© 2017 by Stuart Hopkins
Cover design © 2017 by Stuart Hopkins
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Saturday 25th December 2004, 19:00 hrs: 15 hours until disaster.
I settled down at my beloved grand piano in the lobby bar of the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa, and played mostly Christmas carols.
Every seat was taken with guests enjoying pre-dinner drinks. Families were laughing and joking; children were wearing their new clothes, and were playing with the gadgets that Santa had delivered to them just a few hours previously.
Throughout the evening, the odd drink would appear on the piano, sent by guests enjoying my music. Those with whom I’d already socialised would know to send me a Glenmorangie or a Long Island Iced Tea.
I closed my piano, put the cover on and headed home, after once again having wished each guest merry Christmas, and having had a quick chat with the bar staff, with whom I’d arranged to have a beer with on Nai Yang Beach after their shift had ended.
23:00 hrs: 11 hours until disaster.
The Nai Yang Beach – a mere five minute drive from my home – of 2004 was largely unspoiled. It was featured in the second installment of Bridget Jones’s Diary, the scene where she took the magic mushrooms.
With white powdery sand, just one hotel and a row of around 20 bamboo shack bars along the beach front, it was the idyllic place to enjoy a few cold beers under the starry sky, with the only noise being the waves gently breaking onto the beach.
Of all the little bars from which to choose, my regular was Mama Mia’s, and that is where we would all meet in the fresh hours of Boxing Day morning.
Mama Mia, as she was affectionately known, was an elderly Thai lady with a personality as warm and bright as the sun itself.
During the filming of the Bridget Jones movie, the cast and crew – including Hugh Grant, Rene Zellweger and Colin Firth – all used to have drinks and food at Mama Mia’s. Hanging on the wall behind the bar was a giant version of the official movie poster which had been signed by all cast and crew, thanking Mama Mia for her hospitality. This poster was among her most prized possessions.
Just after midnight, my friends and colleagues from the Marriott had finished their shift and had started to arrive, as well as some other friends that I had made in the local area.
Sunday 26th December 2004, 00:30: 9.5 hours until disaster.
With too many of us to fit into the small seating area around the bar, we decided to form a circle on the beach. We lit a small fire upon which we cooked some basic BBQ snacks. We would sit there chatting and imbibing until around 04:00.
04:00: 6 hours until disaster.
Most of us were very drunk. A lot of the group – including me – had the day off with it being a Sunday. Even those in our group who were due to work didn’t have to clock in until 17:00, and were therefore in no hurry to rush off.
We tossed around a few ideas and agreed that with this in mind, we would sleep on the beach until sunrise, have a swim to wake us up, and then take breakfast right where we were.
One of those present in the group was Lek, the executive assistant to my boss, Theera Kanjana, director of food and beverage at the Marriott. She’d brought a friend called Jun along – not a hotel employee – and had introduced the two of us.
I do not recall why or how, but we had all decided at some point not to sleep on the beach, and I’d somehow ended up at home.
Had we gone ahead with our original plan, my life, along with that of everyone else in the group would probably have ended that morning. Had we gone ahead, I would not be writing this now; you would not be reading this now.
Jun, as it turned out had asked me if she could stay over at my house as she lived far away. Not wishing to offend her, I had agreed. Ever the gentlemen, I was determined to keep the British end up.
Due to what was obviously Singha Beer Syndrome, I had no recollection of leaving the beach when I woke up at 10:30 that morning. Without knowing it, we were 30 minutes past disaster: it had already happened.
Planning to go home, Jun had woken up early. She’d cooked herself some breakfast and turned on the TV while I’d continued snoring. It goes without saying that every channel was dominated by the unfolding news.
At this time, not much was known and the news stations were still concentrating on the main earthquake which had struck off the western coast of Sumatra earlier in the morning.
Jun spoke very little English. She shook me awake and I smiled – happy to see that Santa had been kind to me that Christmas – and, referring to the earthquake, she said, ‘This morning, the ground move.’
I was still drunk, a hangover was setting in and I’d had little sleep. Having only been awake for a few seconds I had yet to engage my brain.
Here I am, a beautiful Thai girl looking over me to wake me up and telling me that the earth moved for her. It doesn’t get better than this. You’ve still got it, Hopkins!
Acting like a complete prat, moron, wanker, arsehole – choose your own adjective – I looked at Jun, smiled, thanked her for the compliment, and told her that she was welcome to visit any time.
I’d already learned to speak Thai to a reasonable conversational level, but I’d never looked up the Thai word for dumbass. Whatever the word is, it’s likely to have been what she was thinking of me as she left.
I crawled out of bed and took a long shower to wake myself up, still oblivious to the tragedies that were happening in so many countries; totally oblivious to what I would be seeing and experiencing over the coming weeks.
I sat outside in my garden to get some sun and to have a smoke. It was eerily quiet. No neighbours around; no cars in our cul-de-sac, no kids playing outside. I thought it was a little odd, but not enough to cause me any concern.
After I’d had my cigarette and felt vaguely human again, I jumped into my car and headed back to Mama Mia’s with the intention of getting my usual Sunday treat, which came in the form of a British fried breakfast.
Halfway there – literally three minutes driving – it became apparent that something was very wrong. The police had blocked and closed off the road leading to the beach.
I wound down my window and asked what was happening but did not understand the reply. I asked in my broken Thai if I could park my car and walk to the beach, thinking that there had been an accident, not an unusual occurrence on Thailand’s roads. The police allowed me to pass on foot.
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In 2004/05 I was the resident pianist at the JW Marriott Resort and Spa, Phuket, Thailand. In my short book, I take you from a few hours before the waves struck, and through the days, weeks and months following. I saw things which I will never forget. In writing this, it has not only been my intention to tell my story, but to describe the greatness of many people such as members of the relief and rescue organisations from all over the world who came to help. You will find my account to be candid, heartbreaking and humourous. THis book is dedicated to all who lost thier lives, and also to those who came to help.