Oct 23 2011

Evacuating from the Bangkok floods: a firsthand account

Published by at 2:26 pm under Floods


by Hamish Chalmers

The two or so hours we spent in our family home after I hit send with my dispatch to Travelfish.org about the inundation of our moo baan in Nonthaburi (on the edge of Bang Bua Thong and Pak Kret) were eerie and a little surreal. We felt uncommonly alone. The normal chatter of neighbours over garden fences, the security guards making their regular circuits on squeaky bicycles, and the general thrum of life had ground to a halt.

The flooded entrance to the moo baan.

The flooded entrance to the moo baan.

This silence was punctuated only occasionally by residents’ shouts to one another from second floor windows, across the oozing canals where once there were roads. The theme of these fractured conversations was always the same: Are you ok? What are you going to do? Are you going to evacuate? At first it was all, “No. This is bad but the water hasn’t reached indoors yet,” “We’ve been measuring the level, it’s only risen a centimetre in the last half hour,” “They’re saying it’s still dry on the main road,” “We’ve got plenty of food, let’s see it out.”

But then a subtle yet palpable change happened. It started with the return of a neighbour who had chosen to get away the previous day, while everything was still dry. His arrival was announced by a sloshing wave that lapped against our front stoop as a six-wheeler tow truck pulled into his drive and winched his car onto its flatbed. Wasting no time and precious few words he had the car strapped down and was off.

We then began to get a series of Facebook messages from concerned friends telling of other moo baans in the area that were now chest deep. A friend who works for the irrigation department first advised, then pleaded, then told us in no uncertain (and atypically sharp) terms to get out. She said information from her office indicated that a massive inundation was inevitable. As all of this was going on we were starting see distinctly the level of water rising. Our neighbour opposite shouted over that he had grabbed the number of the six-wheeler and had called it to come back to take him and his family out. Did we want to come?

Amazingly my wife and I had to discuss whether we wanted to take him up on his offer; such was our disbelief that if we were at serious risk we would not have already been told to evacuate, rather than finding out secondhand through a lucky acquaintance. We still felt that we might be able to see it through. We also had the question of where on earth we were going to go. We thought about going to a hotel in Bangkok or finding a condo we could rent by the day.

But we have a dog, Moo Yong is her name, and hotels and condos aren’t famed for their tolerance of pets. Still a little relunctant, ultimately we agreed that we should abandon our home and figure out where to go en route. We packed two cases, one full of the neccessities for Millie, our eight month old daughter, and another with a few changes of clothes, our passports and ID cards for us. We moved the last few bits and bobs upstairs and waited to be collected. Then a setback: our neighbour called across to say that the driver of the six-wheeler had phoned saying he could not make it back in. The water level of the main road — until then apparently dry — had got so high that it was impassable.

On the truck getting out.

On the truck getting out.

Panic really began to set in. And the water continued to rise. At this point we were continuing to get reports from friends on Facebook and information from Twitter, a mixture of concern, speculation and rumour about the situation in our area. The main road was flooded, the flooding extended two or three kilometres south (the direction of Bangkok), only 10-wheelers and bigger could make it through the water, and so on. If only part of this was accurate it still painted a very different picture to the one we had imagined at the beginning, that flooding was localised to the moo baans, roads were clear and that the flood was ultimately more of an inconveniece than a threat. We were properly panicking by now.

My wife phoned a friend who has a six-wheeler and asked her if she could come out to get us. We knew that she wouldn’t be able to get all the way to us but that if she could at least get to the dry spot those two or three kilometres south of us, just on the other side of a bridge that takes the main road over a canal that had burst it banks, then we would find a way to meet her there. She couldn’t make it herself but she would call another friend of ours, Lor, to collect her truck and drive out. Lor cycled his way through a kilometre of knee high water from his own flood to get to her before setting out to cross northern Bangkok.

In the meantime we started to see our neighbours slowly but surely evacuating the moo baan. In groups of two, three and four we first heard the sloshing then saw them struggling through the knee-high water, suitcases and holdalls slung over their shoulders or clutched to their chests. Some were pulling plastic basins full of their belongings behind. There is something very unsettling about gradually, household by houshold, person by person, being left behind. Still very unclear about how we were going to get from our moo baan to our friends truck, we got wind that there was a 10-wheeler coming to pick people up and that we could get a lift on it.

The water was rising now at such a rate that the only option was to leave the house and take our chances on this bit of information being correct. It was beginning to get dark (the sun falls behind the horizon very rapidly in the tropics, and one goes from dazzling sunshine to pitch black in a matter of a handful of minutes) as my wife strapped Millie to her chest in a baby sling and I put one bag on my back and hugged the other. We flipped the mains supply breaker to off and waded out, promising to return for the dog. It’s about a kilometre from our house to the front gates of the moo baan; when you’re carrying two large cases and wading through knee-high water it feels an awful lot further.

As we waded through the deluge we passed houses in darkness and houses still with people looking out nervously. One neighbour raised a glass of Thai whiskey as we passed. “I never thought I’d see a day like this,” she shouted from her balcony. Otherwise the eerie quiet continued, underscored by the schloop schloop of our legs dragging through the water and the sound of it lapping against the walls in our wake. At one point we passed a house with a dog going crazy in the garden. Every couple of steps a snarling snout darted from the bushes lining the fences and snapped at us; we could hear mournful howls of man’s best friend frightened and abandoned.

Mobile services like Twitter and Facebook became the link to outside.

Mobile services like Twitter and Facebook became the link to outside.

By the time we got to the clubhouse near the entrance to the moo baan it was the best part of dark. There was a small gaggle of people waiting around, everyone looking concerned or resigned, no one saying much. A couple of chihuauas and a pomeranian barked at each other. We still really weren’t sure how we were going to get out; we were under the impression that the 10-wheeler we’d heard about was coming from the army, or that the local authorities were sending an evacuation vehicle or boat or something to get us.

Calves already aching I headed back into the deluge to get Moo Yong. It was easier going on the way back as I wasn’t weighed down by bags, but the prospect of having to cary her back through it squirming in my arms wasn’t a happy one. I made it back to the house, passing a few more evacuees on their way out, and entered our pitch black house. Moo Yong looked frightened and confused as I put her lead on and took her back out into the wet. Her head just made it above water level and so we were able both to walk back to the club house.

There was no sign of any truck, but there were a trio of guys dressed like special ops soldiers: black hats with TSI printed on them in lime green, ultility belts, black combat trousers and long-sleeve black lycra shirts. We think they were sent by Bang Bua Thong local authority. They had a couple of flat-bottomed row boats which they told us we could use inside the moo baan, much use that that was now. We asked them what the situation was outside and were horrified to learn that water on the main road had reached waist height, and in their opinion nothing but an army truck could get through.

It turned out that the 10-wheeler we had heard rumour of had been called in by one of our fellow evacuees to tow his pick up truck to dry land, not the army and not from the local authority. It slowly appeared from within the moo baan, the pick up truck behind it at the end of a chain. Through this small piece of dumb luck — to have been at the club house when these guys passed by — we had stumbled upon our way out. Had we not left the house when we did, or had it taken me longer to get back to get Moo Yong and return, we would have missed it and would still probably be there.

Our small group of evacuees flagged him down and jumped up on to the flatbed behind the cab. Millie still snug in her papouse, Moo Yong shaking and my wife and me sharing a mixture of relief to be on our way out and concern at what lay ahead. The truck pulled out into the dark with a clunk. As we moved forward the water level gradually increased until we were in the main road. Just as the special ops guys had said, the water was high enough to be sputtering just under the exhaust pipe which belched out clouds of black deisel in protest.

As we made our way down the wrong side of this eight lane highway-cum-river the scene was one of a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy. Everything we saw was half-submerged in slowly flowing water. Dead cars floated up against the median strip. People were walking through the flood, balancing suitcases on their shoulders or pushing floating plastic wash basins full of stuff in front of them. One of these contained a massive golden retriever.

As we passed one group they shouted for us to stop and let them on. We did and they piled on to the flatbed and into the rear of the pick-up we were towing, leaving behind one of their number to push his motocycle, the handlebar and speedometer of which was pretty much all we could see above the water. He didn’t look happy.

We saw a few small row boats stuffed with people and possessions and at one point a speed boat, either too low in the water to work or broken. It, and the large group of frightened people inside, was being towed on the end of a rope by a lone man. Along the median strip people had pulled themselves up out of the water to rest and dogs were tied to some of the trees that line it.

We passed broken down trucks full of people, steaming and motionless. A jet ski passed us moving in the opposite direction, as did more walkers. It didn’t look good seeing people going in the opposite direction, knowing that it would only get worse the further north they went. What could be sending them back? All the while my wife was on the phone to our friend Lor, who we still aimed to meet over the bridge.

As we approached the bridge we caught up with a line of vehicles until suddenly they all ground to a halt. In an effort to save their cars from a watery grave, people had parked them on the bridge, taking up two of the three lanes, leaving one for traffic travelling in two directions. A six-wheeler truck had broken down in this one remaining lane; it was the one Lor was driving.

Others may have been spitting the dummy but Millie was cool as a cucumber.

Others may have been spitting the dummy but Millie was cool as a cucumber.

Now we were faced with the terrible prospect of spending the night on the back of our flatbed as the water rose around us, getting off and walking (which would mean carrying the dog and our daughter and leaving behind our bags and with them our meagre collection of essentials), or waiting for someone to come and get us. Seeing the chaos around us brought into sharp relief what we could or couldn’t expect from the authorities. Had we been in the UK the emergency services would have been on the ball and enacted some systematic evacuation protocol. We would be seeing flashing blue lights and bright yellow safety vests. Reassuring voices would be explaining exactly what was going on and what we could expect and when. In short we would be feeling confident that we would be okay. On this day, we hadn’t even been warned that we might have to face evacuation.

For the first time in my life I felt that something unthinkable was not, in fact, all that unthinkable. This is not to say that the volunteers and the community haven’t been doing a fantastic job, and continue to do so in the face of Thailand’s most extensive natural disaster since the tsunami, and the worst flooding in 50 years. The community spirit is amazing here. The encouragement and help we received all the way, from friends and strangers alike, was quite overwhelming in its generosity; without it we would not have got as far as that blocked bridge, let alone all the way out, as ultimately we did. We have a lot to be thankful for.

Having cycled through a kilometre of water, driven all the way across Bangkok only to break down in a metre of water, Lor nonetheless waded through the remaining 50 metres or so to find us and tell us what had happened. He was still smiling. As this was happening somebody with authority had shown up and was busy clearing the blockage, dragging Lor’s truck further into the wet in order to make a path. Some trucks ahead of us backed up to let the traffic off the bridge and mercifully it wasn’t long before we were off again. Leaving Lor behind (who I am happy to say eventually got his truck started and made it home safely) we drove on to the bridge and out into the dry. Still unsure where we were going, we made some phone calls and eventually found another friend in Bangkok who warmly agreed to take us in, soaking wet, dog and all; that Thai friendship and sense of community again. On the ground it is something to behold.

Travelfish's new flood correspondent.

Travelfish's new flood correspondent.

Now we are playing a waiting game. Bangkok is under a critical flood warning but they seem finally have got it together to warn people in good time. The governor yesterday ordered the evacuation of 27 neighbourhoods along the banks of the Chao Praya River. The prime minister gave a briefing to say that flooding in all areas of Bangkok is now highly likely, if not inevitable. She expects it to take between four and six weeks for the resulting inundation to fully recede.

Electricity to our moo baan has been cut, so I now have an image of the contents of our fridge rotting in the tropical heat. We have no idea whether water has entered our house or not. It’s highly likely that it has. If the floods will take more than a month to recede, what does that mean in terms of our return? Then there’s the implied threat of a village full of empty, unguarded houses.

Still, we have our lives and, aside from a few aching bones and mosquito bites, our health. And we have each other and the warmth of knowing that enough people here cared to have made sure we got out. The rest should be all downstream from here.

All photos courtesy of Hamish Chalmers and a very big thanks for taking the time to pen the above during this very difficult period.

8 responses so far

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8 Responses to “Evacuating from the Bangkok floods: a firsthand account” ...

  1. Weson 23 Oct 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Wow. Glad you made it. Great account and helpful to the rest of us a warning to be ready to leave at any time. We live off thonglor so we’re infected with the “surely it can’t reach US” mentality. But now we have a full tank of gas and clear evacuation plans. Hope your home is ok when you return to it.

  2. Gabon 23 Oct 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Good account. I was hit by the 2010 flood in Hat Yai, in the far south of Thailand. There was no clear Warning of any sort. It was always confusing information about rain fall, river flow and water release from dams.

    One thing I learned from that experience. Don’t trust anyone with my personal safety. If everyone you talked to is saying the same thing, do just the opposite. (People who say that this has never happened…, or it does not seem likely) I’m sure that neighbor of yours who moved out one day earlier is having a much better time with managing his family and property.

    Always be prepared!!!
    It’s easier to do preparations, then go back and do clean up.

  3. Mikeon 24 Oct 2011 at 6:17 am

    Wow. Well written, and well done. Hope your home survives as well as your family!

  4. pierreverweyon 24 Oct 2011 at 9:43 am

    Fascinating account which gives one real insight of physiology and psychology of facing a flood threat head on. I was spellbound!

  5. Lisaon 24 Oct 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Wow – that makes for fascinating reading especially as we were only just in Bkk a few days ago. Thanks for sharing – and good luck sorting things out over the upcoming weeks.

    PS – I was glad that you went back for the puppy!

  6. Hamish Chalmerson 24 Oct 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you all. It was a very stressful experience, but in fact the not knowing when we can return is proving to be more of a mentally challenge. Now that we have got over the excitement of the event itself, told the story, thanked the wonderful people (both friends and strangers, in person and online) for their kind words, the idea that we may not even be able to go back to see what state the house is in let alone return to our home is very hard to live with. I never thought I’d be a refugee.

    It will all work out in the end though … won’t it.

  7. Sleeon 29 Oct 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Hi, Hamish, thank God you & family are safe – hang in there and keep your chins up. Be as Thai as you can be now, taking it all with a smile! I left BKK a few days ago before most of my associates saw the need to leave. Let’s hope they are right. But I wish they will read your harrowing account and get out while they still can. Thanks!

  8. Hamish Chalmerson 30 Oct 2011 at 11:52 am

    Thanks Slee. Certainly, had we had more warning/information we would have done things differently. But hindsight is always 20:20 isn’t it. Now just waiting for the time when we can return to see what remains of our place. Glad you got out in time.

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