At Christmas Time in 2004, Local freelance contributor Steve Ahern, his wife Oxana and stepson Dmitriy celebrated the holiday by touring Bangkok, Thailand, and then spending Christmas Day on Putong Beach on Phuket Island, completely unaware that a tsunami of biblical proportions was approaching the Indian Ocean coastline that would kill more than 280,000 people.

Idyllic tropical beach Christmas turns to nightmare

by Steve Ahern

Three weeks before Christmas in 2004, I accompanied a family member to a psychic reading. The reading took place in a dank basement where we descended rickety, rotting-wood steps to reach. The feeble lighting came from light bulbs that, as I recall, hung from plastic cords that were stapled to the ceiling. We sat waiting beside a bench adjacent to a furnace (or was it a washing machine?), where three people, waiting for readings, quietly lauded the psychic’s powers.

Her attested-to extrasensory powers were guided by a deck of well-worn, marker-strewn playing cards she handled like a croupier. Staring into them, she told me I would take a trip abroad around Christmas time to meet my wife and stepson, all of which was true. She advised me not to go.

“I don’t feel good about this trip,” she intoned. “If you have to go, stay away from the water.”

I ascended the rotting wood stairs, regretting that I had agreed to come along. What kind of advice was that? Was her prophecy a precursor of things to come or simply envy?

I soon forgot about what she foretold that day, and a few days before Christmas I flew half a globe away to Bangkok, Thailand. For the next several days, my wife Oxana (she was raised in Kazakhstan), stepson Dmitriy and I toured the city — its wats (temples), Sukumvit road (the Times Square of Bangkok) via water taxi and Tuk-tuks (a three-wheeled motorcycle), the lavish grand place with its brilliant muddle of architectural styles, its roofs and spires glowing gold and reaching into the Bangkok day and illuminating its night.

We were whisked down the bucolic canals of the Chao Phraya river, nestled away from the Bangkok bustle, on a curved, motorized boat, purchasing drinks and snacks during the ride from the mobile kitchens that floated past. We explored the Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, and finished our romp through the great city of Bangkok with a night dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya.

The second and (alas) last leg of our Thailand trip was Putong Beach on Phuket Island, where we would spend Christmas and return home the following day. The sun was simmering in Phuket when we arrived, and we prepared for a day at the beach. We unpacked at the hotel, a medium-sized structure about a block from the beach, where reminders of the Christmas season included a lit tree, an underfed Santa Claus and Christmas music that droned on mercilessly throughout our stay. The Indian Ocean was warm as tea and placid as a lake, its waves lapping the shore line as though weary from their journey. It was hovering around 90 degrees when we stepped out to have a walk along the boardwalk and something to eat.

The next day, we kayaked through the Phang Nga Bay caves and cherished the beauty of the surrounding limestone cliffs and its islets, among them James Bond Island, which stood majestically in the bay.

We awoke late on Christmas day, choosing to lounge pool-side, hiding in the shade of the palm trees, reading and drinking cocktails. Later that afternoon, I took a walk on the boardwalk, and after browsing the touristy kitsch they were peddling in some of the stores, I stopped in at a barbershop for a haircut. My barber was drinking a Heineken with a straw and watching the street.

He waved me into his shop and proceeded to shave my head. His expression was sour and distrusting. Halfway through a shave lasting fewer than five minutes, he gauged my interest in a night of girls on the island, as a faint smile lit up his otherwise perennial scowl. I chuckled and weathered the uncomfortable silence until he placed down the razor and asked me to pay him. I left him as I found him, watching the street for someone else to shop what might have been his stable of girls.

At Christmas dinner, we chatted with some of the tourists, mostly families fresh in from New Zealand and Europe, relieved to be settled in at last. Several had families with young children, who raced happily around the dining room while their fatigued parents looked listlessly on. After dinner my wife and I exchanged Christmas gifts at the table and took the floor to dance to the beat of ‘80s and ‘90s western pop music. A pang of powerful sensations — love and pain at her inevitable departure — throbbed through me as we danced a little more. A wonderful time was nearing its end.

On a clear, early morning, warm and beautiful like all the others, we packed and waited in the lobby for the bus that would take us to the airport. I took one of our last minutes to savor our surroundings, especially the Indian Ocean, silent and peaceful as it was in each of our days in Phuket. I wished I could remain another week, a month, forever, sending post cards to friends and family with messages that begin “Greetings from Paradise.” But responsibility (and common sense) won me over. I retreated to the bus to begin what would be six lonely months without my family.

Steve Ahern was incredibly fortunate to get out of Thailand on Christmas of 2004, just before a tsunami struck all over the Indian Ocean coastline and killed about 283,000 people.

At the airport I watched my wife and stepson recede and then disappear into the gate and out of my life for the next six months. (They would relocate permanently to the U.S. in July of the following year). But, there was no time to lament my temporary loss or grouse about a two-hour wait to board my plane. Instead, I watched the television sets, where footage filmed only minutes before showed a stories-high black wave of water smash to bits the beach-front stores and hotels and toss cars around as if they were toys.

It was the same beach I had walked on fewer than two hours before, the sand from which was still lodged between my toes. My paradise, as I called it, had become a nightmare within seconds, one my family and I had eluded. I felt gratitude so profound it brought tears to my eyes. But, what had become of those tourists and their families we spoke to Christmas evening? Did they feel any foreboding of mortality when they arrived that day or, worse, the tremors of the earthquakes and wall of water that followed?

Those thoughts and the footage recalled the rickety and rotted wood stairs, where weeks before a psychic sitting in a dimly lit, dank basement intimated the dangers I could face if I took this trip. As I walked to the gate where my plane waited, I could not help entertaining the possibility that some people may indeed possess the power to know, if only vaguely, what the next day might bring.

Ed. note: According to Wikipedia, the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami was caused by an earthquake that had the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs. It caused considerable damage to the Indian Ocean coastline of 11 countries as well as the deaths of approximately 283,000 people.