Making Sense in the Wave of a Tsunami

Photo: TVC
Photo: TVC
Chongcharoen (Pok) Sornkaew / AS
10 November 2005

Volunteers Rebuild the Economy, Communities and Lives in Khaolak

Chongcharoen (Pok) Sornkaew is originally from Thailand and works as a volunteer with ICV. Earlier this year, she spent three months with the Tsunami Volunteer Center (TVC) in Khaolak, a destination severely affected and damaged by the Tsunami that hit the Thai coasts on 26 December 2004.

"Khaolak" is a community located at 80 kilometers from Pukhet (Thailand), which suffered the highest number of deaths and affected people caused by the tsunami tidal waves. In Thai, "Khaolak" means 'grand or principle mountain'. Before the terrible tragedy, this region was a fast growing tourist destination for European travelers who wanted to escape from the crowdedness of the world-famous Phuket. After the catastrophy, Khaolak saw flows of volunteers who came in full solidarity to take part in emergency operations with the Thai medical and welfare teams. Today, volunteers come and go to help with the medium-term reconstruction and re-development efforts.

Undeniably, the volunteers keep what is left of the local economy running by renting rooms, eating at restaurants, buying at local stores and purchasing other services. Their presence alone is a help to the locals, not to mention the labour they put into rebuilding activities, hand-in-hand with the local people.
Pok gives some recommendations for anyone who is planning to volunteer in a disaster area, such as Khaolak.

"You need to set aside time and resources to go volunteering. It is an unpaid job and one pays for oneself to be on the ground," she recommends. Based on the TVC's experience, one month (or more) is an ideal duration for volunteering because you have time to learn and can contribute meaningfully without interruption. If you have less time to spare, set your expectation low and tend to tasks that can be completed easily without too much orientation and training. It is a good idea to inform oneself as much as possible about the country, the culture, the people, the size of damage, the progress, the work done or the needs unmet before you get there. "There is not need to be scared that you would be left alone without help, you will land into a friendly community that makes each day of your stay worthwhile."

Pok insists on the fact that volunteers need to be aware that although volunteers are much appreciated, we are not heroes nor heroines. The local people are.

In the field, things change on a daily basis although the core principles are observed? help the affected people in meeting their identified needs. Things can appear to be disorganized, chaotic or irrational according to your standards. This is normal for an aftermath of the destruction beyond any imagination. It does not help to criticize when things go wrong but do the best you can to improve them. It is best to do your part of the job in a collaborative spirit with other volunteers, and of course, the local people.

Thais are polite and amazingly accommodating and generous even after an unthinkable loss. They hardly say no to innocent volunteers who ask them to do funny things. Still, beware that the people whom the volunteers are working with are survivors and it was their incredible strength and resilience that helped them through such situation.

Last but not least, volunteers are facilitators accompanying the greater efforts led by the local people. If you are non-Thai and non-local, be extra cautious about bringing in foreign concepts without adapting them to the local culture and practices, be they group work methods, children's games, plays, arts, classrooms, songs and alike. Be extra careful with orphaned children as they will cling on to any 'kind-hearted' volunteer and be disappointed when you leave them. Be kind but true to them, if you cannot come back, never promise you would.

We need to always ask ourselves "how did people build their communities before we came?" The tsunami did not take their skills and wisdom away but ignorant volunteers might.

One last lesson that I learned is that instead of being a giver (which I thought I was before my departure  to Khaolak) I was in fact a receiver. I received by ways of gaining insight of the local reality, widening my views of volunteerism in disaster-stricken areas, learning how affected locals overcome great difficulties, and profiting from the people's time and collaboration.

"This experience also makes me feel more humble and see the difference between what I thought I could do and what I could actually do. I came back to Geneva having a refreshed attitude about helping people in a helpless situation. By not learning and appreciating the strengths of the local people, I find one could be even more helpless than they are," concludes Chongcharoen.

ICVolunteers recruits volunteers (unpaid) for projects in South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Canada and Spain. This is an opportunity to broaden ones volunteer experience. If you are interested or if you would like to learn more about the Khaolak volunteer experience,  please contact our office in Geneva or send us an email to

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