A handful of youngsters kick a soccer ball along the beach. Early evening smoke rises from a grilled fish vendor’s cart. A soft orange glow blankets the sky as gentle waves lap upon the shore. Life has returned to normal in the picturesque seaside hamlet of Baan Nam Kem, but memories of the day in late December 2004 when the worst tsunami in memory tore across the village remain as real today as the fishing boats that make their way out to sea each morning.
Located just west of Takua Pa, south of Ko Kho Khao, and about 30 kilometres north of Khao Lak along Thailand’s Andaman coast, Baan Nam Kem suffered proportionately the worst losses from the tsunami of any town or city in Thailand. A tsunami memorial bearing the names and faces of some of the 3,500 Thais and foreigners who lost their lives in the area was constructed near a stretch of Nam Kem beach in 2006.
The small fishing vessel on which a grandson of the Thai king had been sailing on before losing his life in the tsunami was incorporated into the memorial, along with a large image of Buddha that sits directly facing the memorial with its back to the sea. On our recent visit to the region, we met countless locals who had lost friends and family in the tsunami, and many come to this place almost as a pilgrimage site to meditate and reflect on the transience and fragility of life, and the memories of those who were lost.
Built in 2005 and 2006 to replace an entire neighbourhood that was swept out to sea with the waves, a street with rows of identical two-storey homes is found a short walk inland from the memorial.
Not far from the rebuilt village, two massive fishing junks have been left to occupy the exact ground they settled upon after floating inland with the tsunami. Located more than a kilometre from the sea, they stand today not only as another piece of memorial, but also as an acknowledgement of the potential ferocity and sheer power of the sea.
Further inland, a friendly lot of locals put daily offerings of incense and flowers on their spirit shrines and go about their modest lives. The tsunami will never be forgotten here, but the peaceful life of today’s Nam Kem is a quiet testament to the resilience not only of the village folk themselves, but also humanity as a whole.
In the morning, the fishermen rise with the sun. Sleepy eyed kids walk to a rebuilt village school. A few travellers pass through en route to Ko Kho Khao or the memorial. Life continues in all its glory here, but for everyone who lived that day in December ’04, there’s always a moment to stop and reflect on those who were lost. Far out to sea, a single bird drifts through the sky.
Baan Nam Kem can be reached by songthaew or motorbike taxi from the Takua Pa bus station, or you can hop on a Takua Pa to Phuket bus (vice versa if coming from the south) and ask to be let off near Baan Nam Kem. It’s a couple of kilometres to the memorial from where buses drop travellers on the main road. If heading to Ko Kho Khao you’ll pass right by the turn, which is marked by a clear sign, for the Baan Nam Kem Tsunami Memorial.
How to get there
To get to Ban Nam Khem from the Takua Pa bus station (east), head west on Rte. 4 and take a right when you see the signs for Ko Kho Khao and the Tsunami Memorial, which are clearly marked.
Follow the road for a couple km and take a left at another clearly marked sign for the memorial, which is just ahead, right before the beach. If coming from Khao Lak (south), simply drive about 25 to 30 km north and take a left at the same signs.
From Takua Pa a songthaew will take you there and back for 500B, or a motorbike taxi for a negotiable 200B. From Khao Lak a taxi will run in the neighbourhood of 1,500B both ways.