Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Central Bangkok Spared, For Now

Central Bangkok has escaped massive flooding that has so far claimed hundreds of lives. But with high tides to persist for a week, locals are still preparing for the worst.

‘We sat on a wall outside, and the army truck picked us up,’ recounts Sinyodsai, discussing the day she and her family were rescued from floodwaters at their Rangsit home, in a suburb north of Bangkok.

I met her Friday in an upstairs hall of a sports complex in the Ramkhamhaeng university district of Bangkok, which serves as a temporary shelter for almost 2,000 Thais made homeless by the floods. The family home was submerged ‘more than a week ago’ according to husband Bancha. Neither 75-year-old Bancha nor his 60-year-old wife can remember the exact day the flood entered their neighbourhood, which is still a 50-kilometre drive from the centre of Bangkok, an indication of the sheer size of the Thai capital.

In the business and hotel heart of the city, sandbag walls have been going up around buildings in anticipation of a possible overflow from the network of canals running the city and a high tide backing up on the Chao Praya River, known to tourists as site of the city's renowned temple landmarks.

Some shops have run low on goods, such as drinking water as locals stocked up in case the entire city should end up under water. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra conceded last week that there was a 50-50 chance that this could happen, but by Saturday afternoon, the inner city had escaped. Still, some areas such as Chinatown have come under water as the river burst its banks in places, repeating a cycle from earlier in the week when high tides forced the swollen river into adjoining streets before water receded again as tides receded.

But in northern suburbs such as Rangsit and Pathum Thani, miles of residential and business areas have been under water for a week or more. I travelled through Pathum Thani on Friday, a 5-mile-an-hour roll though around seven or eight miles of flooded streets. There, the waters had turned a fetid green to black, with rubbish bobbing alongside the sand truck I shared with over 20 locals ferrying goods to their swamped homes. No wonder disease is now a major concern.

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It’s even worse outside Bangkok, where satellite images show a city surrounded by floodwaters to the north and the sea to the south, with nowhere apparently for the floodwaters to flow into the Gulf of Thailand except through the city.

Ayutthaya, the old Siamese imperial capital that’s now site of spectacular temple ruins which are a major tourist draw, has been under water for four weeks now. I visited the town three weeks ago, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have gotten any worse since then. But according to Ploy, a lady now volunteering at the same shelter where I met Bancha and Sinyodsai, the waters around her house reached a peak of four metres. ‘They’ve gone down a meter since,’ she says. ‘But it will take some time before it dries out fully.’

She says that she may as well help out at the shelter, after evacuating to Bangkok almost three weeks ago. Sinyodsai says that her daughter and son-in-law are also volunteering there. She tried to call them while we sat talking at the shelter, but her daughter's phone rang off. ‘It’s lunch time now, so she’s busy handing out meals,’ Sinyodsai says, folding some of the few clothes they managed to salvage before the waters came.

And as the main inner part of the city escapes the floods, for now at least, the waiting game goes on as high tides will persist until November 6, according to the Thai Irrigation Department. Between now and then it will be a daily dice with slow-moving floodwaters to the north pushing in on the river and canals running through Bangkok, and untold miles of flood barriers thrown up to try prevent an inundation of this sprawling city.  

Simon Roughneen covers southeast Asia and his work has appeared in publications such as Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, The Diplomat, LA Times and Asia Sentinel.