Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Backpacker Brigade ; Tourists Pick through the Tsunami's Trail of Trash to Restore a Beloved Thai Destination

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Backpacker Brigade ; Tourists Pick through the Tsunami's Trail of Trash to Restore a Beloved Thai Destination

Article excerpt

Under a broiling afternoon sun, a work crew rakes through the debris-choked riverbank. Each piece of refuse - tree stumps, broken bricks, shards of glass - is tossed into a wheelbarrow or carried by hand to a chest-high pile.

Sweat clings to the bikini-clad back of Belgian advertising executive Greet Wachters as she hacks at the soil. Nearby, a deserted beach offers a tantalizing respite from the work at hand, but Ms. Wachters barely misses a beat as she bends to her task. "It's hard to imagine how much more we have to go. You get the impression that we're doing nothing. But every bit helps," she says. Her husband, Stef Selfslagh, leans on his shovel for a moment and smiles. "As a kid I always tried to get out of doing any hard work. Now I'm volunteering for it."

This young couple from Antwerp are part of a grass-roots backpacker army that has sprung into action to rescue Thailand's Phi Phi Island from post-tsunami oblivion. Alerted by word of mouth, e- mails, and handwritten messages, they arrive primed for action. Some work for a day and move on; others rewrite holiday plans and dig in for the long haul.

"I've seen people come over to the island for four hours, work for 3-1/2 hours, then get back on the ferry dirty and tired, but happy. Why? Because they just cleared part of a street," says Dion Wells, a sales manager from Minneapolis who left his job in January to volunteer.

At least 700 people died and countless buildings were leveled when three giant waves swept tiny Phi Phi on Dec. 26. Survivors were evacuated to the mainland, and residents were told not to return until the government had rezoned the island. But some defied the order and went back, determined to rebuild their businesses amid the wreckage, even if it means working in a legal gray area.

A handful of foreign longtime residents pitched in, and the first store reopened in January. As word got out, volunteers began trickling in. A Dutch-run charity raised money to buy tools. Soon there were nightly meetings to allocate tasks and assign workers. A team of volunteer divers began dredging the bay by hand, assisted by Thai boatmen.

Suddenly Phi Phi was back in business, and a group of bronzed backpackers had found a cause. By mid-May, around 2,000 had contributed time through the Hi Phi Phi volunteer program (, with daily attendance averaging 100 or more. The resulting buzz has prompted hotels and restaurants to reopen their doors, which in turn has encouraged more day-trippers to visit.

Most volunteers come to lend a hand in order to give something back to Thailand, a longtime favorite among budget travelers.

"This is so exciting and rewarding. I feel like I'm taking something much more real away from my trip than drinking Mai Tais for a month," says Zach Heeter, a pre-med student from Austin, Texas,as he takes a break from bricklaying. …

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