Later after the deputy prime minster has spoken, we file towards the bay. A six or seven-year old blond girl with a white sundress gently bows and places her palms into a triangular wai.
She lays a white orchid given to each surviving family member at the ceremony by the altar ledge fringed with flowers, photos, incense sticks and remembrances circling the banyan tree wrapped in rainbow colored sashes. Her mother stands behind with the jeweled bay stark in the background.
For the last week, I have been effectively retracing my steps from last year this time. My "holiday" effectively ended at around 10:15 a.m. near Loh Moo Dee Bay on Phi Phi Island this time last year.
I have walked all over the island. Except to that exact Loh Moo Dee beach even though it is around the corner from where I am staying.
"The return of smiles," a freelance Japanese writer and photographer on his tenth visit to Thailand tells me "isn't really news." A Reuters reporter tells me that it's bad news that's considered news fodder.
The smiles don't mean work here is done. I ask Frederick Jurriaanse of the organization Phi Phi Aid when he sees his work on Phi Phi complete. He shrugs, "I have no idea. There are people living on the mainland [in camps] that I want to help come back." As an ex-high school principal in the U.K, he is departing January 25th to speak to schools from primary to university levels to talk about recovery efforts throughout the UK.
At sunset yesterday I was bouyant watching Thais and farung light fiery thigh-high paper latterns. One by one they drift up into the air and trail into a stream of giant fireflies in the languid air. Floating up to heaven.
The ceremony isn't ceremonious. The symbolic release that the traditional latterns represent has the atmosphere of out-and-out, well, play.
The twenty-one monks from the forest sangha in northeast Thailand were a blessing yesterday. I listen to one speak:
"In Thai, the word understanding means coming from the heart. One of our teachers says to understand suffering means to stand under suffering. It's the journey from the head to the heart. After suffering and impermanence you start to look for the 'owner' of the suffering.
And you begin to travel with really light luggage. Instead of a dam, we become a river."
But today, I am much sadder than I anticipated. Traveling with a tinge of heavy gear.
Tsunami in Japanese literally means harbour wave. But the oral history of the sea gypsies of Thailand, the Moken, know it as laboon, or 'the wave that eats people.'
Most people are as reserved as they were the first few hours after the tsunami itself. When no one spoke more than necessary. Only a few people openly weep in front of the banyan tree.
I walk along the beach strip. Only one hundred meters wide. The trees on this stretch were obliterated. Everywhere new palm plantings are supported upright by wooden stakes.
Flanked by bays on both sides, this strip bore the brunt of the twin waves. A cotillian of longtail boats festooned with waving flags arrive from neighboring Koh Lanta island. In procession they wade through the shallow waters of the back bay bearing baby coconut palms. Gifts to plant today together with the people of Phi Phi.
Seeing them, I'm reminded of that recent day when schoolteacher Reena at neighbor island Koh Jum instructs her 7-year-old kids: "Tree", "Ton mai". "Tree", "Ton Mai," they repeat. They were beaming. And the little seedlings they'd planted in transparent dixie cups were too.
I pass by a booth today selling books and T-shirts. A child from the beach-front school has hand colored the stick figure flower crayon red on the front of the T-shirt.
I especially like that she didn't stay within the lines. On the back, she's stylistically drawn the narrow strip of beach book-ended by the two bays.
In her drawing, the sea is tranquil as usual.
It's a precise rendition of where we stand this morning in remembrance. It remains to me one of the most beautiful places in the world regardless of December 26th, 2004.
Underneath the bay-beach-bay drawing and in kindergarten block lettering reads:
"A New Start."
p.s. So I buy the shirt. It's to support the local school primarily and in the future, educational initiatives at the school for the parents to learn English and business skills such as producing the handpainted T-shirts themselves. See The Children of Phi Phi Island. The picture above is similar in style to one on my shirt.
p.p.s. It's World Remembrance Week, today through January 1st. For me, it's remembrance straight through to February 20th when I return back to the states.