Hotel suites turn into classrooms
Poor Thai children, who could only fantasise about how affluent foreigners spent their holidays, got a glimpse of a different world when a four-star hotel on tsunami-hit Phuket island turned some of its suites into temporary classrooms.
Some 350 children, expecting a sombre start to the year after their Baan Kamala Primary School was ripped apart by the deadly waves on December 26, got a pleasant surprise this week when their school bus took them instead to the luxurious Kamala Bay Garden Resort.
Fourteen large apartments on the ground floor of a three-storey building, overlooking a large swimming pool lined with green coconut palms, have been converted into makeshift classrooms. The hotel furniture in the main hall was removed, and children sit on the bare tile floor for their lessons.
Awed initially by the opulence surrounding them, the boys and girls decked in white shirts and brown pants or blue skirts quickly settle into a routine and make themselves at home, happily chattering, playing board games and watching television between classes.
"I've never watched a vampire movie before. It's very funny," said nine-year-old Apinya Phuangkhew, who was among some 30 children in one classroom engrossed in a Hong Kong movie dubbed in Thai being played on the television.
Bergekrans said the hotel, about 200 metres (660 feet) from Kamala beach on Phuket's west coast, was lucky to be spared by the tsunamis. None of its guests were hurt.
"I like my new classroom. All my friends like it here. It's very comfortable. There's air-conditioning and television and we can use the swimming pool. It feels like we are on holiday," she said.
The school will be based at the 180-room hotel for at least three months until the next holidays, and possibly till the year-end, until new premises are ready, said the resort's chief executive Magnus Bergekrans.
"It's an adventure for them to come here. Most of them haven't seen a place like this before. Who knows, some of these students may work for us in the future," he told AFP.
The children are expected to observe some discipline, he said, adding in jest that "we are not letting them take over the hotel."
The children and their 24 teachers are given lunch daily and allowed to use facilities such as the pool and playground once a week.
The normal rate for the rooms offered to the school is 8,000 baht (205 dollars) a day.
"It's our small contribution to the community," Bergekrans said, estimating that some 30 percent of the 3,500 villagers were badly affected by the disaster.
But business took a beating with occupancy dropping from 100 percent to around 10 percent as their mainly Scandinavian guests fled after the disaster and cancellations poured in, he said.
He expected the situation to improve over the next two months as new bookings trickle in from Europe.
A clean-up has begun at the beach but it remains a scene of destruction, with piles of debris from tiny shops, restaurants and galleries torn apart by the wall of water.
Teachers at the Baan Kamala school said discussions were still ongoing on whether to locate their new building further inland.
The children are getting additional cheer from Swede Eva Ziggy Berglund, who is spending her holidays on the island and giving art classes at the school.
"I want to do something for these children in Asia after the tragedy," said the 42-year-old sculptor, who brought color pencils and art equipment with her to Phuket over the weekend.
"I see a lot of sadness in the eyes of the people here, some who have lost everything. I want to contribute to help them rebuild their lives."