article

10.27.11

Panic in Bangkok

With water slowly seeping into the teeming Thai capital, residents are stocking up or evacuating, fearing an epic flood—but others say they’re overreacting. Lennox Samuels reports on the frantic scene. Plus, see photos.

Bangkok’s inner-city residents have intensified their flood-preparation activities, taking advantage of the government’s declaration of a five-day public “holiday” to head out of town, or fortify their dwellings, or snap up any provisions that make sense—and some that don’t—at supermarkets. They share a sense of impending disaster and one question: when?

No one knows when millions of cubic meters of water will surge into the central city, but some parts of the metropolitan area are already flooded, including Don Mueang, where the regional airport is located; Yaowarat, which includes Chinatown; and other districts close to the swollen Chao Phraya River, such as Dusit, which contains the Grand Palace, the longtime residence of Thailand’s monarchy and a highly popular tourist attraction—now under water.

Thousands of Bangkokians are fleeing the city by buses, planes, trains, and private vehicles. Many are bound for destinations such as Chiang Mai in the north and Phuket in the south. A large number also have left for Pattaya and Hua Hin, both perennial seaside tourist havens, according to Franz Dobersberger, managing director of A&F Tour. “Anywhere but Bangkok, really,” he told The Daily Beast. The departing throng includes foreigners as well as Thais, both groups scared away by predictions that some 400 million cubic meters of floodwaters will not only engulf the entire city, but will rise to as much as five feet in some areas.

With tides expected to peak between Oct. 28 and 31, authorities are now saying the coming weekend is a flash point for flooding, and they suggest that now is a good time for people to find an alternate place to mark Halloween. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who have been at odds frequently as the crisis has built, now agree that the central city will indeed be inundated, although their views on the degree of damage don’t dovetail. The governor hazards that not all 50 city districts will be affected. The P.M. still seems hopeful that the city core will be spared. And for now, key commercial centers such as Silom, Sukhumvit, and Sathorn do remain mostly dry—although also engaged in frantic sandbagging and wall-building.

Fatalism and a kind of exasperation have seeped into the apprehensiveness Bangkokians have displayed for weeks—a sign of fatigue with frequently shifting predictions, and the spectacle of a parade of officials, as well as the media, crying wolf.  “Entire City Told to Brace,” screamed The Nation newspaper, which gave over its entire Thursday front page to the looming calamity.

“I think these reports are too much,” travel agent Kornkawin Jirachaiyakan told The Daily Beast. “They make people scared—and nothing happens. If you look in the media, it sounds like a disaster. And if flooding comes to Bangkok, it probably won’t even be in the areas they say.”

He is among the many city dwellers who seem to be saying flood, already. The uncertainty has led to everything from depleted shelves at corner groceries to empty concourses at giant malls like the upscale Paragon, which offers wares ranging from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to Lamborghini supercars. Kornkawin says he and other city residents would prefer that if flooding were to occur, that it would do so quickly and move through the city “so we can deal with it and get on with our lives.” In the meantime, he says, the media should stop “making people scared.”

'Entire City Told to Brace,' screamed The Nation newspaper, which gave over its entire Thursday front page to the looming calamity.

Tana Mongkhonyanon disagrees. The restaurant manager lives in Sena, near Dong Mueang Airport, and says he wades through almost a foot of water each day en route to work. Sena is in a low-lying area and is flooded almost every year, he told The Daily Beast, especially when there’s heavy rainfall. He says people in his area take flooding in stride, which he believes could be a problem. “When you have it yearly, then you don’t pay much attention. And when the water comes much higher than we expected or are used to, then we don’t have enough time to react. It’s a good thing to be panicked.”

Hoping that the floods will swiftly pass through Bangkok may be wishful thinking in any event. The surging waters that have drowned a third of the nation’s provinces for more than two months, led to the deaths of some 380 people, and caused billions of dollars in damage are expected to languish in Bangkok for at least a month before receding. Yingluck has said the water may stick around as long as six weeks. The government’s Flood Relief Operations Center is urging residents to not only heed the frequent warnings, but take evasive measures, including leaving their homes if they live in at-risk dwellings, such as single-story houses.

Many are taking the FROC at its word. Managers of Bangkok apartment complexes are being besieged with inquiries from residents seeking short-term rentals—for a month or so. Hotels are packed as well, with the occupancy rate hovering at about 85 percent. Authorities have asked them to make some rooms available to evacuees at low cost. Management officials at the international airport, Suvarnabhumi, will give over a nearby parking garage to about 1,500 flood evacuees, many of whom live in the surrounding area—which is expected to be under water soon.

And the exodus of locals and tourists persists. “I have some friends who would not stay,” says Emmanuel Schoff, a Frenchman who has been coming to Bangkok for 17 years and lives much of the year in the city. ”They left immediately for Cambodia.”  With all the breathless warnings and emergency contingencies, he muses, it would be anticlimactic if central Bangkok were to remain dry. “At this point, if the flood doesn’t come, I’ll be disappointed,” he says. It’s unlikely many panicked Bangkokians would be as droll.