PHUKET, Thailand – The best way to describe Phuket (search) is to compare it to the Hawaiian island of Kauai — plush, tropical, hot, humid and at one point a key vacation destination for millions of Europeans. Now the bazaars are empty, the tourist traps and hotels vacant.
Those reminders are much more bearable than the thought of what you still find down by the ocean. What used to be beautiful beaches are now disaster zones. Everything from the beaches to two blocks inland has been gutted.
Recovery efforts here are all but done, but the cleanup is just beginning for shopkeepers, restaurant owners and hotel managers. Cars that once teetered into the second story of a building have been removed. Trees and chunks of concrete, metal and debris have been piled up.
The smell is going away. More bodies can still be found in a few locations around Patong Beach (search) because there are still scores buried. Some shops and first-floor hotels are still somewhat covered in sand and muck. But in a year, the only signs remaining from this horror will likely be seen during memorial services and in man-made reminders.
A couple of the beach tourist spots on the west coast of this island were hit hard, but because of the topography — and because this part of Thailand has great infrastructure compared to the rest of the region — it will rebuild quickly. Those who need help are getting it. In fact, 90 percent of this place remains pristine.
A few hours north, a starkly different picture emerges. On the mainland in Khao Lak (search), DNA experts help gather and identify bodies. Hundreds remain missing and the recovery process will be ongoing for some time.
This is the sad reality for relatives of missing tourists coming here hoping to take their loved ones home for burial. There are only a few DNA machines in this part of Asia, and the estimated time to find a match is one month.
Our crew (a photographer, producer, satellite operator and I) leave the hotel every morning at 1:30 a.m. and travel to the center of the island. The half-hour drive takes us to Phuket City (search), or Phuket Town, as the locals refer to it.
This city has become the launching pad for aid in this region. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke here during their tour of the tsunami's path across Asia. The Red Cross and other relief aid organizations have pitched tents in the same area that we are camped out.
We watch as truck after truck, military and private, delivers every type of non-perishable supply you can imagine. People from all walks of life — Christian, Jew, Muslim and Hindu — are here to help, in some cases forming human supply lines that toss bags full of rice into the truck beds.
There's a global presence too — people like Samara, a Thai and American dual citizen, who flew all the way from Michigan back here to her native land to do whatever she can to help with the recovery.