Monday, October 24, 2011

Bangkok Floods: News vs Facts

If you have been following the news, you would get the impression that all of Bangkok has been flooded. Cars and apartment buildings are submerged in water. You can't walk in the streets. You would have to wade through waist-high water. The city, as far as civic life goes, is dead. The government has declared a state of emergency. And so on -- a litany of dreadful dross. That is the kind of depressing news you must be getting.

Trust me, it is far, far from the truth (well, the emergency thing is true but I hardly saw any soldier anywhere).

I am just back from Bangkok after nearly a week-long stay there and I did not see a single drop of flood water. I repeat, not a single drop of flood water--and I was in central Bangkok. It was warm and sunny and it did not rain at all during the six days of my stay in Bangkok.

Before I had started for the Thai capital, my friends had cautioned me. I had chosen a bad time to go to Thailand.

It reminded me of the last time I had visited Bangkok. Then too, the city was battling another national crisis. The red shirts and the yellow shirts were fighting it out on the streets of Bangkok. Malls were burnt down, people had been shot at. Army had been called in.

Like the last time, this time too, I ignored the warnings and went ahead with my plans. I come back with no regrets.

True, there are widespread floods in the plains and in the areas adjoining Bangkok, but the water is still outside the city. Areas like Pathum Thani have been inundated, which is like 25 kilometers away from the main city (locals have moved to shelters and expats have moved back to their countries for now). The water has since been coming closer to the city and the administration wants to use the city canals to drain off the water to the Gulf of Bangkok. Yesterday, the headline in a local daily said that flood water in Bangkok was expected in 4-5 days.

The government has said that the flood situation could continue for 4-6 weeks in the affected areas. If it does not rain, I don't see any major flooding in the Bangkok city.

During the time I was in Bangkok, I did not notice any flood water but I saw some signs of public panic. I put it down to public preparedness, a natural human instinct, in the face of an expected disaster.

In one of the stores Big C in downtown Bangkok, I went to buy bottled water. Most of it was gone. Only a handful of bottles were left on the shelves. Same was true of noodles (The Thais are fond of noodles, aren't they?).

My sister who lives in Bangkok reported something similar. Water and noodles were gone from the shelves at the store in Narathiwas where she shops. I checked for other items in the same store. There were many empty shelves and I noticed that some choice spices were also gone. My brother in law, who is an expert in disaster management, said that these stores are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the flood. Given the brisk sale and the resulting profits, one shopping store chain has even announced an IPO on the stock exchange. This is called business sense.

Another interesting story that I read in the papers was about some local residents who had parked their cars on a highway, fearing that flood waters might damage their vehicles. This kind of parking then caused anger among the motorists who use the highway. Apparently, all parking places have been opened to Thai citizens who can park their vehicles without paying fees.

In the flooded areas outside Bangkok, apparently some crocodiles had escaped the farms. The authorities had advised people to beat the waters with sticks to scare away the crocodiles. A zoo in the city reported that it was ready to move the animals to proper shelters following an emergency evacuation plan.

A city of sandbags

While I walked around the city, I noticed sandbags at the entrance of malls and other business establishments, especially banks and ATMs.

Other than this, the city seemed normal. It was business as usual everywhere. I saw the Thais and tourists enjoying their Phad Thai noodles and barbequed chicken and cat fish everywhere. The malls were open, tourists were buying fake Luis Vuitton bags and the pimps were peddling girls and sex shows in Patpong like nothing was happening outside the city.

Outside a mall. I saw a tent manned by uniformed people. They were there to collect donations for the flood victims. I saw packets of noodles and water bottles stacked up within the tent.

On my way to the Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday, the freeway was devoid of much traffic. It was a shiny morning and the green farms around the airport looked beautiful. As I boarded the plane, I silently said a prayer for the City of Lost Angels. I flew with the foolish belief that calamity will not touch this great city. Foolish beliefs--sometimes that's all we have.

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