Remembering the Flood, One Year After

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A view of Pattaya, taken from my latest trip. 🙂

This week I’d went on holiday to Pattaya, a city in Thailand’s east, famed for its beautiful beaches and a tourist hotspot. Stay clear away from the scandalous red light streets and a peaceful vacation can be found here. I’ve been to Pattaya lots of times, and apparently a friend of my mother is an owner of a hotel there (a pretty good one at that) and so we’ve been staying there pretty often.

Pattaya brings back lots of memories for me, because of the fact that I’ve went there often. But the hotel I just mentioned specifically has a whole lot of memories, the reason being that last year (2011), when vast masses of central and northern Thailand was inundated by the great floods, I’d evacuated there. Now, I’m already back in Bangkok, and I realized that I had never shared much about my experiences during the flood. There isn’t too much, but I think it’d do some good to reflect on them anyway.

A pained irony: the floodwater, and in the background is a government campaign poster saying “Goodbye, floods and droughts!” (Image Source)

I don’t remember exactly when it all started, but by June and July the news was covering the heavy floods that were destroying tons of homes in the northern region of the country. It was pretty much the government’s fault, in my opinion, for not letting out the water in the dams early enough, but let’s not talk politics here. I didn’t pay too much attention to the floods at first, because there’s been floods before but they never affect me. (The flood kinda made me realize how little attention I gave to the world unless it was actually threatening me). I recall sitting and eating dinner at the table and watching the news and seeing the videos of floodwater rushing through the streets in a provincial capital. Not a good sight, but I never cared much. After all, I was (supposedly) safe. Bangkok was always safe. Floods had barely ever been a threat to the Thai capital in living memory. Bangkok would remain dry, no matter what.

It couldn’t have been more wrong.

Image source
Floods in the old capital. (Image Source)

The floods did not recede, as everyone had believed. Instead, the monsoon season continued with no respite; heavy rainfall came every single day, adding to the floods. The water slowly came closer and closer to Bangkok, soon swamping the old capital, Ayutthaya, and in a very close distance to the new capital itself. But surely the government wouldn’t allow the waters to come much more closer? Bangkok did have flood defenses, right?

I remember one afternoon when there was parent teacher conferences at my school, and so my mother had went to the auditorium to talk to the teachers, while I stayed downstairs helping with the school’s effort to make life vests for the flood victims. I was sitting there helping when suddenly my mother came down to me and told me I had to leave and go back home immediately. I was puzzled, and she explained that the government had issued a warning for some the people in some areas of Bangkok to ‘move all belongings up to high places’ as they could be flooded soon. (Fact was the area I lived had never been threatened by floods before in history, but due to the government’s mismanagement, all the never-flooded areas seemed to be flooded in 2011). I had to go back and help move up the furniture. That same night, I believe, the village I was in quickly called an emergency meeting for everyone to attend.

It was not a fun meeting. The tension was high as everyone was alarmed. “The flood could come soon- perhaps as soon as tomorrow”, or

Sand bag walls- a common sight in Thailand at that time. (Image Source)

so it was believed. The village council president (at least that’s what I think he was anyway, my family never attended the elections) said that the entrance would have to be closed. Massive concrete pipes would be brought to block the floods. A turtleback style bridge would be made over the pipes to allow entry of cars, but everyone knew that they would be useless if the floods came; cars couldn’t come through the water anyway.

My family made a decision: we would not allow ourselves to be stuck in the village if the river came. An apartment room was quickly rented in the heart of Bangkok, which floods did not threaten quite yet. A year or so before we had had the sense to make an emergency disaster supply bag for everyone, so the packing didn’t take much, and we sealed up the house as best as we could, using tape to seal the openings and future-board to cover the doors. I looked at the house and wondered how long it would be until I could return. It was not a good feeling. Suddenly I had become what I had just learned in Humanities class, an IDP- ‘internally displaced person’, a refugee still in the same country but still displaced.

(Image Source)

The next day, we went to Beijing, not to escape the floods, but because we had prepared for a trip there for some time now and had already bought the tickets and tours and such. It was a welcome break from what I had labelled in my mind the ‘flood madness’ in Bangkok (which was pretty much driving me insane). Going to the Great Wall, eating Mongol suki and walking in the Forbidden City; all of this was very well, but in everyone in the tour’s mind, no one could stop worrying about the floods. It was October, and the next month was November, the time of the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand, where everyone would float ‘krathongs’ (a sort of round thing made from bamboo, to thank the water goddess) in the rivers; the tour guide had joked that he could already float the krathongs right from his front yard when he went back, his house was already flooded. Hahaha. How I hope I won’t have the luxury of doing that. The local Chinese media did not help with this feeling. I was watching TV back at the hotel and the Chinese did this sky report, flying over the flood-ruined industrial estates in Ayutthaya and shouting at the camera in incomprehensible Mandarin.

Soon enough we returned to the apartment in the safety of central Bangkok, only to find that the government had declared everyone

(Image Source)

should immediately evacuate the city. “We can hold the flood!” had been the Prime Minister’s favorite slogan, but it had dramatically failed again and again- districts said by the government as ‘safe’ were often flooded the very evening the assurance was made. We did not take long to decide where to go. Pattaya, and my mother friend’s hotel it would be. We packed up once again, leaving the candy we had bought from Beijing at the apartment, and left for Pattaya that night. (It had been less than twenty four hours ago when we were still sitting in Beijing). My school quickly declared that they were closed for the moment, on the order of the Ministry of Education, and so online homework was quickly sent out.

Pattaya, city of resorts, white beaches, surely it was time for a holiday? Not quite. Days were spent watching TV and staying at the hotel. No gorging yourself silly on seafood then, it isn’t a holiday. Calling to the village administration’s office, we found out that it now found itself besieged by water. The makeshift flood defenses held, but the water was too high for cars to enter. I could only wait for the floods to recede.

Constructing the ‘Big Bags’ barrier. (Image Source)

I can honestly say that the time of the flood was the time I felt the most unhappiness in my life. It wasn’t like I had to go wading in the waters or anything, and soon enough the government declared that everyone should return to work in Bangkok (and I’d like to point out that only a few days before they had said everyone should go out). But not being able to return home made me extremely homesick. Somehow, I just hated the apartment in central Bangkok. I wanted to go home. Turning on the news on TV, you would immediately hear what had become almost an anthem- a song about the floods done by a popular Thai singer (who wrote songs almost as quickly as someone would write a blog post), and although the local Bangkok administration managed to contain the water, they weren’t going to recede very quickly. The reason was because instead of allowing the enormous amount of water (equal to, according to a popular Thai YouTube channel about fighting the flood at that time, fifty million blue whales) to flow down and empty at the ocean, the different authorities had started using giant sand bags (popularly called ‘Big Bags’) to block the water. Soon riots broke where local people, fed up with the fact that the ‘Big Bags’ made the water unable to move away from their own districts, started breaking the Big Bag walls. It also did not help that the government-run FROC (Flood Relief Operation Center) itself was overrun by the water, forcing the government to run away without taking the enormous amount of supplies donated by the people. A tense time for Bangkok indeed.

No doubt I was swept by big big big joy when the village council reported that the floods had receded enough for the cars to come in and people to return. I remember the day when we slowly tore out the tape and the future-board and entered the house in silent triumph. I was the happiest I had been in months.

It would take until the New Year before the whole capital could be said to be free of floods at last. It had not been a fun time for me and I really hope that it won’t happen again.  I remember reading in a book by Conn Iggulden of a character saying something like “I have known hunger, so I know the value of food, I have known cold, so I know the value of shelter”. Well, I can say that from the flood, I know the value of everything from safety to shelter to to dry land and even in a ‘I’m-not-depressed’ state of mind. One flood is enough and the lesson had been learned. There is no need for more.

-Ken

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