Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Evacuation From Bangkok


We didn't plan to leave.  It was the cockroaches that changed my mind.  On Thursday we walked up to Tesco Lotus to take money out of the ATM there and to eat lunch in the food court.  There were large pools of water on each side of the road that weren't there the night before and almost no traffic. Water was bubbling up out of the drains. An alley around the corner from our condo was flooded, and the lady who sells me the Bangkok Post and who lives there looked worried.  Anxious people with backpacks and suitcases were waiting for buses that were few and far between.  Coming up to the pedestrian overpass, I looked down and saw cockroaches scurrying across the sidewalk, lots of them.  People were stepping on them with a crunch and a squish.  I realized in a flash that they were running away from the advancing water.

We'd prepared for the coming flood, buying food at stores where supplies were dwindling and stockpiling bottled water whenever we could find it.  The condo management promised to take care of its residents and employees were busy sandbagging the front of the building and testing water pumps. Nan's friend from her village, the mistress of a Japanese businessman and mother of an infant, lives high up in a luxury condo a block away across from Pata Department Store, and the water there was already waist high.  They were unable to leave.  This, plus the ominously empty streets, the cars parked on the flyover to avoid getting soaked, and finally the cockroaches, freaked me out.  What if the power in our building failed, what if the water were turned off?

At first, experiencing a flood sounded like a lark, an adventure.  But just as I'd visited the red shirt encampment during the extended rally at Ratchaprasong last year but stayed away when the bullets began flying, I was not so sure I wanted to wade in waist-deep flood water mixed with sewage like the people seen nightly on the TV news in the suburbs north of Bangkok.  My university campus in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya was submerged and student dormitories flooded.  A friend's factory, one of tens of thousands, was put out of business by the waters that were slowly moving south towards the Gulf of Thailand with only Bangkok and its ten million residents standing in the way.  The closer the water got, the less adventurous I became.  After seeing the cockroaches fleeing for their lives, who was I to think otherwise?

We packed quickly, trying not to forget anything essential and realizing we had no idea how long we would be gone.  I felt like a traitor as we walked through the lobby with our bags.  The first bus that arrived took us across the river from our neighborhood of Thonburi (which I like to think of as the Brooklyn of Bangkok) and all there appeared normal, aside from the ubiquitous sandbags.  Everything is being done by the Prime Minister and the Governor (who are not often in agreement) to protect the inner city from flooding.  This means that water stays longer behind dykes in the north and is being diverted through the eastern and western (where we live) suburbs.  A lot of people are not happy with this arrangement, including the red shirts who had helped elect PM Yingluck Shinawatra thinking she would reverse Bangkok's centuries-long domination of the provinces.

We were voluntary evacuees, leaving on Thursday at noon, unlike the people in the truck at the top of this post (our building and even our apartment can be seen in the background) which I found on the internet.  A day before I'd taken this photo of the Rimnam restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, one of our favorite places to eat; it's clearly out of commission.  A friend and colleague from my university elected to remain in his condo not far from mine with his four-year-old son while his wife and an older son stayed on the second floor of her hair salon across the river.  Jerry in Sukhumvit, one of the protected areas (so far), reports that his soi is dry.  Nan and I got off the bus at Victory Monument and got in a van for the two-hour drive to Si Racha, a city in the province of Chonburi southeast of Bangkok and out of the flood zone.

We were welcomed by Nan's cousin Tai.  The mother of a two-year-old daughter named First and eight months pregnant, she lives with her husband Dong in free housing provided by his company, Thai Oil.  They share the small house with her sister and his mother, and his brother has been staying with them since his company in Bang Pa-In was flooded.  Wan, the sister, gave up her bedroom for us, and we shared meals and beer with the family and neighbors in the communal area under the house.  Friday evening we took them to dinner at a seaside restaurant in nearby Bang Saen, a beach favored by Thais which Jerry told me was developed by one of Thailand's biggest gangsters.  I found a gas station market not far away from their house that provided me with the Bangkok Post, cappuccino, and in the evening ice cream sundaes that rivaled Swenson's.  On the way back to Tai's house, we played with a quartet of wild puppies.

On Saturday we took a day trip to Koh Si Chang, a small island off the coast.  Without much of a beach, it hasn't been developed like Koh Samet not far to the east which it resembles.  We hired a tuk tuk for 250 baht on the ferry dock and he found us a restaurant on the bay that served a superb Thai breakfast.  The first stop on our short tour was a Chinese Buddhist temple high up the hill which required considerably climbing to reach a series of caves painted gold and filed with icons.  Nan threw sticks to discover her fortune and pronounced it good (that's a relief).  We paid a boy 10 baht to watch our shoes.  Second stop was the site of a palace planned by King Chulalongkorn but abandoned before it was finished (and the stones removed to Bangkok to build a palace there).  The lovely gardens remain and we sipped cold drinks on the verandah of one of the two houses constructed as temporary royal quarters.  Finally, we were taken over the hill to the one short stretch of sand where dozens of Thais sat under umbrellas eating and drinking while a few children and a couple of farang in bikinis dipped their toes in the ocean.  Back in Si Racha we fed squid to turtles swimming in a large pond in a public park next to the ferry pier.

It was clear that we couldn't stay with Nan's cousin until the water receded in Bangkok, so we checked out the times for buses north and bought tickets to Phayao.  For the time in-between we decided to go to Pattaya, a short distance south, and found a nice room at A.A. Residence on soi 13 for a reasonable price which included free wifi and two swimming pools.  The only language I hear now besides Thai is Russian and most of the signs are in both English and Russian.  The town is packed with people and they don't look like evacuees from Bangkok (I doubt that we do either).  Last night we had a splendid seafood dinner at King and afterwards strolled Walking Street to observe the Halloween madness (just a notch above the usual, with zombie the preferred look).  Today we'll swim and read and not think too much about what we've left behind.

We're really very lucky compared to those who have lost everything in the most widespread and destructive flooding in Thailand's history.  As long as our money holds out (and I'm dipping once again into savings to survive), we'll be ok.  Our house and Nan's family are waiting for us in Phayao.  We're told the weather is cold and will have to find some long-sleeved clothes today in Pattaya.  Everything will be OK in our 9th floor apartment, although if the power goes out the refrigerator will be pretty stinky when it's finally opened.  I think I left the wifi on, but remembered to close the windows.  Nan's university is now scheduled to begin Nov. 15, but it's in the flood zone so that's a long shot.  Wat Srisudaram, where I was scheduled to teach English to linguistics graduate students on Saturdays, is right next to the Bangkoknoi khlong which has overflowed.  I fear that the library on the first floor is now under water. Classes at Wang Noi cannot begin until the campus dries out some time in the future. Being temporarily homeless is kind of exciting, and it also underlines the Buddha's teaching on impermanence.  Nothing lasts.  The video below was shot from in front of our condo, Lumpini Place, and I found it on the internet.  I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see the flooding up so close and personal, but I'm much less sorry that I'm able to enjoy this sunny dry day in Pattaya.  Next stop: Phayao.


Anonymous said...

Wise decision in relocating Will.

No sense in taking the chance of being trapped in misery for an extended period of time.

Enjoy the beach !

Sam said...

It's no joke. You did the right thing. Once it starts bubbling up through the drains you know you're in trouble. Stay safe, both of you.

This photo may interest you.

"View over Pinklao bridge into the heavily-flooded western part of Bangkok inner city, Sunday afternoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)"

Roxanne said...

I hope you and Nan are okay -- and dry.

Take care,