Eastlink Wanana

Bangkok under water

By: | November 21, 2011

Our correspondent winds up in the middle of Thailand’s worst flooding in 50 years

Sherrie McCarthy
Chasing Summer tracks a young Newfoundlander travelling the world on her motorcycle...

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Although motorcycling for several months in South East Asia was never part of the plan, spending three weeks in Thailand was. The original plan was to meet my parents in Thailand for a three week beach vacation while the motorcycles shipped to South America. The shipping to South America failed to happen but my parents, having purchased tickets in May, were still very much Bangkok-bound. That is, until the floods from the North threatened to engulf the city. Assurances from a friend, and our old guesthouse, informed us that city center had not been subject to the devastation that was being broadcast to the world on the news daily. However, as my friend said, that could change from one moment to the next. It all depended on whether the dams held out or not.

Our guest house told us that they were still fine. They even encouraged us to stick to our original plan of a couple of days in Thailand’s capital before we moved on to Koh Chang. In the end we decided the more intelligent choice was to save Bangkok for the end of our trip rather than the beginning, leaving us the option to ditch it entirely if the situation proved to be too wet or disease-invested.

…our map was crap and it would…dump us in the middle of the floods.

My parents were still landing in Bangkok and insisted we did not have to go to the airport to meet them, and that we should all meet in Koh Chang instead. Of course, I was going to the airport. Even if I trusted my parents to make it to Koh Chang (I confess this was something I did not have complete confidence in), we had to ride around Bangkok to get to Koh Chang. There was no way I was leaving them to the fates of Thai transportation if we were going through the area anyway. Our planned route did not involve any flooded areas. We thought our only obstacles were going to be the other drivers.

I hope you weren’t expecting things to work out

There were two factors we were not counting on. The first was that motorcycles (of any size or speed) are not allowed on toll ways. The fastest, easiest, and flood-free way to the airport was on the tollway. The second factor was that our map was crap and it would lead us, not through the dry area as we had predicted, but rather dump us in the middle of the floods.

The shocking part about the flooding was the speed with which it hit. It just appeared, from one street to the next. One moment we were in what we thought was normal Bangkok traffic, and the next moment we noticed a puddle of water stretching across the road. We didn’t feel any panic at this stage, in fact people were going about their business as if the street being covered in two inches of water was completely normal (indeed, with all the flooding it had, by this point, become the new normal).

At first we joked about the bad luck that brought us into the floods, and how easygoing everyone was. We had waterproof boots that sheltered us from what was in effect free flowing sewage. This is not actually as nasty as it sounds: the water just looked dirty, but when the water overflows the catch basins you have various degrees of mixing. I find the best approach is simply not to think about it too much. Or at all.

As we moved deeper into the city we also moved deeper into the flood. Our boots were only waterproof from the sides and the bottom. When the water reaches levels above the boots the water gains entry from above. Surprisingly I was less concerned about my boots filling up with filthy water, and more concerned about the fact that the motorcycles were tiny and we had no idea what depth they could handle.

A city of kindness

When the water is waist deep and you’re pushing your bike for fear of flooding it, you would think you’d be filled with despair and rage. But for once in my life I didn’t react with anger. Instead I was awed by the people of Bangkok. A city known for its craziness, for making a dollar on anyone and everyone they can, had become a city of kindness. The man stuck in his truck next to me rolled down his window to chat with me and make jokes about the situation. Groups of motorcyclists were forming bands to help each other move their bikes through the flood. Instead of every person fending for themselves, it had become like something out of The Three Musketeers. People may have been angry with the government’s handling of the situation, but they were making the best of the situation with each other.

People may have been angry with the government’s handling of the situation, but they were making the best of the situation with each other.

When we finally pulled out onto dry land, we had lost five hours of the day covering less than 10 kilometres of road. And my bike would not start. Despite me turning Temari (nice name, wha?) off to avoid her taking in water, she had still sucked up her fair share. Of course the German’s bike ran fine. Off to the side of the road were about 20 other bikes all being assisted with dryers to get them up and running again. We pushed her into the pile and – without even asking – our rescuers pulled my bike apart and spent 40 minutes drying, wiping and reassembling her so she ran again.

When we tried to pay them we were greeted with the same response they gave to the others who’d tried before us. First, a gentle “no” with the comment that it was “help, and people do not pay for help.” When we pushed a little harder the gentle “no” became a little angrier. Even my offer to at least run over and buy cigarettes was refused when one of them brandished an already full pack in my face. Our rescuer – who spoke English – declared: “I need nothing, please stop trying now. Just have good memories of the people of Bangkok, that is payment enough!”

I was shocked: my theory that tragedy on a vast scale brings out the looter in people had been refuted in one of the world’s most notorious cities.

Once we were on dry land and riding again, however, things returned to Thunderdome: everyone seemed to proceed with the assumption that unless experiencing a natural disaster, the regular (notorious) rules of play are in effect.

But I can deal with that.

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