2011. I was living in Thonburi, Bangkok, just over the river from the well-known Khao San Road, the neon-light, bar-filled street where many a backpacker spends the first nights of their Southeast Asian adventure, likely crouched over a plate of Pad Thai with a cheap and very strong cocktail of dubious alcohol. This was my second time living in the mega-city at the beating heart of Thailand. Bangkok sits on the Chao Praya River that winds down from northern Thailand via the old capital of Ayuthaya, before it runs out into the Gulf of Siam a few miles south. Bangkok in the old days was known as the Venice of the East – the city was once criss-crossed by a large network of canals – khlongs in Thai. The boats that plied the river were the most important form of traffic at the time. Some of these khlongs are still there, and in use, but many of them have reluctantly given way to a concrete jungle that has grown up over the years, and anyone that knows Bangkok will probably agree, the nickname “world’s largest car-park” can be appropriately applied.
It is known that Bangkok is sinking. Built on marshy land over soft clay after the fall of Ayuthaya in 1767, it was never meant to sustain such a high volume and concentration of high-rise buildings, and a huge population density with all the needs this brings. A combination of the soft clay earth, with previously uncontrolled extraction of ground water has led to an estimated 1-2 cm sinking each year. The Asean Post has a fascinating article here.
During the monsoon season from June to October, floods are normal in Bangkok. But they are usually localized, and subside after hours or days. 2011 was different. It began in the north after a severe tropical storm made landfall, and caused the flooding of the Mekong and Chao Praya river basins. Much of this vast volume of water moved south along the Chao Praya river to Ayuthaya, about two hours’ drive north of Bangkok, where it escaped out onto the flood-plains surrounding the city, some of which is farmland, much of which is built on. Whilst this took some strain off the river, it ultimately caused flooding of residential and commercial areas. As I was living in Bangkok, I was asked by my friend Khun Shom to join a team of volunteers led by the Thai police to assist in providing relief to residents in the Ayuthaya area who were affected by the floods.
So I spent 15th October 2011 travelling in the back of a military truck, helping to deliver food essentials such as bags of rice and drinking water. In the tropical heat, it was an exhausting day, but I was pleased to be able to help. At this point, I did not anticipate that I, as a Bangkok resident, would also find myself in need of help.
Frankly, all I had to do was look at a map. The vast volumes of water sitting in and around Ayuthaya had to go somewhere. Ultimately, it was heading to the sea, and it’s pretty obvious that to get there, it had to go through Bangkok.
Two weeks later, I arrived back from travelling in Myanmar. I took the airport train to Phaya Thai in central Bangkok, then travelled out towards the banks of the Chao Praya river to the wide Pinklao road bridge that I had to cross to get to my neighbourhood. As I walked over the bridge it became clear quite quickly that I was not able to go any further. The bridge no longer spanned the water, but went straight down into it.
Although I saw that there were army trucks and navy boats offering rides to parts of the Pinklao neighbourhood, I figured I would need some kind of independence, and therefore my own vessel, so I returned back to the city centre, and bought an inflatable dingy from the adventure section of a department store.
Descending down the bridge that was now a slipway, I sat near the edge of the flood to inflate my boat. Once I had it filled, I loaded it with my luggage, and pushed myself off the road with the flimsy plastic oars. I had about a kilometre of flooded roads to navigate. Along the way I rowed past half-submerged cars and trucks, and it was difficult to tell where there might be any underwater obstacles. A big concern was the possibility of live electric cables in the water, and there was also much talk of escaped snakes from farms around the city.
Eventually, I made it home to my apartment building behind the Pata department store. The water was lapping at the building but as it was slightly elevated, the building itself was not flooded.
Over the next week, I made several trips out by boat, taking photos along the way. I often rowed to the local 7-11 convenience store to buy supplies, mooring my boat outside. I rowed past families floating in giant tubs, and at one point I had a boat race with the Thai navy. Surreal, as we raced along the flooded street underneath the elevated highway. I think they may have just won the race, but only just.
I had to return to the UK due to a family emergency, and therefore get to the airport with a large backpack. For this I hitched a ride in a small navy boat to the main road, and waited for the next army truck. When the truck came, I slung my backpack onto the roof of the truck, and climbed in the back, stood up and packed in like sardines for the ride to the bridge and the dry side of the city.
Due to the highly saturated ground, it was a couple of months before the flood waters subsided and finally drained out to sea. Although 2021 saw heavy flooding in the city, thankfully there hasn’t been any flooding since that was quite as severe and prolonged as 2011, but with the city sinking and the sea levels rising, it may become a more regular occurrence, not just in Bangkok, but in other cities around the world.
As I write this, exactly two years since I boarded a plane or crossed an international border, I now know the importance of not taking travel for-granted. I also hope that we can all fly a little less and only when other transport isn’t available or not practical. As a big fan of trains, I’d take one over a flight, any day. More on trains to come.