Video: Forgotten victims

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Dateline NBC
updated 1/9/2005 2:38:37 PM ET 2005-01-09T19:38:37

Nearly two weeks after the tsunami, some of the hardest hit areas still have not gotten any kind of assistance, and U.N. officials are saying they're not even close to knowing the full scope of the disaster. In Sri Lanka, where some 30,000 people were killed, significant amounts of aid only reached the most devastated areas late this week. And in Thailand, beyond the famous tourist spots, unknown numbers of people have perished. NBC’s Hoda Kotb ventured to where few Westerners ever go. What happened out there and what did this killer wave leave behind?

After the tsunami hit, Phuket's beaches were a mess. Today, to an arriving tourist, it's hard to believe that one of the world's biggest natural disasters had hit those very beaches. Tourists are back swimming in the same waters where such horror played itself out.

Thailand takes very good care of its tourists, and that's hardly surprising. Tourism is a vital part of this country's economy, and no where more so than in Phuket.

Thailand is more than just a tourist destination. It's a nation of 65 million people, some of whom are poor and were living along the exposed coastline when the tsunami hit -- the fishermen and the villagers, whatever happened to them?

There were fears that in the efforts to help victims in the heavily-populated areas, that people in more remote areas may have been forgotten. If that were really true, it might mean that some of Thailand's poorest people, the most vulnerable, were desperate for help. So we decided to venture out to try to find them.

Up into the country, we followed a route that would lead us off the tourist trail and into the more isolated regions along Thailand's West Coast that faced the brunt of the tsunami. We've traveled down the road for several hours, and the further we got, the more remote it is. There are no more tourists, no more hotels. They're all back there in the rearview mirror.

The road led through thick lush vegetation, small town after small town. Things seemed perfectly fine, until we reached the elegant entrance to a Buddhist temple, where we came face to face with the first sign that there were more victims in more places than we'd known about.

The temple had been transformed into a massive, makeshift morgue. This place of meditation and worship was now filled with coffins and bodies, hundreds and hundreds of them, brought from the tiny villages along the coast.

People come to identify the remains of loved ones, some still holding out hope that their family member is simply missing. Volunteers, everyday people really, are helping a nation get through this disaster. 

Like Kay, a student who was sitting at home watching the disaster unfold on TV and rushed right down to help. she identifies bodies and helps comfort relatives.

Hoda Kotb: “What is a college student like you doing in a place like this?”

Kay: “Well, I don't know. People think like, oh, maybe it's just, uh, a dangerous job to do. But, you know, seeing the reality here, I just like I have to do something.”

She's heard so many stories, stories of loss, stories of heartache, and stories of those in need. And then she told us about a place, an island that may be in desperate need of help.  And sure enough there are islands out there so remote, they almost go unnoticed.

A boatman offered to take us to the place he had heard had been hardest hit, Phrathong Island, where about a thousand people had lived for decades.

As we headed out, we didn't know what to expect. No western journalists had been there since the tsunami hit the islands. We left the mainland behind and headed out into open waters. It is picture postcard beautiful -- but don't be deceived by the dazzling sun-splashed scenery and the tranquility.

In reality, from the water it appeared that an entire fishing village was washed away. But that was only half the story. Wading ashore, we wanted to know more about of the lives of the 1,000 people who were right in the jaws of the tsunami when it hit.

There was a child's bicycle, impossible to know if it was being used when the waves crashed in. A boat, shoved inland by a massive force. The same force reached into the village and dragged an entire house into the water. We found no signs of life, no signs of who had survived and who hadn't.

Suddenly we noticed a boat approaching. Who were these people and why were they coming to  this remote island? Turns out they were Americans, who had also heard about plight of the islanders and had come to help.

Jeremy Lapoint is a member of the U.S. Military's Disaster Relief Team. We followed as he and his team set out to look for answers the same answers we were looking for. Where were the people?

Jeremy and his team were looking for any signs of life or death, any information about where the islanders had gone so they could pass it on to U.S. and Thai officials. But after searching for an hour, the team found no signs of life. 

So what happened to the hundreds of villagers who were penned in on this island when the tsunami hit? We are told they were ferried off by fishermen who survived the waves boatload by boatload by boatload.

And it turns out that's what happened. We found some of the survivors on the mainland, miles away from their island homes.  A shelter was crowded with about 500 people, many of them children, who'd lost almost everything.

As we toured the shelter, we came across family after family packed into a place with no beds or running water, far cry from what we'd seen hours earlier on the tourist beaches of Phuket.  When we met the refugees, their eyes seemed to tell the story of the last 11 days.

Duke and his sister de are wearing black to mourn their relatives.

Duke: “My family dead, about 13 or 14 people, but we can find only eight people.”

Among them were their father, their mother, grandmother and nephew.

Like so many here, they are living mainly off the charity of monks and volunteers. They say the Thai government did give them a small handout, about $2 per person, but Duke says that's not enough. He wishes his government had spent more resources on its own people and less on the tourists who received quick help. Modern hospitals, lodging and flights out.

Duke: “Why? Me is Thai people. Me is Thai. But why they choose to help the tourists first?”

The Thai government says its doing all it can to help everyone in the country, and the fact is that the tourists help keep Thailand's economy up and running.

Tourist: "I think the best thing people can do for these people here is to come and spend your money. I mean if we all just stay away, it wouldn't have done any good for these people."

So by helping the tourism industry, Thailand will ultimately be able to take care of its own. But that could be a while for these people, refugees in their own country. They are not quite forgotten, but they feel forsaken.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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