Besides being known as the center for tourism, from beautiful islands to historical monuments, Thailand has still yet to escape the fear attached to its name. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami put stress on the region to prioritize security precautions in case of natural disasters. But was Koh Samui one of those Thai islands hit by the tsunami?
Koh Samui is known as Thailand’s second-largest island. Known for coconut groves, mountainous rainforests, palm-fringed trees, and luxury resorts, the landmark is considered Thailand’s safest spot. Ko Samui is located in the Gulf of Thailand off the east coast of Kra Isthmus, protecting it from tsunamis.
While there has been tremendous damage from previous natural disasters, the more dangerous parts of the country are more prepared. Yet, there is a low-level risk of further tsunamis impacting the region anytime soon. The 2004 tsunami, however, left no impact on Ko Samui, as other societies were destroyed and left in ruins.
History of Disasters in Thailand
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami occurred at 7:58 local time on 26 December, hitting the epicenter of the west coast- northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Occurring at a magnitude of 9.1-9.3, it took a staggering 230,000 lives in just a few hours (1). Under a total of 2 tidal waves, the tsunami waves hit Thailand at 19.60 meters, killing 8,212 people in the region (2).
It was the day after Christmas, an occasion when most Europeans and Americans make time to travel abroad and enjoy their vacation on a tropical island. However, none were aware that Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia would be hit by a deadly underwater earthquake (1).
The tsunami first hit the city of Banda Aceh in Indonesia. An impossible sight to imagine a 100-foot mountain of water engulfing a city of 320,000 people. Only sometime later, buildings were folded like houses of cards, and trees and cars were swept up. It was only a little while after that the fold reached Thailand, hitting the coastal provinces of Phang Nga and Phuket (1). Despite the time difference, locals and tourists were busy with activities such as swimming and walking down by the beach when the waves struck.
The last victims of the disaster were found in South Africa, swimmers who moved 5,000 miles from the quake’s epicenter. The 900-mile earthquake stretched along the Indian and Australian plated 31 miles below the ocean floor, releasing as much power as atomic bombs (1).
Thailand’s tourism industry fought back just months after the tsunami. Hitting resorts, beaches, and killing locals and foreign guests had a huge personal effect on people, such as Naorng Chairdum; his family lost their income from two tourist shops in Naiyang. Other entrepreneurs like Mr. Chaidum went out of business. Additionally, 100,000 people in the tourism sector lost their jobs, and employers were on unpaid leave (3).
In the long run, ILO worked with Thailand’s Ministry of labor to apply for enterprise within the smaller businesses. This helped create a meeting that allowed workers to express views and combat problems from the tsunami. After full reconstruction took place, Phuket would once again be known as the tourist attraction it is today.
Koh Samui Was and Is Perfectly Safe
Although the Indonesia earthquake hit the region under extreme measures, thousands of tourists visiting Koh Samui were unharmed. Home to resorts, hotels, waters, moon parties, and underwater life, the island was too far off the side of Thailand to face the consequences of the tsunami (4).
According to a report at the NationalTurk, the Indesonia quake hit the region of the far east and paradise islands, not devastating but hitting one island on the Indian Ocean (4). On the other hand, Koh Samui is known as the safest region of Thailand; it can not be affected by the shocks of earthquakes and tsunamis due to being settled on the Gulf of Thailand; protected from harm that may one day come across the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The positions of the main earth fault line lie between the Bay of Bengal and the west coast of Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand- Koh Samui, located on the opposite side, is the safest place to be in the time of an earthquake-induced tsunami (5).
In light of crystalline waters, rich animal life, plants, and full moon party scenes, Koh Samui is mostly popular for the sole reason of being safe (4). Many tourists have been afraid to travel to Thailand since the 2004 events, which leaves room for some locations that promise security and protection. In addition to its tropical features, Koh Samu is noticeable for its traditional feel; there are no buildings that exceed the height of a coconut tree (6). All this together makes Koh Samui a first-class holiday location.
Tsunami Risk on Koh Samui is Statistically Very Low
While Koh Samui was not affected by the deadly aftermath of the tsunami, the chances of repeating that horrifying disaster are remote; the risk of tsunamis in the Gulf of Thailand is even smaller than to nearly impossible. Nonetheless, Thailand has awakened from this disaster. Experts, authorities, the business sector, and citizens in tsunami risk locations demand strict disaster response and evacuation plans (7).
Regardless of a tidal wave being unlikely to hit the coast soon, Paiboon Nuannin, a geophysics lecturer at Songkla University, noted that earthquake disasters are beyond human prediction; public preparedness will save lives in an unforeseen emergency situation (7).
Concerns over the tsunami re-emerged recently on social media. After a deadly tsunami that recently hit the Indonesian city of Palu, Thai people became fearful of having a similar news headline as the 1200 people killed (7). There is a caution that Thailand’s two coastlines- the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand are not entirely safe from tsunami disasters. Paiboon discusses the long subduction zone beneath the Andaman Sea, which could have enough capacity to regenerate an earthquake, triggering a tsunami in the Andaman coast once again (7).
However, interviews with elderly from the Andaman provinces suggest that no one could remember a tsunami disaster hitting the Andaman coast in their lifetime, even before the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. Ultimately this means that the period of a tsunami in the Andaman sea is over 100 years old or simply rare.
How Koh Samui and its Neighbors Can Continue to be Safe
Even thirteen years later, Phang Nga in southern Thailand, famous for its exquisite beaches and islands, remained fearful of the tragic events. Near the popular destination Phuket, it was hard to imagine that both places were once submerged with debris and floodwater. Families still face loss and suffering (8). Although islands across the Gulf Coast like Koh Samui were not affected, islands like Phuket were in ruins.
Schools were destroyed, resulting in their re-construction and implementation of evacuation drills. Yet, educational systems are still working to provide emergency procedures and evacuation plans (8). The United Nations Development Programme implemented a regional project around 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region-under funding by the Government of Japan. This would focus on the five tsunami-prone schools within the province (8).
Thailand also worked closely with the Department of Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation, the Ministry of Education, the Thai Red Cross Society, and the Phang Nga Primary Education Area Office to analyze hazards and tailor preparedness plans.
Secondly, students with physical disabilities were put in an equal squall; under the principle of Leave No-One Behind, disability experts trained the Thai people on disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction. This would help disabled students be a part of evacuation plans.
Training also brought community representatives, politicians, and teachers together; surprise drills have been conducted where students follow innovative methods to ensure a calm evacuation and bring younger students down with them. Additionally, Thailand implemented scenarios to test school authorities and teachers in unforeseen instances, such as ensuring teachers realized when their students were missing (8).
Koh Samui was amongst the islands that faced no harm from the tsunami. It is nearly impossible to see a future tsunami hitting the Gulf Coast with its safe location and infrastructure. However, the fear amongst Thai people is still prominent even after seventeen years. With further precautionary measures, practice drills, and system evacuations, we can only hope that other islands within Thailand can withstand the damage of tsunamis.
1. Roos, Dave. The 2004 Tsunami Wiped Away Towns With ‘Mind-Boggling’ Destruction. HISTORY. [Online] September 18, 2020. www.history.com/news/deadliest-tsunami-2004-indian-ocean/.
2. WorldData. Tsunamis in Thailand. WorldData. [Online] [Cited: November 1, 2021.] https://www.worlddata.info/asia/thailand/tsunamis.php/.
3. Organization, International Labor. After The Tsunami In Thailand, The Tourist Industry Fights Back. International Labor Organization. [Online] April 11, 2005. https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/mission-and-objectives/features/WCMS_075558/lang–en/index.htm/.
4. Murat. Koh Samui Is The Only Island Tsunami Cannot Reach In Thailand. Tourism Travel Vacation. [Online] May 20, 2020. http://www.turizmtatilseyahat.com/en/koh-samui-is-the-only-island-tsunami-cannot-reach-in-thailand-4619/.
5. Brewis, Alan. Has Koh Samui Ever Had A Tsunami? Samui.TV. [Online] October 13, 2021. https://www.samui.tv/has-koh-samui-ever-had-a-tsunami/?v=5b79c40fa7c2/.
6. Samui. Koh Samui Island The only Island Without Tsunami Hazard. Holiday In Samui. [Online] July 15, 2020. https://www.holidayinsamui.com/en/koh-samui-island-the-only-island-without-tsunami-hazard/.
7. Thaiger. Tsunami Risk Is Statistically Very Low. Thaiger. [Online] October 5, 2018. https://thethaiger.com/news/national/tsunami-risk-is-statistically-very-low/.
8. Chaivichian, Aticha. 13 Years Later: Is Thailand Better Prepared For Tsunamis? UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. [Online] August 22, 2018. https://medium.com/undp-in-asia-and-the-pacific/13-years-later-is-thailand-better-prepared-for-tsunamis-ff1cc45dffdf/.