23.  Hornbill Hill Feb 05. Pic Palani Mohan

Until the arrival of an American called Dick Sandler in 1987, Koh Phra Tong (Golden Buddha island), had escaped Thailand’s tourism-fuelled boom in Phuket, only 200 kilometres south. The locals pretty much reacted to the newcomer by going about their business, even after Dick established Golden Buddha Beach Resort, a strip of land populated by individually-owned houses, built in traditional Thai styles. Until about two years before the tsunami, it provided the only paid holiday accommodation on the island.

Even now, Koh Phra Thong is largely unknown to the general Thai population. The barrier island is large but geologically it is little more than a 10,000 hectare sandbar, separated from the mainland by a seven-metre deep estuary many kilometres wide. The island itself is almost split in two by another canal and its dozens of tributaries that web through the mangrove forests on its eastern side.

Apart from its stunning stretch of uninhabited beach and a jungle dense with wildlife and fruit trees, the island had an in-built marketing peg, a mysterious Golden Buddha that lay buried in a hidden location beneath the sand.

Nowadays, the locals chuckle when they talk about the legend, and will tell you about the Indian looters (in some versions of the story they are Muslim) who tried to blast through a bundle of rocks on the beach very close to GBB, in the hope of wedging loose the valuable treasure about 40 years ago. According to the legend, a snake emerged, was cut in half and turned into gold. Twelve of the 13 looters died.

No one knows if the tale is true, or if the surviving treasure-hunter took the trove.

Golden Buddha Island is also home to many species of sea turtles – Green Turtles, Leatherbacks and Olive Ridleys use the beaches on Koh Phra Thong and surrounding islands to lay hundreds of eggs. These are endangered species, and the habitat protection is vital because sea turtles only lay their eggs on their natal beach, and only after they have reached maturity of about 20 years. The nests are sometimes raided by locals, for whom the eggs can be sold at the market as delicacies, or dogs. Since 1996 the Italy-based organisation, Naucrates, has been conducting sea turtle conservation and education projects on the island, but some years they discover and protect only a few nests. This research work is vital to the future of these species and needs the support of dozens of volunteers each year. For information, www.naucrates.org

Soon after the tsunami, the surviving villagers were flooded with relief workers looking for projects to fund. One organisation, North Andaman Tsunami Relief, established by a former-employee of Golden Buddha Beach, Bodhi Garrett, aimed to provide aid, development, and finally, sustainability. Its goal has always been to have an end-date for its work, which has primarily focussed on the Koh Phra Thong local area. Projects have varied from mangrove restoration through to extensive community-based tourism training and even computer skills. For more information, see www.northandamantsunamirelief.com