Bring it on!
If it's going to flood, then for pete's sake get it over with
I've thought long and hard about which topic to cover in this month's blog. I know, I'll write about flooding in Thailand. Well, if you can't beat ‘em, then join ‘em. That's what I say.
Seriously, hasn't this been the most unbelievably stressful time for everyone concerned? At the time of writing, those of us in Eastern Bangkok, have now been waiting the best part of two months to find out whether or not our homes are going to be inundated with filthy dirty floodwater. And we're still waiting. A water mass the size of a million blue whales (or is it a trillion?) is heading our way, and there isn't one person who can tell you with any assurance, if you're going to be wet or dry.
I'm sure like me you've been keeping yourself updated via the Thailand media. And what fun it's been. Firstly, some Thai expert tells us there is nothing for Bangkokians to worry about. A few hours later, the statement gets counteracted by another expert who says parts of Bangkok are going to be under a meter of water - probably by lunchtime so get out while there is still hope! Floodwalls have been built using giant sandbags. Dykes have been patched up. Floodwalls have sprung leaks or been destroyed by angry mobs fed up with wading around in chest-deep water (and who can blame them) And in many areas, residents have been told to evacuate and not to worry about their property and belongings because the police will keep a watchful eye on them. This by the way, is the same police who have been told by the government to maintain order and yet seem to suddenly disappear when residents start smashing up floodwalls.
And while I'm on the topic, I keep reading about residents wading around in chest-deep water or water that's up to their knees. Surely it depends how tall you are? I mean knee-high to an American basketball player is going to be something else to an Amazonian pygmy. Not that there are many Amazonian pygmies living in Nonthaburi but I'm sure you get my point.
In short, the news changes by the hour depending on who you listen to. I came to the rapid conclusion that no one's got the first fucking clue. Perhaps it's best if I stopped reading The Bangkok Post website altogether and adopt a policy of ‘whatever will come, will come' because the media reporting and general scaremongering have been nothing short of a disgrace - none more so than the choice of headlines. "Thonburi's Doomed" is one that springs to mind and one I'm sure gave a few thousand people sleepless nights. These were headlines chosen by a Bangkok Post employee who obviously gained pleasure from pulling the legs off spiders as a child.
In truth, The Bangkok Post has always loved a good flood. I was living in Bangkok at the time of the last ‘great flood' in the mid 1990s. Although it was nothing compared to the flood crisis we are facing at the moment, The Post took great pleasure in warning us about ‘The Northern Run-off' - and oh boy, did they milk it. Every single day, they put a countdown graphic on the front page of the newspaper proclaiming in the first instance there were '72 days until the run-off reaches Bangkok'. The following day the graphic would read '71 days to go' and so on and so forth. It was like waiting for another planet to collide with the earth. Cometh the day when great tidal waves of floodwater were supposed to hit the city, I think people living in two sois near the river might have got their feet damp. OK I'm probably being flippant, but I don't recall once having to take my shoes and socks off.
I never forgave The Bangkok Post for that. 72 nights I had tossed and turned in bed and all for nothing. I can place hand on heart and honestly say that I have never bought a copy since. I even feel a sense of self-betrayal when I pick one up to while away the time in a dentist's surgery.
I suppose I should be grateful that I am still living in a province that's dry because some of the flood stories from elsewhere in Thailand have been truly heartbreaking. None more so than the tale of Khun Nattapong, a factory manager who works with my wife at a Japanese company in Samut Prakarn. I've met Nattapong or ‘Nat' several times at various functions, usually when my wife invites me and I can't think of an excuse to get out of it.
Nat is a large, round, jovial character and the kind of guy you instantly warm to. He'll often spot me from the other side of a function room and take pity on the ‘token farang' by coming over for a chat. He's a staunch Liverpool supporter, I'm Manchester United, so there is always ten minutes of good-natured banter between us.
When I first met Nat, he told me that he had been a hotel manager in Phuket at the very time that the tsunami hit. In fact, he managed a hotel located right on the seafront - directly in the tsunami's line of fire. Nat has this wonderful story of being trapped in a room full of rising seawater and his life flashing before him. As the water level reached his bottom lip and Nat thought that this was pretty much the end, the gods looked down on him and the water level went no higher. Nat somehow miraculously survived. Surely that would be one water-related story that would last any man a lifetime - but apparently not.
Nat's elderly parents live in a riverside housing estate near Pathum Thani. It was one of the first areas of Bangkok to be hit when the flood made its way down from Ayutthaya. And we all know how bad that was. His parents' house was inundated by a meter of water in no time and they moved their possessions up to the second floor and sat tight. Still the water went higher and eventually they called Nat in a state of distress to tell him that the water level was almost up to the first floor ceiling. Nat raced to the house with the emergency services to rescue his parents. His mother was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties brought on by the stress of the situation (she's still very poorly I'm told) His father simply refused to leave the house. "I've lived here all my life. I'm not abandoning it now". Old people get attached to things. This we know of course.
Nat eventually persuaded his father to leave but it took a superhuman effort. The last I heard, you can just about make out the roof of the house. The rest is submerged under three meters of swirling black water. I asked for an update on the situation from my wife. "There's going to be one hell of a decorating job" Nat had told her.
You could safely say that this man's life has been haunted by water.
Actually, I managed to escape the flood crisis for a couple of weeks, if escape is the right word to use. I selfishly went back to England to see my brother and hopefully have a bit of a holiday at the same time. My wife and I had already moved much of our furniture and stuff upstairs a few days before I left but theoretically I was still abandoning ship and leaving her to take care of business. We were both aware of the dangers she might be facing alone so with my suitcase packed and my passport tucked away in a secret pocket, I made one last gallant attempt to reassure her.
"I won't go if you don't want me to. Let's face this crisis together"
She grabbed my hand, cried tears of joy, gave me a big hug and told me I was the most wonderful husband a woman could wish for. Actually I'm joking. Her exact words were "bugger off, you'll only be getting in the way"
And I have to say she was probably right. I mean can you imagine me in an evacuation center? No internet connection, no football results, and a diet of street-food eaten straight out of plastic bags and washed down with lukewarm bottled water. I would be moaning about everything and everyone - especially the fact that I could be in a nice dry English pub nursing a pint of best bitter.
That's not to say being in England wasn't stressful. Once my body clock had adjusted to British summertime, I began a daily ritual of checking the Thai websites at six in the morning for any flood news updates and then calling my wife on Skype in the late afternoon.
The moment my back was turned, my wife went about turning our modest two-storey home into her very own flood relief shelter. She hauled cartons of milk and bottles of drinking water up to the bedroom and unplugged the television. Little did I know but that was just the beginning.
"What else have you done today?" I casually enquired.
"I've put plastic sheets up against the front and back door and sealed them with industrial silicon" she replied.
"So you decided not to seal the entrances with sandbags?"
"Oh no, the sandbags are coming tomorrow"
She then went on to say that we could only enter and exit the house through a side window and the downstairs toilet was now out of bounds. I may have fallen off the chair at this point.
"Why is the downstairs toilet out of bounds?"
"Well, very often the floodwater can come up through the toilet so I've put a plastic sheet over the toilet bowl and weighed it down with stones and your favorite earthenware vase. By the way, when are you coming home?"
I wasn't sure at that moment whether I even had a home to come back to. Did I even want to return? There were some days when I would chat to my wife on-line and she would be optimistic - other days less so. The real low point was when she pointed out the dangers of crocodiles lurking in the floodwater. She reminded me that our home was located dangerously close to Thailand's largest crocodile farm and apparently crocodiles love a good flood. It has something to do with swimming and freedom. She had also heard that the farm's current star attraction was the world's largest crocodile in captivity and if I didn't believe her, I could check it for myself in the Guinness Book of Records. It was all strangely comforting.
But here I am, back in Samut Prakarn, typing away at the computer, and still waiting for the floods to arrive. One expert has said East Bangkok could experience flooding in the next seven days while another expert has said fourteen. A third expert has recommended we move to somewhere like Malaysia.
Here we go again.