'SERIOUSLY, THIS INTERIM was, like, totally awesome!' Such was the classic teen-speak response of 16-year-old Monica Graves from Hong Kong International School when asked to describe her week of camping and kayaking around the islands of Phang Nga Bay near Phuket in Thailand. Monica was one of a group of fifteen HKIS students and teachers who were undaunted by the recent tsunami-related events in the Indian Ocean, and who held the view that the best way to assist Thailand's wave-battered tourism industry was to go there and support the local operators. Every year the entire HKIS high school student body participates in a programme known as Interim, during which small groups of students and their teachers embark on service, adventure and cultural experiences in Hong Kong and the region. This year, some 36 groups travelled outside Hong Kong as far afield as Fiji, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and India, while others visited China, Japan, Australia and Southeast Asia. Planning was buffeted by the tsunami, as many parental concerns were expressed about the safety of the three adventure programmes on offer in the Phuket-Krabi region of southern Thailand. These concerns ranged from the establishment of sound evacuation procedures and the provision of a safe water supply, to the presence of floating debris, dead bodies and even ghosts. The school's response was to send an inspection team to Phuket in February, which visited every venue on the proposed tours, as well as local hospitals and other providers of basic services. They saw the clean-up first-hand and returned to Hong Kong with sufficient data and photographs to convince most of the worried parents that the students' adventure tours would be unaffected. In the words of Nikita Andreev, a Grade 12 participant in the camp: 'The tsunami certainly affected our planning and our preparations, but we didn't let it dampen our enthusiasm for this annual kayaking trip.' Any HKIS students whose parents expressed fears about water-based activities or the presence of ghosts in Thailand were allowed to withdraw from their chosen overseas programmes and select an alternative activity from the range of those on offer in Hong Kong, and about a dozen families exercised that option. The HKIS sea kayaking group lost just three students to parental concerns. The other parents were reassured by the inspection team's report, the school's long-standing relationship with the local operator and the provision of detailed maps of the areas that the students would visit. The students were impressed by the massive clean-up and repair activities that they saw on the northern beaches of Phuket Island. Student Han Li likened the gritty determination he saw among the Thai people to get on with their lives to the spirit inherent in the national martial art of Muay Thai. 'Those who get knocked down, just get right back up and fight again,' he said. During their week of beach-camping on the sheltered island of Koh Yao Noi, the HKIS group learned basic campcraft, Thai cooking and kayak-handling skills. The tsunami's effects had been minimal in this area and the students hardly gave the event a second thought as they revelled in the natural beauty of Phang Nga Bay. As part of the school's ongoing commitment to the Koh Yao Noi community, it arranged for the donation of a computer and printer to a small village school on the island. HKIS senior, Nick Pitts, who confessed to missing his own computer during the camp, made the presentation on behalf of the group. 'The children were really happy to meet us and the principal was delighted with our gift. It was touching to realise that something we take so much for granted could make such a difference to others,' he commented. Another Grade 12 student, Joyce Chan, could hardly believe the warm welcome the group received at the remote school, and Angela Chih said she 'felt like a celebrity' when she was asked to sign autographs by the school children she met. Sea Canoe, our local operator, also arranged for the HKIS group to provide some educational assistance for a young boy who had lost his father in the tsunami at Kamala Beach on Phuket Island. Chaiyanand Sangsuwan and his still traumatised mother were finding it extremely difficult to re-establish their lives. Back at the camp, each day's kayaking expedition was planned to be longer and even more scenic than the day before. The group paddled beneath towering cliffs and around pinnacle-like islands, swam and snorkelled in numerous sheltered coves, while guides kept a close eye on the weather and tidal conditions. The sudden onslaught of a tropical squall one afternoon saw the group paddling faster than usual to the safety of the 'mother boat' to ride out the weather in the lee of a nearby island. There was no problem in enforcing the life-jacket rule after that blustery experience. Sometimes, the group would inch through dark and narrow limestone caves and emerge bedazzled into the hidden lagoons, or 'hongs', which can be found in the hollow core of many of the bay's larger islands. They also paddled through labyrinthine mangrove forests, where they came face-to-face with a monitor lizard and a small troop of crab-eating monkeys. One afternoon, our inter-island boat was visited by three swooping Brahminy Kites. These impressive birds of prey showed their superb aerobatic skills, catching food scraps in mid-air. It was heartening to learn that overseas tourists were gradually returning to this beautiful region, although our hosts remarked that the current figures represented only a quarter of the usual visitor numbers for this time of year. Like many Phuket-based tour operators, Sea Canoe has had to rotate its roster of guides, and many staff have yet to return to full-time work some three months after the tsunami. Each guide had a different tsunami story to tell. One had lost a family member who had been working on a badly hit beach at the time of the disaster. Another's wife had climbed on to a wall to save her life. One of the guides was in the bay, leading a group of kayakers at the time, but the paddlers experienced only oddly swirling currents and an unusually high tide. It was clear to everyone that the tsunami's worst effects had been concentrated in a few particular areas. It was also reassuring to learn that our guides were continually monitoring the tides and currents in the bay. At the final campfire under the stars on the beach of Koh Yao Noi, Sea Canoe's managing director, Soonthorn Sakulsan, told the students that the tsunami had dealt a powerful economic blow to Phuket. He expressed his deep appreciation that the students, their parents and the school had been able to see beyond the media reports of the tragedy and urged them all to become ambassadors for Thailand. In the words of 15-year-old HKIS student Paul de Felice, whose family had also visited Phuket during the recent Chinese New Year holiday, 'Thailand doesn't really need donations so much as it needs visitors to come back and show their support for all the hard-working people who are trying to get their lives back together'. Pauline Bunce, a humanities teacher at HKIS, was one of the teachers on the kayaking expedition in Phang Nga Bay, east of Phuket Island.