Nov 09 2011

An ugly mood: Bangkok flood worries

Published by at 9:50 pm under Floods

I’m lucky. I’ve been able to report on the Thai floods as an unaffected observer. My house isn’t inundated, and the smell of sewage doesn’t fill my neighborhood. Ask me in a few days and I might no longer be able to say those things, but I’ll still be glad that our neighborhood lasted as long as it did. I’ve been asked a lot what it “feels like” in Bangkok right now, as citizens wait for the flood waters to either fill the streets or pass us by. Feelings are subjective, but this is what it feels like to me.

Houses on Paholyothin Rd, Bangkok

Houses on Phaholyothin Road, Bangkok.

Everyday I wake up and immediately check out the window to see if the street has flooded. I know it’s illogical — the power would probably be off, and honestly I could probably smell it from bed before I got out. Also my dog would be furiously objecting to the water invading her own personal patio. But I do it anyway. I don’t do it out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of dread. Every day could be *the* day. Friends say they do the same thing.

Our dog stays alert for us. Or something like that.

Our dog stays alert for us. Or something like that.

I immediately look at Twitter, first my personal feed, then the frenzied (and often entirely incorrect/incoherent) #thaifloodeng stream. Next comes a quick round up of the two English-language dailies in Bangkok. Satisfied that the water isn’t right around the corner, it’s coffee and shower time. The kicker? I’ve had this routine going for more than a month now. I can hardly believe this natural disaster has been going on for a month; it’s become the new normal. After a shower, I decide if I have time to go and check the canals before work, or if I ride straight there. The last week there hasn’t been much reason to check the canals; they are always entirely full to the brim.

Man pedals through flood water in Don Muang District, Bangkok

Man pedals through flood water in Don Muang district, Bangkok.

I ride to work in the glorious Bangkok sunshine — rainy season, after all, is well over, and the skies are blue as can be. I spend a full 50 percent of my non-kitchen time (I’m a chef when not writing for trying to source things that I can no longer get from my normal suppliers. Canned sweetened condensed milk (a necessity for serving coffee in the Kingdom!), tuna, frozen fruits, avocados — even bottled cooking gas — have a spotty supply. We beg, borrow, and plead what we can, and make the rest ourselves (including sweetened condensed milk, which is delicious when handmade). What is available seems to increase in price almost daily.

Water overflows during a tidal flood, Sam Sen Rd, Bangkok

Water overflows during a tidal flood, Sam Sen Road, Bangkok.

Home again in the dark, with a quick check up Phaholyothin or Vipihadi to see how far down the water’s come. It doesn’t take too long to make the check now that the water is a few hundred metres north of my normal turn off into my neighborhood. Getting food for ourselves is easy as long as we stick to Thai food — Huai Kwang wet market has been open and fully stocked through the duration. Our local Tesco Lotus and Big C (supermarket chains) have been a different story. The shopping experience is closer to what it must have been like in eastern Bloc countries or Argentina during their currency crisis — empty shelves, long lines, a lingering whiff of desperation.

No soup for you, ever. Empty shelves at Makro, a large cash and carry chain in Bangkok.

No soup for you, ever. Empty shelves at Makro, a large cash and carry chain in Bangkok.

Not being able to get Parmesan cheese isn’t exactly a crisis, but going into Tesco Lotus last Friday to pick up something for dinner I was presented with the barest shelves I have ever seen. If I wanted to buy oranges, fish sausages, batteries, aspirin, or headphones, I was set. Everything else was gone, including the chewing gum and ice. We decided to just have whiskey and soda for dinner, something we already had on hand.

Sometimes it's what's for dinner. Calming and refreshing. Then ANGRY TIMES.

Sometimes it's what's for dinner. Calming and refreshing. Then ANGRY TIMES.

We’ve moved all of our stuff to the second floor of our house, creating a makeshift living room in the small covered area where we normally dry our clothes. All that remains downstairs in the fridge (on blocks — we’ll move it up when the water arrives, along with the gas canisters and the burners). Our “survival stocks” are limited: pasta and tinned sauce, booze, soda water, cereal and boxed milk. When we don’t have power any more, our water will also be out (we have a pump that transfers water from the city mains to our water system — without electricity it doesn’t work), so we’ll be forced to evacuate once our reserved water for toilet flushing is exhausted.

Boys play in a flooded river ferry terminal, Si Yak, Bangkok

Boys play in a flooded river ferry terminal, Si Yak, Bangkok.

It’s not that our day to day lives have changed so much — I still go to work every day, and barbecue something on the weekend, and fail to read the serious fiction I have on my book list. It’s that the only thing on everyone’s mind is the flood. Talking with our Thai friends in other parts of the city the conversation starts nam tuam mai? (is it flooding?). Are you going upcountry? Where will your family stay if you stay with the house? With our foreign friends we discuss what canal it has reached, and where to go if it comes and what to do if we’re left behind and all the exit routes are blocked. None of the answers are measured or reasoned, because none of us know what to do. Buy a boat and row out? Wade to higher ground? Hope the army evacuates us? Who knows. Some friends have already been shipped back to their home countries because the factories they worked at are still under a metre of water. Others, houses uninhabitable to the north, stay with friends or move down south.

Beautiful in its terribleness.

Beautiful in its terribleness.

It’s an echo chamber of nothing but the flood, happening under sunny blue skies and fair weather. It’s an absurd, surreal situation worthy of a South American mystical realism prose, involving talking water that’s actually your dad and a magical floating grandma.

In then end, the only thing I hold on to is that something will work out. Really, it takes up way too much mental space to consider other wise. Let’s not talk about it anymore — it’s exhausting — since we can still get beer, let’s drink it and not think about the water any more. We’ll fix it when it gets here. What can you do except look up and accept what’s coming?

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8 Responses to “An ugly mood: Bangkok flood worries” ...

  1. jan kon 10 Nov 2011 at 3:37 am

    Hope everything works out for u guys back there!
    If everything goes as planned i will arrive in Bangkok early January..
    Hopefully by then everything will be a bit closer to it’s “normal” state but we’ll see.
    If not i guess the only way is up or down..Chiang mai or koh samui/koh tao.

    Best of luck!

  2. Gregon 10 Nov 2011 at 9:19 am

    Nail on the head Brock. As live only a few blocks from you, this is exactly my day as well (except for the cooking and – ugh – fish sausage part). A few friends of mine were perplexed that I wasn’t preparing to evacuate, but to where? With what? It’s not like I have a huge chunk of ‘evacuation cash’ lying around, and I’ve got a job that I can’t just leave. I’m very lucky that I haven’t had any flooding in my ‘hood yet, but the only things I know for sure is: 1) It’s probably coming pretty soon; 2) Not a single person knows when or how bad it’ll be; and 3) There are much worse disasters to deal with – in a month it’ll all be gone and we can get back to drinking whiskey soda’s for fun and not out of necessity.

  3. Mark Wienson 10 Nov 2011 at 10:37 am

    Sounds a lot like what I’ve been doing everyday when I wake up in the morning. A few weeks ago it used to be that I looked out the window as soon as I’d wake up, check the twitter feed and then drink coffee. Now it seems I’m starting to drink coffee first…then look out the window. It’s not that the flood has become less important (in fact it’s getting more widespread in Bangkok), it’s just become more routine and the flood is just a part of everyone that lives in Bangkok. In the mean time I’ll have to sample some of that homemade condensed milk!

  4. Christopher Lukeon 10 Nov 2011 at 11:49 am

    Interesting as I live in Phra Khanong but decided to relocate to my partner’s home in Isaan – that was on the 28th October. So it has been double expenses at a time when my income is in flux but the rural air, good food and relaxed atmosphere here is a blessing.

    However, it cannot last. My home in Bangkok has remained dry and Thai food supplies in PK have remained ok. The question is do I return now?

    Good blog – enjoyed the insights. Like everyone who posted a comment – my routine is exactly the same first thing in the morning!

  5. Seleiseon 10 Nov 2011 at 1:37 pm

    You are so talented, my friend. I can feel the city through your words and hope the flooding doesn’t get to you. Be safe, chico esclavo. keep us posted.

  6. Brockon 10 Nov 2011 at 2:33 pm

    @Jan Yeah, we certainly hope it’s back to normal by January, too!

    @Greg Thanks man — really appreciate the feedback, and yes, soon we can drink whisky and soda for fun instead of out of dread.

    @Mark You should, it’s sinfully good and it’s ridiculously easy to make.

    @Christopher If you want to come back, do it, but the refreshing country air sounds good to me…

    @Seleise Thanks! Estoy cierto que el agua va inundarnos, pero el chico esclavo perdurare!

  7. heidion 11 Nov 2011 at 10:25 am

    hi Melissa – really interesting reading your account. I cant imagine having to live thru that mess. You are amazing survivor. It seems to me there would be disease starting to spread around with all the polluted water and are there snakes?!! Yikes, I think I would have to come home. What a great experience for you though, you seem to be doing well and are employed, sounds pretty great for you most of the year. take care, love, heidi

  8. issyon 12 Nov 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Update for those who think about cancelling.

    Hey i’ve just taken a train from Phitsanulok to Bangkok, it runs well but takes 4h more than usual.
    Kao San road area (where i am right now) is dry, but the Chao Praya is really full.

    Buses run as well but at the bus station be prepared to get you feet wet up to the knees.