Tsunami in Thailand

Published in UK Press Gazette, 5 January 2005 (also available here: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/everything-is-gone-everyone-is-dead/ ).

What we didn’t know at the time is that Suzanne, the mother of Hannes Bergstrom, the toddler re-united with his family through the Phuket Gazette website, was one of those killed in the tsunami:

“Too few coffins in Phuket”

tsunami Phuket Boxing-Day 26-December-2004

Originally published on GreatReporter.com: http://greatreporter.com/content/asia-disaster-too-few-coffins-phuket

(Warning: it is a little graphic in places)

Asia disaster: ‘Too few coffins in Phuket’

As we turned into Patong Hospital’s car park we found ourselves stuck behind four trucks laden with empty coffins – about 40 per truck.

Some were little more than grey crates, others had been painted white with gold patterns stenciled on the sides, pale imitations of the ornate caskets so common in South-East Asia.

There was just one parking space left and we took it. As we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, we were surrounded by the whining of electric saws and the rhythm of nails being hammered.

The walk to the hospital entrance took us past the source of the noise, and the reason why our part of the car park was full. It was given over entirely to making coffins.

Young men grabbed plywood sheets from foot-high stacks on the floor – the hospital has been appealing for donations of plywood – and sawed them into panels for other young men to nail together as fast as they could.

It took about two minutes to make one coffin, and it showed: no two were the same size, and as there was no time to sandpaper the panels, the hands of their makers were freckled with splinters.

As soon as a coffin was finished, it was taken to the mortuary, where a body, wrapped in plastic sheeting was placed inside.

Phuket has few places in its refrigerated mortuaries and the island’s hospitals have been appealing for donations of formalin preservative to stop bodies piled outside from decomposing beyond recognition.

If there was an identity card on the body when it was found, a photocopy of it was pasted on one short end of the coffin. If there wasn’t, there was a photograph of the person’s face. But bodies don’t keep well in 30C heat, and if the face was too distorted or discoloured to be recognised, there were also photographs of their clothes, or a tattoo or a piece of distinctive jewellery.

The photographs have been placed on a computer in the hospital reception, and anxious people, mainly Thais, were queuing to click through them, hoping yet hoping not to find a face they recognised.

The coffins were carried to the hospital’s underground car park, probably the coolest place on the premises.

Half-an-hour earlier, I had stood on a hillside and looked across the area most affected by the tsunami, where some of Patong’s thriving bars, restaurants, trinket shops and tailors had previously been. It resembled a building site rather than a killing field.

The weather here is such that buildings don’t need to be particularly substantial, and they don’t leave much mess when they’re wrecked, so it’s sometimes hard to comprehend the magnitude of what has been visited on this so-called ‘island paradise’.

Until you find yourself watching men make coffin after coffin and still not make enough.

How the 2004 tsunami affected Phi Phi Island

Interview with Andrew Hewett, who founded the Phi Phi Dive Camp to help clean up Koh Phi Phi Don after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Farang Untamed Travel (Thailand), December 2005:

Gold discovered at Lancashire beauty spot

It being April Fools’ Day and all, am I allowed to bask in past ‘glories’ (or more accurately, a past glory) by posting an April Fool I did when I was working for the Heywood Advertiser?

I got the idea from an interview I did years earlier, with a man from Bolton who had won a gold-panning competition in Scotland. (No, there is no gold in Scotland, not as far as I know, anyway; flakes of gold were deposited in a stream for the competitors to find.)

What made putting together the story so much fun was the enthusiastic cooperation of my partner-in-crime, the man in the picture, Peter Chadwick. Not only did he give me some great quotes for the story, he even took along his own frying pan for the picture!

(Note: to read the story, magnify the image by zooming in on the page – using CTRL++, for example.)

Man panning for gold in Ashworth Valley, near Heywood, Rochdale.

My April Fool for the Heywood Advertiser.


The Last Shan Prince’s Tractor

THERE probably aren’t many tractors that are tourist attractions, especially half-century old ones in a remote part of one of the planet’s least-visited countries.

Mr Donald sitting on his tractor at the entrance to his palace in Hsipaw.

Sao Oo Kya, “Mr Donald” with his Massey Ferguson tractor.

The bright red 1957 Model 35 Massey Ferguson takes pride of place outside the pre-War Home Counties-style building that was once the palace of the last Shan Sao Pha – prince – of Hsipaw, Burma, and the current custodian, the last prince’s nephew, “Mr Donald” Sone, is only too happy to share its extraordinary story with visitors.

The tractor was one of 11 bought new by Mr Donald’s uncle, Sao Kyi Seng, as he strove to modernise agricultural production in Hsipaw. But the modernisation ended abruptly in 1962, when he, Mr Donald’s father and the other 32 Shan princes were arrested during the coup that put Ne Win’s socialist government in power, and the fleet of tractors was “nationalised”.

Sao Kyi Seng was never seen again; the family learned later that he had “died” in custody – so when his Austrian-born wife, Inge, fled the country two years later, management of the estate fell to his nephew, Sao Oo Kya – Mr Donald.

Having found documents proving that the tractors had been bought with family money, and so were “personal possessions” which should not have been nationalised, Mr Donald set about trying to recover them.

Every year, he wrote at least twice to the authorities to ask for them back; every time, the reply – if it came at all – was that he had written to the wrong person, or he had written to the right person but they were unable to help.

Then, three decades later, in 1994, Mr Donald accompanied 106-year-old local monk Ya Jaw Bawdaw on a trip to Rangoon, to meet members of the ruling junta. The generals had invited the venerated man to the capital several times, but he accepted this time only on condition that Mr Donald joined him as his private secretary.

Burma is a deeply religious country, so the generals were grateful for the favourable publicity generated by the monk’s visit, and, as a result, then-Head of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt offered Mr Donald anything he wanted as a reward.

Without hesitation Mr Donald asked for the tractor he knew was rotting on a collective farm about 20 miles away; within four months, a lorry was depositing it outside the palace.

“It was a vehicular corpse,” remembered Mr Donald. The engine was clogged by decades of mud and grease, the pistons and piston rings were shattered, the tyres were perished, the bodywork rusted, and the broken crankshaft meant it couldn’t even be driven.

Mr Donald, a political science graduate, was no mechanic, and Burma’s three decades of global near-isolation meant parts were all but unavailable.

“People said I should buy a Chinese hand tractor; it would be cheaper and I could use it straightaway,” said Mr Donald, “But I told them, ‘This is my tractor and I will use it again.”

He devoted his spare time to dismantling the engine and cleaning every part, then trying to work out how to put it back together again. “It was all trial and error and it was very hard,” he said.

Eventually, Mr Donald found a man, semi-paralysed by a stroke, who knew a little about the tractors that had been used in the gypsum mine where he had worked. They hadn’t been Massey Fergusons, but they had been tractors. It was a start…

The rarity of parts meant it took two years to find a suitable crankshaft. Piston rings and bearings from other engines were reshaped and resized to fit the Massey Ferguson; the chimney was made by guesswork, and Mr Donald made gaskets from zinc sheets and cellophane Christmas paper.

By now, Hsipaw had been opened to foreigners, and the former palace had become a tourist attraction.

Word spread among the backpacking community of the Shan aristocrat and his tractor, and it wasn’t unknown for a visitor to take a spanner to the engine or produce from a backpack a catalogue from a parts supplier in England.

The fuel injection pump – from the Australian Outback – made it to Hsipaw that way, as did the Massey Ferguson tractor manual that enabled Mr Donald to work out, finally, why his tractor would not move.

Four years after recovering the Model 35, Mr Donald was finally able to start up the engine and chug round the estate’s 21-acre grounds, and when, now, he peels back the tarpaulin cover to show it to visitors, he does it with very visible pride.

A man and waterbuffalo working in padi fields near Hsipaw.

Rice padi fields near to Hsipaw, Burma.

He admits there were times when he came close to giving up, but he likes to think of his achievement as “an inspiration”. He said: “I wanted people to see that in this country there are people… who are making the old into the new…

“It was about far more than getting a tractor working again.”


This story dates from 2004, when I visited Mr Donald while I was travelling in Burma/Myanmar. It’s one of my most favourite stories ever. For a start, I have great affection for Massey Ferguson tractors like this – I could drive one before I was 10 years old. But I love the story, too, for what it represents: as Mr Donald said, his project “was about far more than getting a tractor working again”. I don’t know about Mr Donald, but I saw his story as a metaphor for the resilience of the people of Burma and their ingenuity, determination and pride in overcoming the obstacles put in their way by the junta; their absolute refusal to be crushed

Mr Donald was OK about me telling his story, and it was due to be published in 2005, but it was spiked after he was arrested for “acting against the state” or something, and “talking to tourists”. (When I returned to Hsipaw in Summer 2005, there was really sad little note on the gate to the Palace grounds, requesting tourists to keep well away.) Mr Donald was sentenced to 13 years in jail but he was released under an amnesty in 2009. Now, apparently, he lives outside Burma, and, of course, Burma itself seems to have changed quite a bit since then, so I guess it’s now safe to share his story.

(I’m publishing it on both my blogs, my professional alisonwinward.wordpress.com and my hobbyblog, 10,000 Miles & More, because it’s an example of me writing professionally, but I know there are people who follow my hobbyblog but not my professional one who may like to read it; PH, for a start.)

P-ride comes before a fall

Summer 2003:

“HE’S got 1700lb of angry black bull under him and he don’t like riders much…” As if he understood the words reverberating around the showground the angry black bull flexed his back, kicked up his rear legs and another dishevelled cowboy found himself face down in the Albertan dust.

The Calgary Stampede may be the most famous rodeo in Canada, but it isn’t the only one. Every weekend during the summer, any number of small towns in the Prairie provinces will be hosting their own rodeo for cowboys and wannabe cowboys to show off their skills.

This particular summer weekend we were in Olds, a small town a few miles off the highway linking Edmonton and Calgary.

The Stampede may be the more dazzling spectacle, but the Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo – “The Biggest Little Fair in the West” – let us get closer to the action. We may not have tried our hands (or backsides) at riding a bucking bronco, but we got within touching distance of those who did.

Having wandered around the showground we found seats in the spectator stands. With the food tents, trade displays and craft exhibitions, the fair reminded me of an agricultural show in Britain. However, instead of the Pony Club Fancy Dress, the rodeo offered us the 1700lb angry black bull and his equally disgruntled cousins, and chuck-wagon racing in place of show-jumping.

Steer roping, Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo, Olds

Steer roping, Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo, Olds

Even from a distance, and despite my own discomfort over stories about horses being goaded into bucking by burrs under their saddles, it was hard not to get excited as a cowboy – punching the air – tried to stay on his bronco as it bucked around the arena. Steer roping, in which mounted cowboys pursued calves, lassoed them and brought them down, then dismounted and restrained the calves by wrapping the rope around their feet, was less exciting, but still entertaining.

By the time the bull riding started we had made our way to the edge of the arena. The only protection we had from the huge animals thundering towards us, having just hurled their would-be riders to the ground, was an eight-foot tall fence of metal tubing and chain link.

We strolled around the perimeter of the rink; no one tried to stop us as we went behind the commentary box and into the area where the cowboys and their ‘mounts’ awaited their turns. The massive bulls, spotlessly clean – as if they had been thoroughly groomed for the occasion – paced around small enclosures, their ample muscles rippling beneath their hides. Nearby, the cowboys shifted around in a similar fashion. Some were wrapping surgical tape around their fingers; all wore body protection vests under their homespun-looking waistcoats. Having watched countless Westerns with my John Wayne-fan grandfather, I was surprised to see just how slight some of these cowboys were, and how few were taller than my own 5ft 8in.

Cowboys around the bull pen, Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo, Olds, Alberta

Cowboys around the bull pen, Mountain View County Fair and Rodeo, Olds, Alberta

The bulls were led from their enclosures and into individual pens – each just big enough for one bull – adjoining the ring. We stood on a platform that ran immediately along the back of the pens, and looked down on the cowboys as they climbed the fences around the pens and lowered themselves onto the backs of their ‘rides’. Each kept a firm hold on the top rail of the pen on each side of them, as this offered their best hope of staying put should the bull become too restless.

Back view of a cowboy on a steer, just being released from the pen

A cowboy’s view of the pen

We watched one cowboy settle himself on the back of a bull as it displayed its displeasure by kicking the back of the pen. The commentator enthused about the cowboy’s impressive successes at other rodeos and how he would be a tough act for the others to follow. The cowboy gave the signal, the gate of the pen was drawn back and he and the bull burst into the ring.

And in fewer than five seconds, the rider was sprawled on the floor and another cowboy, on a compliant horse, was guiding the bull from the arena.

Fresh out of the pen: a cowboy on his bucking steer

A cowboy on his steer…

A cowboy comes off his steer, within seconds of coming out of the pen

… and off his steer