Thailand’s impoverished northeast is hundreds of miles from the sea, yet it is home to almost 200 children who lost one or both parents to the cataclysmic waves from last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami.
The region — known as Isan to Thais — is the source of itinerant laborers for all parts of Thailand because of the limited opportunities for making a living from its parched soil. Its people are found particularly in the construction trade and low-paid service jobs.
Leaving children behind with grandparents, men and women find work where business is booming — such as along Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, where beach resorts catering to foreigners and well-off Thais had mushroomed in recent years.
But the dreams of a better life were turned to nightmares by the tsunami that smashed into that coast Dec. 26.
Just three months before the disaster, Lek Kaewprasert, 25, and his wife, Kanya, traveled more than 560 miles from their home in Buriram to take construction jobs at a resort on Kho Khao island in Phang Nga province.
More than three-quarters of Thailand’s 5,400 confirmed tsunami fatalities were in Phang Nga, which lies just north of another, better-known tourist destination, Phuket.
Boy still hopes for parents' return
The couple had hoped to earn enough money to finish fixing up the run-down wooden house where they lived with their 7-year-old son Phadungphon and Lek’s parents. But they have not been seen since the tsunami struck, and are presumed to be among the dead.
Presumed by everyone except their young son.
“When the boy sees a car coming to the house, he will rush there thinking his dad and mom are back,” said Am Kaewprasert, his 72-year-old grandmother.
She and her husband, Nak, 73, are left to raise Phadungphon alone, but with no income, they are uncertain about the boy’s future. They say the boy got some government aid and help from some private sources, but it won’t last long.
“I don’t know who is going to raise him. I am too old and don’t have any energy,” said Nak, sitting beside his grandson in front of their house, still in a state of disrepair.
According to the Education Ministry, 1,468 Thai children lost one or both parents to the tsunami, including 1,060 in the six southern provinces hit by the tsunami. In Thailand’s 18 northeastern provinces, 193 children lost parents, the most of any region outside the directly affected provinces.
The ministry has allocated $8.1 million for orphans and other children affected by the tsunami, said Siratthikhan Thongsawat, chief of its Special Budget Department. It is asking for an additional $1.6 million for the next fiscal year.
Fruitless search for mother
The parents of 14-year-old Attaphon Chanchaemphop were also working in construction on Kho Khao. When the tsunami struck, his father, Praphat, survived by sprinting to high ground, but his mother, Kamonphon, was lost. She was out buying food.
Attaphon traveled to Phang Nga a few days after the disaster to help his father search for Kamonphon. They went to beaches where she might lie unconscious, hospitals where she might be a patient, and Buddhist temples where bodies were being collected. They never found her.
Now, Praphat, Attaphon and the boy’s older sister and younger brother are back together in Buriram, drawn closer than ever to comfort each other and overcome the difficulties posed by the loss of Kamonphon.
“I still miss her very much. However, I think about how I still have my brother, sister and my dad, who is a strong leader,” said Attaphon.
Dad fills in
His father used to be a drunkard, but has given up alcohol since losing his wife, the boy said.
“Now, dad cooks for us like what mom did in the past,” Attaphon said. “Although we are short of money, I just hope that four of us will continue to live together happily.”
The family still longs to find Kamonphon’s body and hold a proper Buddhist funeral. It is not an impossible hope — more than 1,300 bodies of tsunami victims, kept refrigerated since they were recovered, have not yet been identified.
Attaphon has received about $615 in assistance from the government and about nearly $150 from other sources. The money won’t go far — and his father, like many other Isan workers, is loathe to return to the Andaman coast even though post-tsunami rebuilding means steady work.
“I still don’t want to go near the sea. I still cannot come to terms with it, not since seeing the tsunami,” Praphat said.