Thai hospitality comforts foreign survivors

Dehydrated and exhausted after walking through nearly a half mile of mud in the hours after the tsunami hit, Clair Kent and her family were only trying to make for higher ground.

Their hotel, The Flora, on Khao Lak beach, was destroyed. And they had seen with their own eyes dozens of their fellow guests "washed away to sea," Mrs. Kent says.

At their wit's end, they made their way to the flooded-out road where they were picked up in an SUV by the Thai owner of The Flora.

Kent, from England, her husband, and three children ages 6, 8, and 11, were taken into the hotel owner's home. They were fed, clothed, and cared for through "a difficult night," she recounts later at the Phuket airport as she awaits a flight back home.

"They were so wonderful; we didn't know how to thank them. And we didn't have anything to give them," she says, her voice quivering.

In the immediate aftermath of the deadliest disaster Thailand has ever seen, and indeed through the last week, foreign survivors of the day-after-Christmas tsunami here (and the families of those still missing) describe time and again - often emotionally - the generosity and warmth of the Thai people.

Despite unprecedented damage and loss of life at Patong Beach, one of Thailand's most popular resorts, hundreds of survivors who fled to the hills above town were taken in by local residents. Panicked and grief-stricken tourists from all over the world were sheltered during the confusion of the first night after the waves struck, according to survivors.

'Land of Smiles'

Known as the "Land of Smiles," Thailand is legendary across Asia for its hospitality, which is one of main marketing points for the Thai Tourism Authority. Clearly, it's more than a sales pitch.

Many stories have emerged of foreigners whom Thais pulled from the waves, often at their own peril. "The local people rescued me, put me in a blanket, fed me, got me to a hospital," says Ron Bombiger, a tourist from Los Angeles.

Mr. Bombiger talked at length about the generosity of the Thais from his bed in Bangkok Phuket Hospital, where he is recovering from cuts and bruises. "They won't stop at anything to help you," he says.

Foreign diplomats also heap praise on the Thai government's response to the disaster. Faced with thousands of casualties, unprecedented economic destruction, and lacking the resources of many wealthier countries, Thailand has managed its relief efforts in a way that is "phenomenally impressive in a very short time," says Australian Ambassador William Patterson.

Though Thailand was forced to deal with outbreaks of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and bird flu in the past two years, both of which required rapid responses from the government, they have never before dealt with a disaster on this scale.

Touring one of the makeshift morgues Thailand is constructing to house thousands of bodies until they are identified by forensics teams, British Ambassador David Full said Thai authorities had gone "above and beyond" any reasonable expectations under the circumstances.

"They're being innovative, sensitive to cultural concerns. There's a system to it, and most important, they are being transparent," Ambassador Full says.

Unlike in the other countries hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, foreigners here make up slightly more than half of the more than 5,000 confirmed dead. There are about 6,000 more people believed missing.

Preferential treatment

In many cases, foreigners have been getting preferential treatment at hospitals, being given beds or operated on while Thais wait outside, Swedish Ambassador Jonas Hafström says.

"I'm amazed. I think without them we would be in a much worse situation than we are," the ambassador says.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says all patients, whatever their nationality, are being treated equally. The genuine hospitality was "maybe just the 'Thai way,' he said. "We feel a special compassion for the people we consider our guests and feel that whatever we can do, we will be glad to do."

For Swede Lena Fallgren, whose 16-year-old daughter is missing and presumed dead, the Thai way has made a real difference. "Wherever we go, they always smile and ask how we are," she says. "They look in our eyes. It makes the heart warm to feel that."

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