Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Waterworld Bangkok – Better get a Dingy!

No, not all of Bangkok is flooded. The downtown area around Siam Square and Sukhumvit Road remains dry. But large areas are now submerged.

The west side of the Chao Praya River, Thonburi, is under a meter of water. The tourist area of Banglamphu and Khao San Road floods periodically, depending on the tide and water level of the Chao Praya. The further north I moved along Pahonyothin Road today, the deeper the water got. I first traveled by taxi, then on the bed of a truck and finally on foot, knee-deep in muck along the center elevation towards Rangsit. There is very little police presence up there, though the military run trucks for local people to evacuate at decent intervals.

Surprisingly many shops still have electricity, despite being flooded. I crossed two or three bridges, all packed with parked vehicles before the water got really deep. TIME correspondent Andrew Marshall told me that a kilometer further north, a wall cross ing the road was just holding but that the pressure of the water behind it was enormous.

Most of the locals I encountered were amazingly stoical and generally in good spirits, paddling along the roads in home-made boats and rafts, some made from bamboo. I did also see men and women walking around in a daze, some with suitcases on their backs. Trucks with huge SUVs on the back roll through the water, evacuating the vehicles of the chattering classes. One clearly well-off woman kept moving from one end of a bridge to the other – both sides led nowhere and pulling her rolling suitcase, she was trapped. There is a real sense of social divide. The poor further north have been flooded for weeks, while the rich cannot believe their suburbs are also finally becoming inundated.   Angry communities on the outskirts of Bangkok have been breaking down walls and mounds of sandbags to reduce the flooding in their homes.  The military is tasked with plugging these holes. Along Pahonyothin Road, people were slowly being scooped up by army trucks. The water is  stagnant and very dirty and does not seem to be moving a great deal – it has been standing for a week now.

At times I felt like I was moving through a J.G. Ballard novel, a disaster movie apocalypse. Or perhaps this was a chapter from The Windup Girl I found myself in. There is an atmosphere of total confusion, of normal life suspended, a little like during the Red Shirt riots in downtown Bangkok last year. At least there´s no violence to go along with the chaos this time, and I did not spot any significant wildlife in the water, though a few crocs and large snakes have been spotted and caught. Some street side kitchens still operate, often in knee-deep water, but it is becoming harder and harder for local people along Pahonyothin to get food. One huge supermarket was still operating, its front steps now a boat pier, but there was hardly anything left on the shelves.

Reports in the Thai media suggest that most of the floods could have been prevented with better planning in June and July. There have also been persistent reports that politicians appropriate donations and slap stickers with their names on them before handing them out to desperate refugees. One huge pile of donated food and other items was apparently simply abandoned by authorities at the waterlogged Don Muang Airport.

Thailand´s young and inexperienced PM Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former PM Thaksin, who fled abroad after being convicted for fraud, does a good job at being tearful in front of the cameras, but barely seems in control of emergency flood measures. But perhaps there is little she can do. While the city drowns, her fellow politicians spread a murky ocean of disinformation and engage in inter-party bickering, hence no one really knows what will happen in the next days and weeks.

Better get a dingy!

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