Inside the Thailand Flood Zone

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Inside the Thailand Flood Zone

Flooding in Thailand has already claimed at least 250 lives. With Bangkok under threat, things could get worse, reports Simon Roughneen.

'I was scared, worried. I still am, but thanks to these helpers I have my Sililak safe.' Thanarat 'Yui' Panomai went from anxious looking to beaming smile in the time it took the South 21 rescue team to wade through chest-high water to rescue her 5-year-old daughter, who was trapped upstairs by an overnight rush of water into previously dry sections of the Thai city of Ayutthaya.

Flooding in Thailand has killed at least 250 people, cut off roadways and forced some multinational corporations to shut down operations. Sixty of Thailand's 77 provinces have been affected, and on Sunday night Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said that residents of Bangkok should prepare for possible flooding.

Her government has set up a flood 'war room' at Bangkok's old international airport, and the massive city – a mix of plush high-rises and vulnerable low-lying houses – could face a deluge as the Chao Praya river and the city's network of canals swell. More heavy rain and the flood run-off from the swamped north of the country will have no outlet into the Gulf of Thailand with high tides scheduled for the end of the coming week.

On Sunday afternoon, Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra held a ceremony asking the water gods to spare the Thai capital – which sits on a low-lying delta – the inundation affecting Ayutthaya, the old Siamese capital and once one of the world's major cities before being destroyed by the invading Burmese in 1767.

On the flood frontline, however, South 21 rescue team leader Ronayuth Kulapantha says he has been doing the hour-long drive out from Bangkok for the past four days, staying late in Ayutthaya each day with his two dozen member team to assist with the relief effort.

'Tonight could be the longest one yet,' he said, as word came through that an embankment elsewhere in the city had given way, flooding an industrial estate.

Further inside Ayutthaya, where the spectacular remnants of the old Siamese capital are a tourist draw, a mass evacuation was underway, with locals and rescuers wading through waist- and chest-high water, hopping on trucks and boats, and moving to higher ground with whatever belongings they could extricate from the deluge. On a boat heading toward the hospital, we passed a sign pointing toward the city's Floating Market, an irony only bettered by travelogues who in the past described Ayutthaya as 'the Venice of the East.'

Trying to get to the famous Chai Wattanaram temple proved impossible, however, with fast-rising waters washing into the temple grounds. 'It's too dangerous,' chimed a group of men lounging at the floodwater's edge, about 700 metres away from the ruins. They were renting boats out to journalists seeking to photograph the partly submerged ruins in recent days. Now, they say that 'the water is too high and too fast,' pointing to an adjacent rush of whitewater to buttress their point. They made it clear they weren't interested in even a quick boat trip down to the temple, no matter how much they were offered.

Back outside the city's hospital, Thai Red Cross volunteer Pipath Cheangnoi says he was asked by government officials to help co-ordinate the evacuation of more than 2,000 patients trapped inside the building – an effort that was ongoing as darkness fell amid dangerous conditions with electricity down or unusable, and strong currents swirling in places around the hospital gates. A half hour earlier, South 21 evacuated two men who had been electrocuted after floodwaters covered the downstairs areas.

'We're going to have to stay here until the job is done,' Pipath said as Thai Army trucks rolled up to the gates to receive the first batch of evacuees.

Homes and businesses are literally swamped all over the city, with residents hopping on and off big-wheel trucks and diggers to hitch a lift through deeper water. Elsewhere, men pulled small boats along, only their heads visible above the water-line, with children and supplies being towed along behind too – a grueling effort though a kilometre or so of neck-high water covering some of the city's main streets.

Not everyone is leaving, however. Sasikarn Kornair stirred what looked to be over a dozen chicken fillets sizzling away under oil and above a gas-lit burner inside her Arthika restaurant, just around the corner from the hospital. 'We have three stories here, so we should be OK,' she says. 'We won't go anywhere yet.'

But elsewhere, people in lower lying, one-story houses have no choice. All day, groups of people have been clambering onboard dinghies, rafts and impromptu vessels cobbled together from truck tyre tubes, styrofoam board – anything at all that floats. Others just waded through the water, while some children splashed around, diving off the tops of almost-submerged vehicles and oblivious to the chorus of car and house alarms ringing in stereo, the background white noise whine giving the scene a hint of a Hollywood apocalypse.

A woman who gave her name as Noi shouted up to South 21 volunteers as they made their way toward another of Ayutthaya's car-stacked overpasses – sanctuary on concrete stilts for those vehicles not yet swamped. 'There are 30 monks in a temple inside,' she says, waving an arm toward a submerged gate, 'they need help.'

'We'll be back as soon as we can,' Ronayuth Kulapantha said, trying to reassure her.

Simon Roughneen is a Southeast Asia-based journalist.