Two years after the devastating tsunami ravaged Thailand's coastline and claimed more than 5,000 lives there, the majestic Andaman coast is once again ready for its close-up.
On a visit late last year, the bright Thai sun was like a giant klieg light illuminating a scene of remarkable recovery.
A fishing village in Phang-
Nga province that had been washed away by the swollen sea was completely rebuilt, with dozens of crisp white double-decker houses perched on thick concrete foundations.
Smiling school kids flew kites beside mangrove-covered marshes. Street vendors dispensed leaf-wrapped snacks with their famous Thai hospitality. And swimmers explored pristine coral reefs bursting with technicolor marine life beneath imposing limestone cliffs.
Even Khao Lak, the resort town north of Phuket where more than 4,000 people lost their lives, is once again bustling with locals and tourists enjoying shady coconut groves and crystalline emerald water washing over powdery golden shoals.
"The first year (after the tsunami), everyone was shellshocked. The children panicked every time they heard a loud noise," said Peera Samepued, principal of the 130-student elementary school in Ban Nai Rai, the Muslim fishing village north of Phuket that was rebuilt with international donations. "Their attitude is much better now. Everything is much, much better."
Long Piasit, who lives in neighboring Ban Khao Pi Lai, was working at the Dusit Hot Springs
"All the water and boats came into the hotel," Piasit, 30, recalled. "The family held on at first, but then the second wave hit. It was too heavy. They were washed away."
Piasit now works a short walk down the beach at the new Aleenta resort, a boutique hotel that encourages tourists to pitch in with recovery.
"You see our houses, there are no fences. We cook and eat together. We help each other. We are not alone," said Art Sarawat, office manager at Aleenta.
A stylish, open-air resort on a pearlescent beach 20 minutes north of Phuket, Aleenta is partnering with the Haad Thai Muang Turtle Conservation Office to help protect the nesting sites of Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles as coastal businesses rebuild.
"It's important we remember that everything is a circle, that you can't miss something as you rush to return to civilization," Sarawat, 37, said.
About an hour north in hard-hit Khao Lak, miles of tsunami-ravaged beach hotels are rebuilt and open for business. The town, whose name means "mountain by the sea," has always been a less touristy alternative to Phuket and offers a welcome mix of deserted beaches, lush jungles, nearby elephant trekking and proximity to the world-class dive sites of the Similan Islands.
Visitors to Khao Lak flock to what's become the de-facto tsunami memorial there a 100-foot police boat that tsunami waters marooned in a grassy field nearly a mile from shore. Scores of blue and white tsunami evacuation signs now share curb space with baroque, brightly painted spirit houses.
Khao Lak's new five-star Sarojin resort, which opened on an immaculate stretch of white sand beach 10 months after the tsunami, is regularly booked to capacity. Other hotels catering to international travelers are trying to catch up.
The larger Khao Lak Resort on a nearby brown-sugar beach lost 75 percent of its structures to the violent tsunami swells. It finally reopened last November but is having trouble filling even half of its 95 rooms.
"We were closed for two years. It's as if we're relearning our business," manager Rachot Chitrbhandh said. "Everything has come back to function well we have the infrastructure, but we need more guests. We're still behind the mountain. We still have to climb up to see over."
In Phuket, where 279 people died, and surging water buried the world-famous Patong Beach under mountains of twisted debris, little physical evidence of the tsunami remains.
As in Khao Lak, the recovery effort is now focused on perception.
"Many Asian tourists are quite superstitious and believe there are still ghosts and spirits rambling around," said Pancho Llamas, an executive manager at the popular Banyan Tree Phuket. "They believe in an afterlife and that many tsunami victims were not properly buried."
Llamas predicted it will take another year for tourists from Korea and Hong Kong to return in pre-tsunami numbers. Hong Kong-based DragonAir waited until this December to resume the direct Hong Kong-Phuket flights canceled after the tsunami.
"Human nature might tell you to stay away, but this is actually a better destination now," said Anthony Lark, manager of the ultra-luxurious Trisara resort in Phuket, who was having breakfast with U2 bassist Adam Clayton, a hotel guest, when the two noticed the receding shoreline that December morning in 2004.
Lark, an Australian expatriate who's mastered the quintessential Thai smile, pointed to the rocky island of Koh Waeo, about a mile offshore.
"The reef took all the energy of the water," he said, "so, thankfully, we weren't badly damaged."
Activities around Aleenta and Khao Lak:
•Book an elephant trek with Siam Safari in Chalong Highlands; 45 minutes, $29 for adults, $20 for kids; www.siamsafari.com.
•Play with the macaque monkeys at Wat Tham Suwankhuha, one of the most historic of Phang-
Nga's Buddhist temples. Set in a giant cave, the temple houses a 50-foot-long reclining Buddha. Visitors can purchase 25-cent bunches of bananas to hand-feed the baby monkeys.
•Take a day trip to the breathtaking Similan Islands with Sunrise Divers; www.sunrise-divers.com. The "South Siam" tour is $124 for two scuba dives, or $80 for snorkeling. A speedboat makes the trip from Khao Lak to the Similan chain of nine islands in just 1 hour, 20 minutes. Visitors must also pay a $12 entry fee to Similan National Park.
•Go diving at Shark Point, a small rocky outcrop to the east of Phuket that's famous for its harmless leopard sharks and resident moray eels. A two-tank dive that includes a stop at another nearby site is $75 with H2O Sportz in Phuket; www.diveh2osportz.com.
•Hire a colorful longtail boat along the beach in Bang Tao Bay and visit the rocky island of Koh Waeo for easy snorkeling in clear water up to 30 feet deep. Visitors can negotiate a price on the beach but shouldn't pay more than $30 per person for the 10-minute boat ride.
•Unwind at the famous Banyan Tree Spa in the Laguna Resort complex. Couples can book an open-air pavilion and listen to the sounds of birds, frogs and cicadas as a graduate of the prestigious Banyan Tree Spa Academy massages away tension with orange and rosemary scented oils. A 90-minute, full-body massage that starts with a soothing foot bath and ends with chrysanthemum tea is $95 per person.
•Aleenta (www.aleenta.com), on Natai Beach in Phang-Nga province 20 minutes north of Phuket Airport. Its "Adopt a Turtle Package" for two people during the May-to-
October season starts at $1,698 for six days/five nights including a trip to the Haad Thai Muang Turtle Conservation Office on the beach in Khao Lam Pi National Park. Other perks: dinner for two at Aleetna, His and Hers Thai massages at the Aleetna Spa and complimentary car transfer to and from Phuket airport.
•Sarojin (), in Khao Lak. The "Lady Sarojin Experience" for two people is $880 for five days/four nights including breakfast, one 30-minute spa massage for each guest and complimentary airport transfer in a private car.
•Laguna Beach Resort (www.lagunaphuket.com), on Bang Tao Bay in Phuket. Rooms start at $160 in high season (November to April), $120 in low season (May to October).
•Dream Hotel (www.dreambkk.com), Bangkok. This hotel in the fashionable Sukhumvit district is a sister property to Dream Hotel NYC. Chic modern rooms start at $139 per night.