Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Sense of Urgency

On my first full day back in Bangkok, I sat in Coffee World in the Buddy Lodge complex on Khao San Road, my usual pre-lunch haunt. I'm at my most productive between breakfast and lunch, provided I'm out of the house and have a late-morning coffee in front of me. I needed to get to the supermarket to pick up soap and buy credit for my phone, and I needed to go to Chatuchak Market to replace my worn-out zebra T-shirts, but those could wait until I'd done some email housekeeping and processed some files for one of my freelance jobs.

The morning was bright, the sun brilliant. This wasn't what I'd expected when I'd flown back from Bali yesterday. I'd known there was flooding—major flooding—in Thailand, but Bangkok had mostly been left alone. When I'd left it in mid-September, the monsoon season had brought in reliable, dramatic rains. Same as every year.

But the images of other parts of Thailand were scary. Water up to the roofs of houses, people driving boats through towns.

Anyway, I had to get back to Bangkok. My British friend Lynne was due in on the 22nd of October for one night—she'd been one of the first on the ball when the tourism boycott against Myanmar had been lifted and was on her way home—and I was going to meet her for a meal, plus my onward round-the-world ticket was out of Bangkok on November 1st. Sooner or later, all roads lead through Bangkok in this part of the world. Anyway, floods seemed less scary than Bali's 6.0 earthquake we'd had a few weeks ago. That had left me a little paranoid.

I sat outside in the smoking section of Coffee World. I hate the smell of smoke, but the Arctic-level air conditioning inside isn't tolerable for too long, and I planned on being here until I had to pee or my laptop battery ran down, whichever came first.

A older-middle-aged man with white hair and a supervillain-beard sitting across from me put out his cigarette and looked at his phone. He seemed alarmed, then asked me to watch his stuff for a minute. I watched, and when he returned, he started making phone calls.

"I just got an SMS from FROC that the flood has reached Don Mueng and they're looking for help sandbagging the perimeter. Get everything upstairs, check your supplies. If you get any SMS messages from FROC, ask a Thai person to tell you what they say."

He hung up.

"Excuse me, did you just say that the flood had reached Don Mueng?"

"Yeah, I got an SMS from FROC...that's the Flood Relief Operations Command. Their headquarters is at Don Mueng. The refugees are there too."

I sat a minute, digesting the alarming news that the old Bangkok airport was in very real danger of being flooded. Outside, some Thai musicians were unloading their drum kit from a van, carrying it piece by piece into Buddy Lodge for tonight's performance. A delivery boy nearly slipped and smacked into three tourists outside the McDonald's across the hall as he raced into the back of the mall, taking someone their lunch. I could see a group of Sikh fortune-tellers (though I'd thought they weren't Sikhs last time I was here, just guys wearing turbans to look like fortune-tellers, but they had Sikh bracelets) inside the McDonald's. They'd given up trying to make money off tourists today. Tourists still roamed Khao San Road in their tie-dyed cotton fisherman's pants and tank tops, but not too many of them. Maybe ten percent of the usual throngs.

Maybe that's why the man I was chatting with mistook me for an expat. But then, I'm always getting mistaken for an expat when I am actually a bonafide tourist. It might be my lack of fisherman's pants.

"Do you work here?" He asked.

"No...I'm on a long trip. I come here to rest and get things done, re-stock, go to the dentist, stuff like that. Because it's easy here, and cheap."

The truth is I'm a city girl and Bangkok is totally my speed. I love the anonymity and convenience of cities. Bangkok feels a lot like home, but with sticky rice.

"Anyway, you've been here enough to understand what I'm about to say. The Thai media...they won't tell you the truth, because they don't want to hurt tourism. The government, they don't want to make people panic and they don't want to admit that they might not be able to control the situation. They don't know what to do with 16 million people so they're just saying they have the situation under control, that they are diverting the water around Bangkok."

"I read that the were using canals, sea walls, and pumps to stop the water from coming in..." I started.

"Yeah, but here's the thing. I'm an engineer and I've worked here for years. But that's not how I know we're in trouble. It's simple math."


He rattled off some numbers to me. I didn't catch them all, and I'm probably getting the terms wrong, but he said something along the lines of "Bangkok can pump x billion gallons a day, and we're getting xx billion." He also said something like they had a system of sea walls and canals, which used to dump the water out towards the sea where the new airport is. "That's why the King opposed the former Prince Minister on building the new airport there."

That new airport is a source of endless corruption stories. I think the media has long-since given up covering them. Corruption fatigue.

"So, what are you going to do?"

"I've built a three-meter high barrier around my house."

"And what do you think I should do?"

"Look, there's only a problem if something goes wrong here. Maybe it will be fine here. I'm a pessimist. What floor did you say you're on?"

"Fourth floor of a hotel."

"The hotel will take care of you and you're not on the ground. What I would do if I were you is be ready to move. Get your max out of the ATM, because if the electricity goes, you can't get money. Have some water and snacks on hand, though it's too late to get those. The Thai people won't let on that they're worried—that's the Thai way, you must know that by now. But they've been secretly stockpiling dried noodles and bottles of water. You won't find anything in the stores. But get what you can, and be ready. Here's the shouldn't see ANY water if it isn't raining. There are sea walls and pumps and the water is coming at Bangkok from the north, east, and west, trying to get to the sea. They've got a whole system with the pumps and canals and barriers, but if only one of these fails, you'll see water on the street. The water is at Don Mueng right now—that's a half-hour's drive, or 12 hours at the speed of water. If you see three to six inches, go, get out, pay 5,000 baht if you have to, just get out and get to Pattaya. It's dry there. Have you been to Pattaya?"

"Isn't that where all the young Thai girls hang out with all the old tourist men?"

"Ha. Yeah. One old expat I know put it like this. I never knew I was handsome until I went to Pattaya. But you can just ignore that stuff. I go there with my wife and it doesn't bother us. No one will bother you because you're a woman. Pattaya is comfortable and easy, so just get out of Bangkok and get to Pattaya if you see any water on the street."

"Because if I see three inches, it means more is coming."


I thanked the man. He'd given me a lot to think about and he didn't seem like a crackpot. I headed to the supermarket, where the neighborhood residents were in a frenzy. Shelves were bare of water, milk, and instant noodles. I could buy all the cookies and peanut butter I wanted, and maybe I will later. But I was too taken aback by the madness in the aisles, and I quickly retreated with a few bags of peanuts and some Oreos to the relative sanity of Soi Rambuttri...

...where a few tourists strolled by street food vendors, where Dr. Sunil's dental office was still open for business and looking for customers hoping to get their teeth whitened so that they could suddenly discover they had calcium deposits, where six tourists lay flopped down with drugged-out expressions as their feet were systematically massaged at the spa with the swan-towels, like beached whales in Bangkok's afternoon sun.

The day looked so innocent.

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