coconut tree plantation and a placid aqua blue sea, and a slender strip of white sand curled to the now-curtailed tip of the cape. Paul and I walked along the shore looking for shells. The water looked inviting but when I went to wash the sand out of one of the shells we had found, I discovered that the shore line was filled with rocks, coral and other debris from the tsunami. Later, after talking to other long-term volunteers, we found out that environmental experts who had helped with beach clean-up did not recommend swimming at these beaches for a good five years because of the human and other organic debris in the water.


Carving Mementos

While we waited for Scott Carter, one of the lead project managers, to return with the other volunteers from lunch, we watched the crew of Thai boat builders constructing the foundation of yet another fishing boat. As soon as Scott returned, we were immediately integrated into a variety of different projects. Peter, Paul, Mom and I began carving the boat yard logo, a sketch of a traditional Thai fishing boat, on carving boards made out of cuts of Jack fruit tree wood. These cutting boards will be sold at the one-year commemoration of the tsunami this month. Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend this event, and Scott hopes to raise 1,000,000 Baht or $25,000 (U.S.) for the boat yard from these cutting boards and boat yard batik and screen-printed t-shirts. On our second day, we were approached by Hakon and Wenche Gran, an older couple from Norway who was here during the tsunami. They have been coming to this area for several years and vowed they would face their fears and return to this area they love so much, despite the trauma of the previous year. They fulfilled this pledge and returned in March and now just before Christmas. Though the horror of the experience was still vivid for them, they told us their moving story—how they saw the wave coming and ran to the second floor of the resort. The water climbed up but they were spared. As Hakon said, they lost all their belongings but still they were lucky—they walked away with their lives. Their Thai friend, who had brought them to the cape to see the boat yard project, was not so lucky—he lost his wife, a cook at the resort, in the tsunami. They told us gingerly that the year before, their entire family had spent Christmas at the resort, and I think it was difficult for them to reconcile what might have happened had the whole family been here last year. They had decided to return to Norway to spend Christmas with their family and then return to Khao Lak again after the new year. Since they wouldn’t be attending the one-year commemoration, they wanted to purchase a cutting board. I was quite surprised and moved when they selected one of the cutting boards I had carved. They asked me and Mom to sign the back of the board and we exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch. Steve took a picture of our new friends and, though we had only known them briefly, we had shared intimate struggles, and we embraced them tenderly as we bid them a fond and emotional farewell.


Building Boats

In the meantime, Steve was drawn to one of the Thai crews building a boat and by the end of the day had proven himself because he and Peter were helping with the precise work of wrapping planks around the ribs of the boat and then nailing them in place.


Over the course of the week, we were integrated into nearly all phases of boat building. We helped sand and carve hundreds of cutting boards. We painted the bottom of a boat with copper paint, and oiled and stained the body of the boat. Paul helped paint a very colorful orange, black and white boat that was donated by a high school whose mascot was the impala. Steve painted the logo of the Thames Royal Yacht Club of England on the bow of the boat that this group had sponsored. Peter and Paul even had the opportunity to cut long iron rods in specific dimensions with a power circular saw. When I discovered they were doing this, I was quite uneasy and hoped they were following rigid safety protocol, as my imagination conjured up horrific images of loss of life or limb. Later in talking to Scott, he reassured me that though the machine looks indeed deadly, you would be hard-pressed to sever a limb and that he wouldn’t have given them the task if it had held significant, inherent risk.


Peter especially studied Scott as a mentor. His admiration was well-placed as Scott’s knowledge of all aspects of this boat yard operation was indeed impressive. Recognizing Peter and Paul’s eagerness to learn and work, Scott would often seek them out when he was assembling a crew and they would usually drop what they were doing to help him out. As a treat one evening, they even got to drive the back hoe, much to the mutterings of several of the long-term male volunteers who had never been allowed to operate this way-cool piece of equipment. Boy, were they green with envy of these young interlopers who got all the fun!


Over the course of the week, my boys became Scott’s right hand men on a number of projects. Steve and Peter helped unload large pieces of lumber from a truck while Scott manipulated the pieces into position with the back hoe. Both Peter and Paul used several power tools to sand and precision cut, helped with general yard clean-up, and moved, sorted and stacked lumber piles, an unending task at a boat yard. In one half-day yard clean-up project, Paul supervised the creation of a large pile of unusable scrap wood on the beach and did the honors of dousing it with “Boy Scout fire starter,” i.e. paint thinner, and starting a blazing bon fire. Following up on another of Scott’s requests, Peter learned how to replace the female and male heads of electric plugs and taught Grandma this useful skill.


So how do you move a several-ton boat?

We also participated in the moving of several boats which was nothing short of a miraculous orchestration. The feat required all bodies available, including inexperienced volunteers like us, to assemble around the boat and actually lift the boat onto dollies and then guide the boat to its next destination. During one of these moves, I found myself at the stern of the boat with another female volunteer when we were issued the order from Scott, who was at the other end trying to maneuver the stem of the boat through a particularly tight passageway, to secure the dolly on our end. I had no idea what that meant and, and despite his no-nonsense urgency, boldly asked for clarification. I definitely didn’t want to be left holding this end of this several-ton boat! Peter later told me he thought it was pretty funny—and typical of his mother—that I asked a clarifying question, and I responded that, as far as I was concerned, this was a situation where that clarification was a matter of life or death! Scott patiently but efficiently gave us our instructions; we were to grab a piece of wood and wedge the wheels of the dolly to secure it from slipping backwards.


During another move of a completed boat, I found myself again with another female volunteer, this time steering the dolly at the front of the boat. Nid, the Thai project manager, directed us through the boat yard and then into the surrounding jungle to the parking space the boat owner, who was the son of the owner of the coconut farm on which the boat yard was located, had requested. At one point we thought we had reached our destination only to be instructed to back out, turn and go down another path into the jungle, all while maneuvering this several-ton boat! I was careful not to lose my footing on the uneven ground as I had visions of inadvertently tripping and getting crushed by our imposing cargo!


The boat owner’s mother was part of the entourage that helped move the boat. After we had secured the boat in its parking space, she thanked us profusely, the emotion showing on her face. She and her family narrowly escaped the wave because her husband saw the wave coming, got the family into the pick-up truck, and literally outran the wave off the cape. Their house, which had just received electricity only weeks before the tsunami, was destroyed. They would have been killed had it not been for the quick reflexes of her husband.


Tsunami stories

As I interviewed and talked to several people involved with the project, I heard many, many valiant and heart-rending stories about the tsunami. Many of the fishermen that were receiving new boats through the project also lost family members, their homes and all their possessions. One fisherman lost 16 family members in the tsunami. Another escaped death by climbing a coconut tree. The same tree almost killed him when it was uprooted and nearly fell on top of him. When he re-emerged from the water after the second wave, he saw a little boy in the wreckage and rescued him by carrying him on his back to the center of town where he deposited him in a truck that was transporting injured people to medical facilities.


One pair of volunteers we met, Jodi and her mother, Pat, from England, came to volunteer last March and stayed for several months. They told us amazing stories—about building houses from scratch, being adopted by Thai families and sometimes sleeping and eating with them in cramped temporary shacks while their homes were being built, and finding human bones on the beach and bringing them to the local temples that were documenting bodies. They had both recently returned for the one-year commemoration and for another several-month stint of work. I was impressed with their commitment to this effort and their intact sense of humor, despite the difficulty and intense emotional nature of the work. We shall look up our new friends when we get to England next year.  


I spent a good part of the week writing several articles and content for the boat yard’s website which is currently being redesigned and updated by a couple of volunteers, as well as updating the project’s database of the 47 fishermen who were selected to receive the first set of boats. Here are some of the pieces I wrote that provide more background about the project. If you are interested in volunteering, sponsoring a boat (It only costs $3.250!) or donating any sum of money to the effort, contact Scott Carter at or visit the project's website at



Overview of the Cape Pakarang Boat Yard Project

The Cape Pakarang Boat Yard, a project of the Tsunami Volunteer Center, began shortly after a tsunami devastated the coast of Thailand’s Phang Nga province on December 26, 2004. Over 5,000 people died in the area, and the local fishing industry was destroyed. Along with other boat-building projects in the area, the boat yard project has helped to re-build lives and livelihoods in the aftermath of the tsunami by building boats for local fishermen.


With a crew of local boat builders and volunteers from around the world, the boat yard builds traditional Thai long-tailed fishing boats in an effort to replace all the boats that were lost in the tsunami.  Thanks to the generous contributions of private donors, close to 40 boats have been completed so far, and fishermen, like Praturng Patgor, are venturing back to the sea and regaining their ability to provide for their families and communities.


Praturng was the recipient of the first boat built at the boat yard. He not only lost his boat in the tsunami, but two sons, house and left leg from an injury sustained during the tsunami. Though a lottery was held to determine the order that the original set of eligible fishermen were to receive their boats, Praturng was elected by his fellow fishermen to automatically receive the first. A big celebration was held when Praturng’s boat was launched. He was so overcome with emotion that he dove into the lagoon and swam to “claim” his boat!


Still, there are scores of fishermen, each with their own unique stories, who need boats, and more funds are needed to sustain the work at the boat yard. The boat yard project plans to continue to build boats until all local fishermen can once again fish. When this mission is accomplished, the boat yard will be converted into a fully-operational and equipped commercial boat building facility, operated and employed by Thai people and providing an ongoing source of revenue for the local economy.



The Indefatigable Director: Scott Carter

When Scott Carter ushered in 2005 at his home in Georgetown, South Carolina, he had no idea that his life was about to change dramatically. Scott’s story is now intimately tied to the Cape Pakarang Boat Yard, a project of the Tsunami Volunteer Center in Phang Nga province on the southwest coast of Thailand.


It all began with an unexpected proposition from his father: Would he consider accompanying him to Thailand to help with the tsunami relief effort? Scott very enthusiastically agreed and began making plans to take a month off from his engineering consulting business. Unfortunately, his father was not able to leave work, and Scott arrived in Thailand in early January on his own.


In the aftermath of the tsunami, it was evident that what was needed most was new homes for the thousands of families whose homes had been destroyed, and Scott immediately began working with the Tsunami Volunteer Center building temporary homes in Ban Nam Kem, a fishing village just south of Khao Lak. Nearly 50 percent of the population of this village was killed during the tsunami, and the remaining families were living in substandard conditions in pup tents.


As Scott began to get to know the people of this village and their needs, he became aware how critical it was to restore the fishing industry in this community that had provided fish for the area’s predominantly tourism-dependent economy. He helped a couple of local private donors build a small boat house in the village and work began there on repairing boats damaged in the tsunami.


Then, in early February, Scott met Andy Grant, who was from Colorado and interested in funding a boat building project, and together with Kasama “Nid” Pradip Na Thalang, a local Thai woman, a vision for a fully-equipped boat yard dedicated to building traditional Thai long-tailed boats for fishermen who had lost boats in the tsunami began to take shape.


Though he had never built a boat, Scott, who was raised in the Chesapeake Bay area, had been around boats since an early age, and his father had taught him “all he needed to know about manual construction.” Fueled by his commitment to help the people of this area recover from this devastating natural disaster, Scott decided to take on this long-term volunteer venture.


With his early background in building and boats and his professional expertise in industrial installations and running a business, Nid’s knowledge of the language and the community, and the seed money to build a full-scale boat-building facility, Scott and Nid set out to find a suitable site to build the boat yard.  They landed on Cape Pakarang, negotiated with a willing landowner, and by the end of February had broke ground. “We could have just built boats, but it was kind of like ‘Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come,’” says Scott. “It was a gamble but I felt that if we established a fully operational boat yard, we would attract more donors.”


His instincts were right. Even before they began building the first boat, the owner of a nearby resort that was destroyed just days before it was scheduled to open sponsored three boats.


It was a race to finish construction before the rainy season began in April. The roof was finished in mid April, and work began on the first boat, a boat that was almost completed destroyed in the tsunami and used for a demonstration workshop at the 100-day commemoration of the tsunami. The resurrected boat was aptly named “Hope” and given to a fisherman in Kurabure, north of Khao Lak. Though the boats that have been built since have born other names, some after the donors that purchased them, “every boat has symbolized hope,” says Scott.


While the boat yard was under construction, 47 fishermen were selected to receive new boats, many of whom were from the village of Ban Nam Kem where Scott had begun his volunteer work. A crew of local carpenters and boat builders were hired, and volunteers were recruited from the Tsunami Volunteer Center. Full-scale production on new boats began in April 2005, only six months before the start of the fishing season. Since then, a boat has come off the assembly line every 5 ½ days. As of the beginning of the fishing season in November, nearly two-thirds of the fishermen had received their boats.


For almost a year, Scott has sustained a rigorous 24-7 schedule. On any given day, he is busy with a multitude of projects. Workers and volunteers alike seem to gravitate to the charismatic, 37-year-old natural leader.


He is able to consistently rally this eclectic collection of manpower, the Thai crew and volunteers of all ages and from countries as far-flung as Canada, the Netherlands, Vietnam, South Africa, and the United States. Together, they move a boat to the next staging area. As he shouts out “1, 2, 3” in Thai, it’s as if he’s directing a concert as a checkered array of people line and guide the boat through the passageway specially designed to accommodate the unique Thai design of the boat with its distinctive stem extending several feet above the foredeck.


But as soon as one task is completed, he’s on to the next. A donor drops by for a visit with his family or a media crew arrives for an interview, and Scott deftly transitions to public relations spokesperson, speaking eloquently and passionately about the project.


As Scott looks ahead to build the final 10 boats from the first set of fishermen and take on another 50-plus more who have requested a boat, he sets his sights on his ultimate goal—raising the money needed to replace all the fishing boats that were lost in the tsunami. He’s hoping to raise 1,000,000 Baht ($25,000 U.S.) at the one-year anniversary of the tsunami this month. At $3,250 per boat, this will provide a significant boost in the effort but will still be short of the need. 


What sustains him in his work is the fervid belief that a boat represents a new beginning for people whose lives were literally shattered by the tsunami. “From a practical standpoint, they can now earn a living, something they were robbed of when they lost their boats, their livelihoods, in the tsunami,” says Scott. “Though it’s just a token to the loss of loved ones they have suffered, their life changes for the better the day they take ownership of a new boat.”


That is why he doesn’t miss a boat delivery, even though it has rained every time they have delivered a boat—and monsoon season is supposed to have been over for a month now. For Scott, witnessing this transformation is one of his greatest rewards. It has also changed him fundamentally.


When he has finished his work here, Scott plans to return to South Carolina, but he will most definitely be a different person than when he arrived in Thailand in January 2005. “Despite all they’ve endured, Thai people are the happiest people I have ever met,” says Scott.


He’s currently in the process of selling his house back home and most of the belongings in it, all a result of the personal transformation he has experienced during his time in Thailand. “I have learned to live with a lot less during these past 11 months and I’m a much happier person because of it.” 



The Thai Connection: Kasama “Nid” Pradip Na Thalang

On the day of the tsunami, Kasama “Nid” Pradip Na Thalang’s son pleaded with her to stay a little longer before returning to her job as a cashier at the Dusit Laguna Resort in Phuket. When Nid did leave the house, she saw truck-loads of battered-looking people going by. A passing police officer told her that she couldn’t go to Phuket, that a tsunami had struck the coast. The next day, she managed to make her way to Phuket, amidst the rampant destruction. When she arrived at the hotel, she found two of the hotel’s restaurants destroyed. Her husband and uncle, in the meantime, helped with the clean-up in the Khao Lak area. It was a somber duty as it included transporting the injured to local clinics and collecting dead bodies. Over 5,000 people died in the Khao Lak area alone. Many of Nid’s friends and neighbors lost loved ones that day. She considers herself very lucky that her family did not suffer loss that day. Still, the reverberations of this devastating natural disaster shook the entire community.


About a month and a half later, Nid, which means “Little” in Thai, met an American tourist named Andy Gent at the resort where she worked. They talked about the tsunami and what the impacted communities needed most in its aftermath. He was interested in funding a project. Nid took him to Cape Pakarang, where the homes of several fishermen had been destroyed, and Ban Nam Kem, a fishing village hit hard during the tsunami. There Andy met Scott Carter, a volunteer from South Carolina, who had been working in the village building temporary houses since the tsunami hit. Andy introduced Nid and Scott, and a partnership was born. 


Nid and Scott began organizing in earnest and by mid April, the boat yard was up and running. It was a drastic career change for Nid. Up until then, she had been a head waitress/cashier in a large tourist resort and though she was accustomed to managing staff and customers, she knew nothing about building boats. However, as the main Thai logistical coordinator for the project, she was responsible for ordering all the supplies and supervising the Thai workers. It was an initiation by fire. She expanded her trade vocabulary by looking up in her Thai-English dictionary every tool or piece of equipment that Scott identified in English. Within weeks, she was nearly fluent in the tools of the trade and well-respected by her crew, volunteers and fellow co-workers for her knowledge and organizational expertise. “There is no question that Nid’s presence on this project is more important than mine,” says Scott. “It is because of her that we’re part of this community and have such positive relationships with boat builders and other community members.”


According to Nid, she has learned so much from this job and finds it very gratifying to be able to use her experience to help the area’s fishermen and their families. In the village of Ban Nam Kem, located right on the coast, many children died in the tsunami. “When you visit the village now, it is so quiet,” she says. “For many families, it has been hard to recover and their hearts are still hurting,” says Nid. However, for those families that have received a boat, it has helped them recover a sense of purpose in the wake of devastating loss. So far nearly 40 fishermen have received boats and lives are slowly being re-built.


One of the recipients was Anit Sae-yow, the only fisherwoman to receive a boat. She has been fishing since she was 9 years old and is now happily back at sea. After a good catch, she often brings fish to Nid and the other staff at the boat yard


The file is filled with these kinds of stories of lives transformed after the tsunami, and Nid carries this inspiration for her daily work close to her heart. 



Kongsak “Kong” Khoburi: Unemployed by the tsunami

Kongsak “Kong” Khoburi was in a speed boat heading to the world-acclaimed Similan Islands with a group of 30 tourists when the tsunami struck the southwest coast of Thailand.  When they arrived at the islands, they found the surrounding reef badly damaged and many of the buildings destroyed by the high tides created by the tsunami. The captain of another speed boat at the islands found out that a “big wave” had hit the coast and that all boats should stand-by before returning to the coast in case there were any after-shocks.


Many of the tourists on Kong’s boat were getting sea-sick so Kong transferred them to the larger speed boat and they continued to wait. All were anxious about a possible after-shock as well as what had happened to loved ones on shore, but Kong’s job was to reassure his clients. At about 3 p.m., they were finally given the O.K. to return. As they traveled back to the coast, they navigated around trees and other large debris floating in the water.


They returned to indescribable devastation. Sofetel Hotel, the hotel where Kong had worked as a tourist agent, had been leveled. Had he not been on the tour, he would have been killed.


Kong’s life changed instantly. In the wake of the tsunami, the tourist industry collapsed and with it every travel company in the once thriving tourist mecca of Khao Lak. In the course of a day, Kong found himself without a job. When he returned home, none of his family were there, having been evacuated to a shelter, all of his belongings were washed away, and everything was dark and eerily still.


After two months of desperation, his friend, the husband of Kasama “Nid” Pradip Na Thalang, one of the project managers for the Cape Pakarang Boat Yard tsunami-relief project, recommended Kong to his wife and co-project manager, Scott Carter.


Kong started working at the boat yard in mid March just as construction was getting underway. He became Nid and Scott’s right hand man, helping translate, communicate with the local people and government, and recruit boat builders and workers. He also worked industriously along side the crew, cutting down coconut trees and laying the cement foundation for the boat yard.


Since the boat yard became operational, Kong continues to support Nid and Scott’s work, making sure that everything is in order. This means keeping the work environment neat and tidy, repairing and ordering tools and other supplies, providing the volunteers with food and drink, and taking the occasional volunteer to the hospital. “Yes,” Kong recalls, “One German guy fell five meters from the rafters of the boat yard.” Thankfully, he survived.


Survival is what the boat yard is all about, says Kong. He believes that a new boat gives people back the confidence to believe in happiness again. “This project helps people in every way, makes them happy once again,” says Kong.


Kong sees the work of the boat yard as a long-term commitment. Though the tourists will eventually return, taxi drivers, hotel staff and travel agents are essentially jobless in the meantime. Fishing, however, provides a means of making a living that is not dependent on tourism. In fact, once the work of the tsunami relief aspect of the project is over, Kong may join the ranks of those fishermen who have received a boat from the project and become a fisherman himself.



November 24, 2005

We have finally arrived at the beaches of southern Thailand, just as a wave of international tourists from frigid climes also descend upon these tropical destinations. Yes, it’s high season in southern Thailand but in our attempts to outrun the monsoons throughout our travels in Southeast Asia, this was the timing for our coveted rendezvous with the world-class beaches of Thailand.  


We waded out into the surf and boarded a long boat, the craft typical to this region. It’s called a long boat because its motor is attached to a very long pole that can be easily raised and lowered as it negotiates the constantly changing depths of the water in and around the islands. We arrived at Raylay island in the early evening, just as the last vestiges of sun emanated in a magenta aura behind the clouds on the horizon. We walked to the east side of the island, checked into our hotel and immediately headed to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. Paul and I choose the sail fish that had been caught that day for dinner. It was an impressive fish—probably five-feet tall—and we watched the chef cut the first two large wedges of this incredibly fresh fish to barbecue for our dinner. It was delicious and I ate my fill.


We spent the next day at the beach at the cave of Tham Phra Nang. Here, stunning limestone cliffs line a brilliantly white sandy beach and attract throngs of rock climbers. Peter watched several, trying to learn technique. It wasn’t long before we were seduced by the glistening aqua water and the dramatic limestone caves directly in the water. We walked through the cave in the water to a look-out where we could see through another archway to the other side of this rock formation, intricately sculpted by pounding rains and surf. Paul found little squid and other fish swimming amongst our legs and snorkeled, exclaiming at each new discovery of life below, but once Peter and Paul got out of the water, the salt on their skin soon grew unbearable and they and Grandma returned to the hotel for a shower. Steve and I on the other hand, couldn’t bear to leave this beautiful beach and spent the day bounding into the water for refreshment and then leisurely sprawling onto our towels to dry naturally in the glorious warm sun.


That evening Paul and Steve played a couple of games of pool with some rock-climbers from B.C. who were also quite impressive in pool. Paul and Steve held their own though winning a couple and losing a couple and they looked like quite the dashing team in their matching tropical floral print shirts!


Our search for more remote beach took us by mini-bus and two ferries to Ko Lanta and we’ve been waiting for the rains to stop so we can explore this marine national park. It seems we were meant to just hang-out here because Peter and Paul both got sick and required several days to recover in Ko Lanta.