Douglas Thompson's Blog

9 Noveber 2011

Welcome to Sandbag City

My Annual Blog. It seems to have come to that. I only wish I had more time. The last few months have been very demanding. It's not that I do not have anything to say. It's a matter of time management, or lack thereof. I really am thinking of putting a PayPal donation button in the sidebar just to see whether anyone is really paying attention. A few of  you are. Thanks for all the emails.

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Water Water Everywhere ... If I had time, I would count the number of times I have told you in this blog to kill your TV. Our mail bag is full of questions about the flood. Most are concerned about what they have seen on TV A few have been practically hysterical, and a few have said that they realize that the news media distort the truth.

U Chu Liang's Prison Wall

Here's the real story:

There has been massive flooding in Central Thailand following three back-to-back typhoons. Ayutthaya, the old capital, was especially hard hit. Factories there have started to reopen and about 35,000 people are back to work, which will help assure you can buy a new Toyota soon. On the other hand,  as of today 533 people have died.

Northern (around the old airport) and western (across the Chao Praya River) suburbs of Bangkok are seriously affected by flooding. Central Bangkok has been--and is being--saved at the expense of people suffering in the most affected areas. An idealistic, populist government has already forgotten what it stands for. Or maybe not.

The predictably-irresponsible news media, including CNN, have shown photos of parked jumbo jets knee deep in water. What they do not tell you is that the photos were taken at Don Muang (the "old") airport, which has been used by two domestic carriers for the last year. Don Muang is closed. Suvarnabhumi Airport is open and dry. Visitors will not have to wade to the luggage belts. The road from the airport into Bangkok is completely normal since most of it is elevated. The new Airport Link elevated rail system into the city center is operating normally. And it's cheap.

There has been absolutely no flooding in Central Bangkok except for minor problems along the Chao Praya River, which are mostly gone. The 30-50cm (a foot to a foot and a half) flood waters predicted by various "experts" never happened. There is no rain in the long-term forecast and the weather has been gorgeous. Traffic jams in the city have all but disappeared. Bridges and elevated toll-ways have become parking lots for tens of thousands of cars owned by nervous lowlanders.

Businesses in the city have been preparing for the coming deluge for weeks. Many have built cinder block walls as much as three meters tall around their businesses. The Dusit Thani Hotel's tacky plywood wall began to appear three weeks ago. Some walls around the city are attracting the creativity of local graffiti artists, who are not hesitating to make entertaining statements about the politics of the flood. Maybe it is my imagination, but some businesses seem to be trying to outdo each other. The clear winner of the mine-is-bigger-than-yours contest is the U-Chu-Liang Building on Rama IV Road. You could probably survive a nuclear attack behind their 2.5 meter tall wall of sand bags that has made HSBC Bank and the other tenants look like they are within a prison. (Also see top photo.)

The Bombs Will Fall

This preparedness has not been cheap. The price tag for a bag filled with sand three weeks ago was 20 baht. As of the end of last week the cost has risen to as much as 100 baht, about three dollars. If you figure that there are 2 sand bags for every Bangkok resident, the cost to the public sector has been around $20 million. The government has spent 90 billion baht (that's $300 million in real money) on flood-relief efforts, according to a local newspaper. It is not difficult to suspect that some of this has fallen into the customary pockets. Or maybe not.

The Silom/Surawong area, home to popular hotels and gay nightlife, has a drainage system that is separate from the rest of the city. Sadly, hotels, restaurants and nightlife venues here are suffering. This is our third catastrophic high season in a row. Most people employed in tourism and entertainment were not born here here send money to their families "upcountry." Grandma is not getting her weekly allowance, even though she may be waist-deep in water.

The Baby Sister Government has announced a lavish 5,000 (about $150) recompense to Bangkok households that have suffered damage from flash floods. I would love to know what the government has planned for businesses like ours that are facing an uncertain future. The government has consistently lied and flip-flopped about flood management. There has been no leadership, particularly from the top, unless photo ops of celebrity politicians wearing baseball caps throwing bags of relief goods to people standing in filthy water actually means "leadership." Instead, the heads of the various departments dealing with the flood have all vied to be the boss off the flood. Like Bangkok traffic cops at major intersections, they have not spent much time communicating with each other.

Apparently the help of the U.N. has not been needed since news reports say the UN has not been asked. Last week the U.S. Navy parked an aircraft carrier not far away in the Gulf of Thailand and deployed helicopters and disaster relief experts. Apparently they were not needed either since the carrier unceremoniously steamed away without diplomatic comment.

...and Not a Drop to Drink. Despite 1.5 billion cubic meters of water trying to find its way from suburbs into the sea around Bangkok Island drinking water is hard to find and we are paying princely prices for it. Seven baht plastic bottles of water are selling for as much as 39 baht. Even if you use an industrial-strength filter system like I have at home, then boil what comes out, it still stinks and tastes bad. I am not sure I really want to know what is going into my morning coffee.

There is absolutely no flooding in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, most of Isaan, Pattaya, Hua Hin or any the resort destinations in the south of Thailand. There has been no flooding in neighboring countries (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) except for minor flooding in Siem Reap, which is long gone.

The stress of the coming waters has been unbelievable for many of us who live in the city center. It's like living on death row and waiting to hear of a reprieve. We have been subjected daily to "experts" who have predicted gloom and doom. Their predictions have mostly turned out worse for those on the outskirts of the city, and better for those of us who follow same routines that we normally do, except for the numbing stress and guilt of being safe from the deluge. We don?t know which of the ?experts,? if any, we should believe. I?m going to Sanam Luang next weekend (unless it?s flooded, of course!) to listen to what the fortune-tellers have to say. Heck, one expert is as good as another. And I am strongly considering going to Cambodia for a shower.

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