Published January 13, 2015
Greg Ferrando glistened with sweat and sea water as he went for a barefoot jog up the immaculate white sand beach, where the tsunami has wiped away almost all signs of humanity.
"This whole area was littered with commercialism," said the 43-year-old from Maui, Hawaii. "There were hundreds of beach chairs out here. I prefer the sand."
Ferrando is like many who believe the tsunami that devastated this tourist hotspot and killed thousands had one positive side: By washing away rampant development, it returned the beaches to nature.
"Everyone is talking about it. It looks much better now," he said. "This looks a lot more like Hawaii now, where vendors aren't allowed on the beach."
The beauty of Thai beaches is the stuff of folklore: pristine, clean and untouched. That was 10 or 20 years ago. More recently, they have been swamped by development.
Phanomphon Thammachartniyom, president of the Phuket Professional Guide Association (search), said when tourists return to Thailand for their second or third visits, he has to recommend new beaches.
"They will complain, 'Why has this place changed so much? I don't like it anymore. I want it to be like it once was,"' Phanomphon said.
Phanomphon fears politicians and organized crime will steer development in the wrong direction and hopes care will be taken when the area is rebuilt. "Nature has returned nature to us. I want it to be this way forever," he said.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) said the tsunami swept away unplanned and possible illegal building, creating an opportunity to regulate growth.
"I have sent a team to collect information on damaged buildings, including hotels, resources and guest houses," he said. "We need the quick restoration of the tourist facilities there, but we also have to establish restrictions for building."
Some on Phi Phi Island (search) agree.
"They were just building and building and building. It was too much. You couldn't even walk around," said Moriel Avital, a 24-year-old Israeli who lived on the island for four months.
"It was all gone in one wave — it's telling people not to mess with nature," she said. "Paradise should be paradise and should not become this civilized."
Surin Kaewjan, a 44-year-old fruit vendor on Patong Beach, is suffering financially because of the tsunami. But before the huge waves came, the beach was littered and the sand was black and dirty, she said.
"Honestly, I love this nature," she said. "Twenty years ago, it was like this, and full of trees. I haven't seen the beach this white in ages."