Tourists sacrifice holidays to help with cleanup

By Marcus Brogden

KOH PHI PHI, Thailand - New Zealander John William Farrington Morgan is just one of the many tourists who have sacrificed part of their holiday to help clean up the Thai divers' paradise Koh Phi Phi.

Volunteers are rebuilding and repairing the island where more than 1000 people died after the tsunami roared in on Boxing Day 2004, when holiday revellers were sleeping off Christmas hangovers.

With its sheer limestone cliffs, jagged waterfronts and tucked-away beaches in stunning lagoons, the island has long been a haven for backpackers and divers.

The local economy of Koh Phi Phi, which gained fame when it was featured in the Leonardo Di Caprio movie The Beach, was devastated.

One year on, only about 60 per cent of its buildings remain. All around, tourists, many with backs burned from the searing sun, are carting rocks, levelling ground and helping to restore the one-time tourist paradise to its pre-tsunami glory.

It's a jovial working environment -- an English guy bursts into the song Chain Gang as he buries his shovel into the scorched earth.

New Zealanders Marc Smith and Jesse Lewis Evans are also here, hard at work cleaning up plastic seating for the Thai high society due to fly in by helicopter for various tsunami commemorative services.

Mr Morgan, 22, from Auckland, said he was on holiday in Phuket, around 50km away, when he heard about the volunteer work.

"I came across and when I saw that a lot of things needed doing I thought I'd lend a hand," he said.

"I've been doing it for a day-and-a-half now, and plan to do it for three or four more but like it so much I think I'll stay on for another week."

The relief effort -- called Hi Phi Phi -- was set up in February by three Westerners to help the 700 homeless people in Thailand s Krabi province, in which Koh Phi Phi lies.

About 3000 volunteers have enlisted so far, American Dion Wallace said.

Mr Wallace, who worked as a sales manager in Minnesota, came over for three weeks to help out, and ended up staying for six months.

"It slowly gained momentum with more and more travellers coming in and instead of helping out for a couple of hours, people started to help for a couple of days, a week and then sometimes a month," he said.

Initially a lot of the jobs were shovelling rubble, which advanced to cleaning local businesses free of the sand and debris that collected when the wave hit.

"The overall goal was to get this island running, back on its feet, but once donations started coming in from disaster tourists -- on the island to take pictures of the destruction -- we were able to rewire shops and bought storeowners start-up stock to help them get back on their feet," Mr Wallace said.

"It's pretty amazing... once you get here and start clearing debris and see that you can paint this place, and that for just about $700 you can buy a local woman a new stove, and a refrigerator and she has a little bit of her life back," he said.

"And then she has a little bit of hope."

- NZPA

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