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Contrast of misery and normalcy in flood-wary Bangkok

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    Thai soldiers and volunteers passed sandbags as they fortified an alley after swollen Chao Phraya river overflowed in Bangkok on Saturday.

BANGKOK » On one side of Bangkok, you’ll find the victims of Thailand’s worst flooding in half a century. They float down trash-strewn waterways, paddling washtubs with wicker brooms over submerged neighborhoods.

Just a few miles away, you’ll find something else entirely: well-heeled shoppers perusing bustling malls decorated with newly hung Halloween decorations, couples sipping espresso in the air-conditioned comfort of ultrachic cafes.

Although catastrophic flooding has devastated a third of this Southeast Asian nation and submerged some of the capital’s northernmost districts, the reality for the majority of this sprawling metropolis of 9 million people is that life goes on.

The desperate images of disaster contrast sharply with scenes of total normality — from night-owls drinking cocktails in red light districts to tourists enjoying relaxing foot massages in faux-leather chairs downtown.

An exodus of thousands of Bangkok residents to nearby resorts and a government-ordered five-day holiday have left the notoriously congested city unusually easy to maneuver by taxi and three-wheeled tuk-tuk.

"It’s better, in a way," Nicole Attwater of Sydney said Sunday, adding that she was happy to brave some flooding to see the Grand Palace, the gold-studded former seat of the Thai monarchy, with far lighter crowds than normal on a sunny morning.

"It’s a good time to come, because it’s quiet," she said.

Most of Bangkok is dry, with little to indicate that anything is wrong — except for the ominous walls of sandbags stacked around hotels and homes, and the apocalyptic predictions of everyone from expatriate bloggers to some members of the Thai government.

Yet, the threat of floodwaters sweeping through the city is still very real. Nationwide, 381 people have died over the last three months, and 110,000 more have been displaced — 10,000 of them in Bangkok, according to government figures. The catastrophe has put hundreds of thousands of people out of work and cost billions of dollars in damage — a bill that grows larger by the day.

Among items struck from tourists’ agendas: shopping for crafts at the popular Chatuchak weekend market and dinner cruises down the city’s Chao Phraya river — all canceled due to the high waters. The river swelled to a record high level early Sunday, spilling into some neighborhoods and sparking fears it would flood the inner city.

Fears over worse-case scenarios and travel warnings issued by foreign governments have slashed visitors by half at sites like the Grand Palace and the giant gold-plated Reclining Buddha inside Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple complex.

But the biggest problem by far, said tour guide Keerati Atui, is the media, which he said has given the impression that most of Bangkok is under water.

"Look around," he said, gesturing to lines of tourists streaming into the white-walled palace. "It’s dry. Everything here is normal."

River water has lapped at the palace gates and even crept inside, but much of it has welled up through drains in the riverside neighborhood. One picture posted this week on Twitter showed a cameraman filming a television news anchor on a street beside the palace in ankle-high water. On both sides of the pair, the street was bone dry.

Heavy monsoon rains have pummeled a large swath of Asia since July. As floodwaters crept across Thailand, they first drowned neighboring provinces, then districts on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. Last week, advancing water forced the city’s Don Muang airport, which is used mainly for domestic flights, to shut down. However, the international Suwarnabhumi airport remains open, and the city’s skytrain and subway lines were functioning normally.

Nobody knows how far the water will go, but so far Bangkok’s defenses have mostly held.

Statements from government leaders have alternated from assurances the capital would be spared to dire warnings that nowhere is safe.

Panicked Bangkokians have stripped supermarkets and convenience stores of bottled water and dried noodle supplies in recent weeks as a result, but there is still plenty to drink. Both those items can be still found in street-side shops along the city’s temple-dotted riverside, where the mineral water is ice cold and the noodle soup is spicy and sprinkled with fish balls.

"A lot of people are overreacting, they’ve been hoarding too much stuff," said Kwanpimol Pleegluay, a 48-year-old housewife. "They watch the news and see people in other flooded provinces and think that’s going to happen to them here."

Kwanpimol was taking a casual stroll along the Chao Phraya with her husband over the weekend — to see how high the river swelled. After peering into the water, she took his photo and chose one word to describe the scene: "Beautiful," she said.

On the other side of the Chao Phraya, where the 200-year-old pagoda of the city’s famed Temple of the Dawn rises from the banks, 42-year-old monk Phramaha Abhin said he was not worried.

"The Lord Buddha taught us not to be negligent, we must always prepare," said Phramaha, referring to newly laid protective layer of sandbags outside the temple, where he lives. "But he also taught us not to foolishly fear that which hasn’t happened yet."

Many people in Bangkok and neighboring provinces see the flooding as something that should be accepted, not something to be angry about.

In Bangkok’s heavily flooded Thonburi district, a navy team evacuated a stranded pregnant woman whose water broke Sunday. Aorasa Wisetkoop looked anxious, but remained calm and held tightly onto her belly, while a rescue team lifted her into a boat.

"We had to get her to hospital," rescuer Nitipat Mongolpradit said.

But along with every tragic and urgent incident in the inundation, there were images of Thais splashing in the floodwaters for fun.

When the river began flowing like a waterfall over a wall into Chantana Srisuwan’s wooden-shack kitchen, the 58-year-old pulled out a stack of aluminum pans, soaped them up and began washing them. "Why bother being troubled?" she asked.

"If we think we shouldn’t get wet, we’ll never have peace of mind," she said, as a neighbor complained he could not sleep because his bed was submerged beneath encroaching waves. "If there’s no water, great. But if there is, we have to learn to live with it."

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