Former Malibu resident asks community to help Thai victims

One of the dive shops in Khao Lak where Michelle Miller's friends worked is now gone, along with most everything else.

Michelle Miller has lived in Khao Lak, one of the hardest hit areas of Thailand, for two years. A friend text-messaged her, “Khao Lak is gone as you know it my friend; many have passed.”

By Bridget Graham-Gungoren/Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu High School graduate Michelle Miller has spent the better part of the last two years living in Khao Lak, one of the hardest hit areas in Thailand after the devastating tsunami swept ashore the day after Christmas, and she is now asking the Malibu community to help those affected by the disaster. According to Reuters news, Khao Lak beach, just north of Phuket, was hit with waves up to 34 feet high, traveling up to 8 meters per second.

Media reports, as of Monday, indicated that the death toll in Khao Lak had reached 4,004 confirmed dead-2,209 foreigners and 1,795 Thais. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the death toll might reach as high as 7,000 to 8,000 as the search continues in the area. An estimated 150,000 people have died from the tsunami that occurred after a magnitude 9 earthquake heaved and shifted the earth’s crust beneath the ocean off the coast of Sumatra.

Miller, who was in Sweden when the tsunami hit, still has friends and ties to the people who endured the devastation just one day after Christmas. Many of her friends were in Khao Lak, the place she called home for two years. Miller contacted The Malibu Times last week by e-mail in an effort to reach out to her other home, Malibu, to ask for help. “Growing up in Malibu, I did so much with school fundraisers, the people of Malibu always supported me. People are so generous and caring,” Miller said.

Miller acknowledged, “I know the tsunami hit other parts of the world, and everyone needs help, but Khao Lak is such a concern for me.” Miller added, “Our main goal is to ask people to donate what they can. We all can’t get on a plane, but we all have $5, $10, or whatever we have in our pockets to help, and that all adds up.”

Miller graduated from Malibu High School in 1998, and pursued university studies and eventually found herself in Thailand working for a diving company as an instructor. She fell in love with Khao Lak, “a little diver’s paradise.” She spent two years of diving seasons, October through May, in Khao Lak with her boyfriend Mattias Folkesson, who is from Sweden. They spent one anniversary at the Magic Lagoon hotel, one of the more luxurious resorts in the town. But the hotel, like most everything else, has been destroyed.

Miller described Khao Lak as a “really small, tight-knit community.” She said everyone knows everyone; you can walk from one side of town to the other in five minutes. “It is just like any beach in Malibu,” Miller said. “It is a little tucked away place, which is why it is so great.” She said that it isn’t “touristy” with big hotels, just a little town along the beach. “You breathe fresh air, there are little Thai restaurants and bungalows, and it is just really cute.”

The cute little town is no more.

A text message that Miller and Folkesson received from their friend Brian Fernandez of Canada, manager of Phuket Divers where the couple worked two years ago, read, “Khao Lak is gone as you know it my friend; many have passed.”

Another friend, Ria Jung, from Denmark, owned a restaurant on the beach with her husband, Joe, who is Thai; they have a 2-year-old daughter. Jung sent the message, “We’re all OK, thank God, but the town smells of death. At least we have each other.” The Jung’s restaurant is completely gone.

After deciding to spend Christmas in Sweden with Folkesson’s family, Miller and Folkesson passed on a third season this year. However, many of their friends returned to Khao Lak this season. Miller said she spent the first couple of days confirming her friends were alive and OK. “Communication is so terrible, the phone lines are down. We are thankful for any good news we get. We are deeply saddened by the pain our friends are going through, the lives of the friends that have been lost, and the destruction of our beautiful little beach town. We have been frantically trying to reach missing friends and coworkers.”

The communication Miller and Folkesson do receive are via text-messages. Miller said they have received some “heart-wrenching” messages.

Gonzalo Villalon, another friend originally from Alaska, worked as a videographer for Khao Lak Scuba Adventures where Miller and Folkesson worked. Villalon could only text-message that he had found his best friend’s body on the beach. Miller and Folkesson don’t have any other details, but assume he must have been swept away with the huge waves. David Butcher, a friend and instructor from England, managed to escape to Bangkok and sent them an e-mail that said he was grateful that his friends (Miller and Folkesson) were not there: “I’m glad you weren’t here because no one should experience this. It changes your perspective, and I want my old perspective back.”

And their friend Tolga Kaba from Turkey, divemaster and salesperson, overslept because he had too much fun celebrating Christmas and was late for work. He text-messaged Miller that the beach house they worked at is gone, and he was supposed to have been in it.

Although it is their home that has been devastated, Miller said the Thai people’s concern was not focused on themselves. “I see on TV the Thai people being interviewed and they are not asking for help,” Miller said. “They are more concerned about the tourists.” Miller said that is how she and Folkesson felt when they lived there. An Australian newspaper reported that dead tourists outnumber locals there by two to one. Miller said, “My first fear is that all these people we know survived. My second and larger fear … is how they will survive economically. The town completely relied on tourism.”

And the best way she knows how to help is to add a personal perspective to the disaster, and to ask for help for them. “I can’t stress enough how serious it is that these people need help,” Miller said. “The living need food, medical, fresh water and rebuilding eventually.”

Miller asks that people donate directly to the Thai Red Cross as she doesn’t know of any specific Khao Lak fund as of yet.

Miller and Folkesson have received no further information from friends and coworkers in Khao Lak so far. Miller, who was close with the Thai community, talks of the little old lady who did their laundry, or the people at the market or on the boats. She is upset that she has no way of knowing if they are OK or even alive.

“Mattias and I keep asking each other things like, I wonder if the girl from the photo shop is OK, or our friends who worked at the mini-mart downstairs, or the funny man who worked at the restaurant next to my office.”

There are several options available to send donations. Listed below are a few:

€ Thai Red Cross:

€ American Red Cross, Santa Clara

€ Valley Chapter:

€ Doctors Without Borders:

€ United Nations Children’s Fund:

€ State Department Hot Lines: 888.407.4747

€ Link to other sites: