Grief Tourism

The tsunami that struck on December 26, 2004 was the worst natural disaster of our lifetimes. In taking stock of the cataclysm from this vantage point in time, the magnitude is clearer, but the big picture remains hazy.

How could any story do justice to a disaster that claimed some 250,000 lives?

In the Bizarre Thailand profile of Dr. Porntip, the forensic investigator, she talks about the rigours and horrors of identifying more than 5,000 corpses in tropical heat that soon made it difficult to tell whether they were Asian or Caucasian, male or female.

Much has been made in the press lately about some Indonesian travel agencies promoting trips to the recently erupted Mount Erapi. After the volcano blew its top, some 350 villagers died and 400,000 people were left homeless. The tours lead up to a village buried under volcanic vomit.

Some think that so-called “grief tourism” is morbid, that it’s tasteless, that it speaks to the hyena side of human nature. I don’t think that’s true. Most of the visitors coming to see the devastation in Haiti, or the tsunami museum in Aceh (the Indonesian province near-obliterated by the tsunami), and the various memorials in Thailand, like the police boat swept a kilometre inland, are respectful. They are mourners not voyeurs. They’re making a brave effort to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Part of this feature, “Six Years After the Tsunami” (updated from last year) is an overview of the disaster, containing some of the positive things to emerge from it, and a look at the “grief tourism” attractions in the area of Khao Lak.

For those who lived through it, and for those of us who showed up shortly after to write and shoot stories about the aftermath, the tsunami is still the stuff of daylight nightmares and deathbed hauntings.

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