Bangkok’s Old-Timers Recall Even Worse Deluges

November 4, 2011 at 10:00

Regional News

BANGKOK—Floodwaters inundate the city. Businesses shut down and water-borne diseases spread. Families turn to boats rather than cars to get around.

This isn’t the latest update from Bangkok’s current flood scare—it’s from 1983, one of the many times that floodwaters have ravaged the Thai capital. Floods were so bad that year that 400 schools closed from October to early December and some areas didn’t dry out until after the New Year.

A Thai police officer stands in the middle of a road as he warns people of rising floodwaters in the capital Sunday. See recent photos of the flooding.

Satellite images taken before and after the flooding along the Chao Phraya River and around the city of Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, show the spread.

It isn’t yet known how long the latest deluges will last, or what the total cost will be, as Thailand grapples with its worst flooding in years. A series of dykes and makeshift barricades designed to protect Bangkok from the full brunt of the floods appeared to be holding over the weekend, but experts warned the city isn’t out of danger yet.

Nearly 400 people have died across Thailand, hundreds of thousands of people are out of work, and damage to industrial estates north of Bangkok are reckoned to be in the billions of dollars. Cars were seen floating in a car park at the city’s shuttered Don Muang airport north of town on Sunday.

However bad the latest foods get, though, many Bangkok old-timers say they’ve seen even worse. The latest hysteria over the floods, they contend, is more a reflection of the changing nature of Thai society than a measure of the size or force of the floods themselves.

With a Kuwait-sized mass of water bearing down on Bangkok, the Thai capital struggles to keep its downtown streets dry even as the north of the city is submerged. WSJ’s Patrick Barta reports.

In decades past, Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the East” because it was built on a marshy delta that flooded regularly, with canals as the main byways and an estimated three quarters or more of its inhabitants living in floating houses or houses on stilts. As recently as 1950, Bangkok had nearly 100 major, navigable khlongs, as canals here are known, which also served to divert floodwaters out to the sea.

That changed during Bangkok’s boom of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. More than half the canals were filled in to construct roads or buildings and to help curb insect-borne illnesses.

That coincided with the rise of a much larger urban and suburban middle class, including residents who had no connection with Bangkok’s watery past. They moved into modern housing subdivisions or high-rise condominium towers and grew accustomed to air conditioning and imported cars.

Many of these residents were among the first to evacuate Bangkok in recent days to out-of-town locations like the eastern seaboard beach resort of Pattaya. Those who stayed cleared the shelves of grocery stores as they stockpiled water, instant noodles and other dwindling food supplies in the affluent central city.

“I can’t blame them” for panicking, said Adul Phanthong, a 46-year-old day laborer who was found over the weekend fishing along a nearly submerged pier on the swollen Chao Phraya River that runs through old parts of the city.

Dressed in a camouflage hat, swim trunks and flip-flops, with a plate of meatballs on sticks nearby, he said he remembered seeing far worse when he was a young man growing up along the Chao Phraya.

One year, he said, floodwaters were waist-high all the way to Bangkok’s 1930s-era Democracy Monument, more than a kilometer inland. This year, he said, his residence by a river pier wasn’t badly flooded, thanks to higher embankments built by the city over the years.

Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based analyst and historian who has co-written several books about the country, said he recalls navigating Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road—a thoroughfare for shopping and expatriate communities here—in a Thai “longtail” boat during the 1983 floods. He said his co-writer, Pasuk Phongpaichit, recalls playing every year in area floods as a child. “It was absolutely normal,” he said.

This time, Sukhumvit Road has stayed mostly dry so far. But around-the-clock media attention—and higher expectations among wealthier residents— has intensified the anxiety and led to more criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

The addition of vast housing estates and industrial areas north of the capital has put far more property in harm’s way, and created more barriers that trap water, Mr. Baker said, greatly exacerbating the problem for people outside of Bangkok.

“It’s the gains of the economic progress of the last generation which is now being sunk underwater,” he said.

In the oldest parts of town by the Chao Phraya, though, residents were going about their business over the weekend more or less as usual as floodwaters rose and fell.

A giant street market along the river was stocked with vegetables and goods impossible to find in the city’s modern supermarkets. Enterprising hawkers were selling inflatable rafts, life vests and animal-shaped floating pool toys, but there seemed to be few takers.

Water churned into streets nearby, in some places approaching knee-level. But residents like 58-year-old Chat Luenyang, a security guard for a cooking-oil distributor, were unfazed.

Mr. Chat was kicking back in a red chair in the front of his shophouse as a fast-moving stream of water flowed across the concrete floor at his feet. He had a bowl of duck livers, a bottle of Thai whiskey, a glass of ice and a radio on a table next to him.

He pointed to the back of his house, where water was squirting in through cracks before running through the house and out into the street. His possessions were hanging by hooks on the walls, or stuffed into a loft over his bed, which was raised slightly above the ankle-deep water below. At bedtime, he said, he left the door open to make sure water could flow out and didn’t drown him. He had a few dozen sandbags but said there was no point in using them—it would just trap more water.

“I don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “This is nature. The water goes up, and it goes down—you don’t have to worry about it. Later, it’ll be gone.”

By: Patrick Barta
Source: The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2011
To view the original article, click here.

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