At the beginning of my second year in Thailand, I never thought I would witness this, but how wrong I was to be.
Thailand has a tropical savannah climate, leaves it vulnerable to flooding during the monsoon seasons. This year was no exception and between January to October Thailand received 35% more rainfall than average, which was a consequence of La Nina. Flooding at some time was inevitable.
In the early part of August, I made friends with a female cyclist from Pak Chong, named Nong. She was a keen cyclist. We went mountain biking around Pak Chong and even into Khao Yai National Park.
By August, we were witnessing torrential rain day-after-day. Adding to our woes the government decided to release millions of gallons of water from the combined Bhumibol and Sirikit dams. We were already aware of flooding in the northern provinces and we knew full well that that water was heading in one direction and that was south towards Bangkok.
In late August, I agreed if only for the company to head out to Pak Chong with Nong, only to catch the bus back once we arrived, but I was soon to learn how erratic her driving was. Never in a million year did I ever expect to experience a female driver to drive like that. It was like being in the Bangkok Grand Prix. What a maniac, let loose on a major trunk road that was submerged to such a point that it was under at least 2cm of water, that was literally flowing.
‘Slow down you damn fool, you have no idea what your braking distance is in these conditions – there are enough idiots around without you wanting to join them.’ She just laughed, until she nearly became a cropper.
By October, the accumulation of floodwater was slowly encroaching Bangkok. The army it seemed were stretched to capacity with volunteers helping to put sandbags together. Remote villages were preparing to be cut off from civilisation until the flooding abated, no doubt the poor would become the main victims of this, and weren’t they just – the Great Flood of 2011 affected 4,039,459 households, completely destroyed 2,329 houses and 657 people lost their lives. The World Bank estimated that the damaging impact was 1,440 billion Thai baht.
At weekends, I would venture willingly and sometimes desperately up to Pak Chong via minibus, just so I could go off cycling with my friend Nong, but week by week, the trip became more problematic as my route became riddled with diversions. Don Mueang Airport looked more like a port than an airport. Some of the roads we went on were nearly impassable lying half a metre or more underwater. Once on high ground, we were OK.
Eventually the inevitable happened and the flood reached Bangkok. We at the western end of Bangwa were flooded out, so were parts of Phetkasem Road. The day the flood arrived, I decided to go out cycling up to the interchange at Bang Khae just for the hell of it, shall we say. As I turned off Phetkasem Road and on to the slip road for the ring road, my handlebars became completely submerged. Was this really a sign of things to come? I’d envisaged that the floodwater was more likely to come from the now swollen river, but that was not to be.
Day by day the water got deeper. Some areas were under, with over two metres of dirty, stagnant, polluted water. The authorities placed chemicals into the water in an attempt to prevent any water born diseases such as Cholera or Typhoid.
As the flood got worse, I was forced to wade every day to work waste high in places. The water was only part of the problem, the fact that a sizeable number of crocodiles had escaped from a local reptile sanctuary didn’t help the situation and parts of the industrial heartland had been flooded too, just adding to one’s concerns especially with the knowledge that heavy metals had already contaminated the flood in parts.
The university eventually cancelled all lectures, even though it had been spared by being on slightly higher ground, but only just. Nong my friend, offered me refuge up in Pak Chong, but the problem was getting there. The first attempt I made went reasonably well considering. Even though it meant cycling in water that was 80cm deep for miles on end. At one point, the Royal Thai Army assisted me by offering me carriage in one of their troop carriers.
From Min Buri, I literally hitchhiked all the way to the southern part of Pak Chong with my bicycle. Amazing what you can do when your luck is in. I stayed there for a few days until I believed that I had actually overstayed my welcome.
A week later, I attempted to cycle back to Pak Chong, but this time the floodwater had moved and my passage across to Min Buri was hindered by the flood and frustration, adding to my concerns. Nobody was willing to offer me any assistance even though a Thai woman attempted to negotiate my passage. I ended up being defeated by the depth of water on more than one account. Trying my best not to get into deep water, so they say, I got diverted. Cycling down flooded roads that were unfamiliar territory is by no means a fun ordeal. You cannot see anything let alone getting your bearings: water points, the curbs, potholes, all obstructions were blind to the human eye. The only guide I had was from a military vehicle, an odd bus service that was still running and the bulky four-wheel drives that had gone out, more for the sheer fun of it than anything else. They all create their own wakes that wobbled me as they made an impact. ‘God! were they stupid or something going at speeds like that?’
Eventually, I hit the elevated road system, this brought more problems as it cast a large dark dreary shadow across the already heavily dirty, polluted road. The water was now deep, in excess of a metre in parts, which only added to my problem of tiredness that I acquired.
I decided to lift my bicycle onto the pavement, believing that the water there would be shallower, thus allowing me to use less effort. I cycled along with no sign of Bangkok in sight. A broken down bus parked on the pavement hindered my passage. To the right of it would have meant dropping back down onto the road, to the left I concluded was extended pavement. Without any further assessment I went left, convinced that all would be well, but I’d forgotten to consider one finer detail. My front wheel suddenly dropped forty-five degrees. By the time I realised what had happened it was too late. Treading water with no ground beneath me, I felt stranded with my bike in my hand. I had cycled into an unmarked Khlong. Holding tightly onto my beloved bicycle with my other hand attempting to keep me buoyant was rather problematic. My bike was dragging me down, while the air trapped in my rucksack was keeping me afloat. Only God knew what was mixed in with the water: dog droppings, poisons, heavy metals and corrosives, came to mind. I decided I’d to get out and fast, but unfortunately, my treasured bicycle was going to have to be sacrificed and I was forced to send it to a watery grave. I let go of it and struggled to climb out of the khlong, soaking wet as I went. I knew that I had once christened my bicycle HMS Hood; now wasn’t that just a coincidence. I promised myself that I’d never name another bicycle HMS Hood and I knew all too well that the Royal Navy had never rush to name another ship of that name.
That very same day I went back into the centre of dry Bangkok and purchased a replacement bicycle. Yes, I continued cycling on the flooded roads, but I never attempted to cycle back to Pak Chong again while the flood was present.