Children On Holiday: A Tale Of Two Stings

Moa and Lewis. Swedish girl, Australian boy. 11-year old daughter and sister, 4-year old son and brother on an amazing family holiday. The Swedes on Koh Lanta by the Andaman Sea, the Aussies on Koh Mak in the Gulf of Thailand. Playing in paradise with not a care in the world. Immersed in the clear tropical sea, warm breeze and picture-postcard scenery. Lost in the wonder of the Land Of Smiles.

In South-East Asia and for that matter so many holiday destinations around the world, this idyllic scenario of a family vacationing together in an exotic location is so common and so treasured. Parents presumably prepared for the possibilities, children excited and happy and ready for anything.

Two very similar narratives, two very different endings. To say that one is unfair or unlucky while the other is fate and fortune or vica-versa will never do justice to nor fully explain the events that occurred and their life-changing consequences. Two beautiful, loved and lively children. Moa and Lewis.

Theirs is a cautionary tale for all parents and families, indeed anyone thinking of a beachside holiday in Thailand, or its neighbours: Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, The Philippines.

Picture this. Eerily similar to the other and much like yours be it before, right now or in the future.

Both families having the time of their lives within just a few months of each other. Either side of the Isthmus of Kra. Moa's family staying at a small, friendly Klong Dao Beach hotel with a swimming pool and Lewis's at a remote bungalow resort at Ao Soun Yai Beach.  

With a bowl of fries and mixed juice as fuel, the only place to be in the hot and humid afternoon is on the beach and, for the kids, straight into the water. The sea is relatively calm and totally seductive. The sand is scorching and it's a race to be first into the water and feel the euphoria and relief of the shallows on the soles. 

There's no hesitation in immediately running around then digging in the heels to go a bit deeper, up to the chest. The ocean is endless aquamarine and the body feels instantly, innately at one with its warmth. Moa plays on an air-mattress, Lewis jumps on his tippy-toes. Happy little fish splashing about with older siblings, occasionally casting an eye on mostly vigilant parents.

'Not too deep.' 'That sunscreen will wash off quickly.' 'How good is this!' 'Tonight we should try that other restaurant.' 'Must put the water under the towel.' 'That would be a great photo.' 'Now what page am I up to?' Parents' thoughts move from moment to moment soothed by the sound of laughter, giggles, shouts and splashes.

The locals go about their business. A long-tail boat splutters and chokes and splutters again. Hotel staff call out to the captain. That's an order. He waves, ramps up the revs and glides seaward. The staff have a chuckle amongst themselves and casually disappear. Foreigners are dotted along the beach doing their own thing. School's out and some uniformed kids pass in close, chatty clusters over the sand.


Like a white-hot blade slashing through a Gaugin masterpiece, colour drains from the sky and the seascape sharply narrows to a point of surreal stop-motion. 

When your child cries out there are acknowledged degrees of disconcert learnt from birth. Sibling disagreement decided with a whack. A scratch. A twisted ankle. A foot step on broken glass. But when something darkly powerful with a hint of Hieronymus Bosch descends on the beach the harrowing sound is instantly, frighteningly beyond all imagination.

Moa and Lewis scream like never before, like you never want to hear, like you will hear forever more. 

Statuesque horror in seas just above the knees, frozen in the clutches of excruciating pain and terror, both children screech hysterically at the top of their lungs; struggling to breathe in the panic and fear as time, dislocated from reality, stands completely still

Moa dashes out and collapses on the beach. 

Sprinting straight across the sand to the water, a million thoughts racing through their minds, eyes focused squarely on their pleading child's agonised gaze. No idea what just happened, what's happening, what will happen; a parent's instinct is to love, serve and protect.

Questions are not answered. The screams don't stop. Lifting Lewis out of the water and carrying him onto the shore offers a clue that in the chaos doesn't make sense. What the hell?? 

There is only a split second. Helpless, incessant screams. Whatever that is on their skin must come off right now. Writhing in agony on the sand, both Moa and Lewis lie scared, seriously hurt, impossibly desperate.

Long, thin, gooey, transparent. Each child's legs are covered in a tangle of these things. Helped by a holidaying Swedish paramedic and fireman, sand is rubbed across Moa's stomach and legs. Lewis has one of them ripped from his thigh, velcro-like, along with a layer of skin. Right at that very moment, the attempts' intentions prove catastrophic and the screaming instantly stops cold.

Moa and Lewis go silent. Their tanned complexions quickly fade to chilling blue. 

A jellyfish? Couldn't be. No. They don't do this. No way. They can't. Fuck. What was it? What to do? Call for help. Get help. The seconds tick. They're not moving. Move. Now. Do it now. 

Moa and Lewis slip and flop lifelessly in their carriers' arms as they are rushed further up the beach. To someone. Somewhere. Parents cry out for help. Call out to their children. Someone fucking well do something! 

And someone does.

Mangapoon! Mangapoon! The locals yell to each other. It was a jellyfish.

The children are not breathing. Their hearts are not beating.  

Moa is still on the sand. A credit card is used to scrape the tentacles. They reluctantly separate from her skin. Her helpers attempt to resuscitate her. An ambulance is called. There's one on the island somewhere.           

Lewis is doused in vinegar. The bungalow resort's owner calls to the kitchen for another bottle. She's seen this before. She's done this before. His legs are soaked but remain still.

How long's it been? A minute? Two? Who knows. Three? They're not breathing. First-aid. They need CPR. No they're not going to die. They can't. They're not. 

Moa is motionless.

Lewis suddenly gasps. 

He sucks in a big breath. His eyes open wide with a shock. He cries in pain. 

The ambulance arrives and Moa is driven to the hospital in the old town. Unconscious and without vital signs. Despairing parents search and pray for a breath. A faulty defibrillator frustratingly useless. The longest 5 minutes of their lives.  

There's one taxi on Koh Mak, and right now by chance it is parked outside the remote resort. Lewis is delirious, moaning, trembling. His eyes are rolling and closing and his parents keep talking to keep him awake. There's a medical clinic 5 minutes away. 

What happens next, no-one knows. Just a few minutes, that's how long it has taken, they were swimming just a few unimaginable minutes ago.

At the Koh Lanta Hospital, Moa is rushed onto a table and immediately given CPR. 

At the Koh Mak clinic, the door is locked. It's unattended. Closed. 

Moa is frantically worked on by the medical staff.

Lewis eventually gets the attention of a medic who's rushed back from a neighbouring island.

During 20 minutes of resuscitation it is as if the world spins uncontrollably into a void of silence. The young girl is still. 

Lewis is given some pain relief tablets. He calms to quiet. His wounds are cleaned. 

All of a sudden a shocked, disbelieving, heart-broken family is left to mourn their precious, beloved Moa. Their sorrow is incomprehensible. Their pain inconceivable. Everything is surreal. Nothing makes sense.

Moa is pronounced dead. Lewis is allowed to leave.
Moa and Lewis. Daughter and sister, son and brother. Two beautiful, loved and lively children.

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