A huge earthquake struck Aceh in Indonesia as I recovered from the heat in bed after a long fishing and snorkelling trip in Chuang Tha’s Bay of Bengal in the south west of Myanmar.
The bed moved for a good 15 seconds. It was a familiar feeling, though less turbulent than the quake I experienced in ’99 in Turkey. Nico sat reading on a bench outside. I watched him through the window, wondering whether he’d noticed that we were moving. He interrupted his reading for a few glances onward. He knew. But said nothing.
Likewise, I concluded Myanmar didn’t have earthquakes and dismissed it… It must be the neighbours, I thought.
45 minutes later, we were evacuated. Each resident of Chuang Tha was asked to go to the monastery. Our hotel workers were wearing life safety vests. The one foreign TV channel our hotel had was CNBC, which was relaying over and over the details about the 8.2 Richter scale earthquake that hit Aceh moments before that very 12th of April 2012.
I remembered the hype and panic surrounding the earthquake in Turkey… and remembered how blasé my mum was about the matter. When our kapougi (Turkish word for concierge) asked us to evacuate, my mum refused. I remember looking at hundreds of people sleeping outside from my 8th floor flat, pondering over why they were outside whilst we remained in.
In Chuang Tha, I became my mum. I didn’t understand the hype. When we were told to leave the hotel ‘because a tsunami was scheduled for 7pm’, I almost felt like laughing. We were in western Myanmar for Christ’s sake. How would a tsunami starting in Indonesia cause mass destruction all the way in little known Chuang Tha?
The rational voice inside my head decided to go with the flow, albeit lightheartedly and whilst taking slight measures – just in case. Nico and I packed an ‘essential bag’ (a very weird sensation that was: sifting through the little belongings we had in our travelling rucksacks to further prioritize those bare necessities). Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Make-up bag. ‘Lina, why are you bringing your make-up bag?!’ Nico interjects. I don’t know. Okay. Netbook. Passport. Travel insurance. I got better at the packing as the minutes passed.
With smiles, we evacuated the hotel with a few friends we made out there: 2 French twins, a German and a Belgian. We stopped to quickly purchase a few bottles of Myanmar beer, and off we went, trekking towards the elevated monastery.
Apart from drinking and playing cards, we witnessed pretty much all the villagers of Chuang Tha evacuate their village huts with all of their personal possessions. In the span of an hour, the busy beach front and the main road was empty. Chuang Tha became a ghost town.
I felt awfully sad for a while…wondering how each family must have felt after having been told an exagerated, ‘Chinese whispers’ version of the tsunami story without having access to the source of the information: a television. Very few locals had their own TVs, radios or telephones. I almost felt guilty for enjoying the almost festive atmosphere the tsunami brought out.
After waiting for a couple of hours on a hill close to the monastery, at about half past 19, we all decided to return ‘home’. Our hotel was still closed, bar two or three employees who laid on tables in the dark watching CNBC with their life vests on – simply waiting. Waiting for the tsunami.
When they saw us, they quickly got up, turned on the lights, removed their life vests, and came to our table to take our order. Within minutes, it was business as usual. Indeed, we had an unexpected encounter with a tsunami in the Bay of Bengal.