Published January 14, 2015
For thousands of young travelers, from Sydney to Stockholm, this was the perfect tropical island, a palm-swaying dreamscape rising gently out of an emerald sea.
Hollywood agreed, choosing a sister isle nearby to shoot scenes for "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio (search) as a backpacker who found the ultimate escape hatch, only to encounter trouble.
But tourists on Phi Phi (search) had their paradise turned upside down on Sunday, when tidal waves triggered by a mammoth Indonesian earthquake rained down.
"It was like a scene from the Apocalypse. There was litter everywhere — motorcycles, cars and dead bodies. I saw many dead babies on the beach. I am glad to be alive," said Pascale Panuel, a French woman living in Tokyo who came to Phi Phi with her husband and three children.
Like hundreds of survivors of the earthquake-induced tidal waves that raked the coastlines of Southeast and South Asia, the family retreated to the hills of Phi Phi to spend the night before being evacuated Monday.
As helicopters hovered overhead and vessels — large ferries and small speedboats — landed to take out injured, stunned tourists and local villagers, rescuers combed through shells of buildings and rubble of what were once bungalows, bars, Internet cafes and dive shops at the island's Ton Sai Bay.
Bodies could be seen trapped among the wrecked buildings on the bay and an even more devastated area across a narrow strip of land to the north. Offshore, the tips of sunken boats bobbed in the water.
Police Maj. Gen. Worathep Meetawat said that by mid-afternoon Monday, 1,300 people had been evacuated from Phi Phi, with many among them praising Thai efforts to get them to safety.
"Nobody was prepared. There was no warning. Lots of people were instantly dead," said Daniel Friberg, a 24-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, who had spent two months on the island as a bartender.
Moriel Avital, 24, of Eilat, Israel had lived here for four months and was enjoying what she said was one of the most beautiful dives of her life when the first wave came.
"There was no current. It was beautiful. I was filming an octopus down about eight meters (26 feet) and suddenly I was pulled up to two meters (6.5 feet) and visibility went down to zero in a second," she said.
Another diver, Ilir Sulejmani, 25, of Eslov, Sweden, said he had seen photographs of Phi Phi on the Internet and was not disappointed when he arrived three months ago to work as a disc jockey.
"We knew what it was. It was paradise," he said.
But not all agreed.
In recent years, despite the continuing influx, the word around the backpacking world was that Phi Phi had become spoiled with rampant development, much of it illegal given Phi Phi's status as a national park.
"This is a sign. It's telling people not to mess with nature. They were just building and building and building. It was too much. You could hardly walk around, and it was all gone in one wave," said Stephane Karawa, 27, of Lausanne, Switzerland. "Paradise should be paradise and not become this civilized."
Foreign governments worked feverishly on Monday to tally the number of their citizens believed dead or missing. Thousands of Europeans were vacationing in areas where the disaster struck, including Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives.
Rome said at least 11 Italians were killed; Norway said 10 citizens died. Four Britons were reported killed. The United States and Denmark said three of their citizens died. France, Sweden and Belgium reported two deaths each, and New Zealand reported one death.
Those numbers would likely rise. Sri Lanka said 72 foreign tourists were killed there. In Thailand, 35 of the dead were identified as foreigners.
As many as 20,000 Swedes may have been in area hit hard by the tidal waves, Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nina Ersman said. Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns traditionally flock to Thailand during their long, cold winters.
Foreign ministries across Europe set up hot lines for concerned relatives seeking information on family and friends in the region. Swiss Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Daniela Stoffel-Fatzer said a government hot line was overloaded by calls.
Also among the missing, injured or dead were nationals of South Korea, Japan, Germany, South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, and Chile, Thai media reported.
Frenchman Philippe Gilbert recounted gripping a tree and holding his breath when a giant wave hit his beachside bungalow in the southern Sri Lankan resort of Tangalle. He watched helplessly as his 4-year-old granddaughter disappeared in waves triggered by the 9.0-magnitude undersea quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
"I was completely carried by an absolutely monstrous wave that towered over the bungalow," Gilbert said in a telephone interview broadcast by French television station LCI. "I lost my granddaughter in it."