Bangkok Floods: Do I Still Go To Thailand?

The other day I walked into a camera store in Madison and asked to try a Nikon D7000. “Sorry we sold the last one.” I replied, “When are you getting more?” The clerk shook her head and smiled like I was asking her for tomorrow’s lottery numbers. “Who can say? Not for a very long time we think. Last we saw, the waters were up to the roof of the factory in Thailand.” Yikes.

I am, of course, well aware that the flooding has been bad since the summer. At the moment my in-laws in Bangkok have prepared the sandbags, but remain inside the dry zone. My good friend Bee hasn’t been so lucky. Her pet store lies outside the city where the battle to hold back water is totally lost in many places. This is her shop:

This is an area outside Bangkok as viewed from a helicopter:

Near Bangkok - Official US Navy Imagery

Despite the floods, I recently encouraged an old friend to not cancel her trip to Thailand, and off she went to Southeast Asia’s version of Waterworld, deciding to heed some of the wisdom of online information about what and where the risks are, while ignoring the sense of Apocalypse that sometimes comes out of any press coverage of disaster or tragedy. If things weren’t bad, the press wouldn’t be there at all, but as with everything in the media these days, if it’s not a circus show, no one’s buying. Journalists often want to create a story bigger and better, a photo more shocking, than the next guy down the line, and that can often lead to some seriously bad press ethics as you can read in this Christian Science Monitor story. Thailand needs the land to dry up, not tourism.

Mor Chit BTS Station in Bangkok, near the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market

Photo by Pietro Motta

The floods started in the north when the rains came quite a bit harder this monsoon season. At that time, indeed, places such as Chiang Mai, the lovely foreigner-loved second city of Thailand, had overflowing river waters and other rural areas were hit very hard costing lives and livelihood for many. To date over 560 people have died. Waters are still receding in northern provinces, but residents there have begun the long painful work of recovering what they can and rebuilding. In Chiang Mai, much is back to normal and even the recent Yi Peng festival went on as usual.

But the flood moved south. To simplify: Thailand is a bit like a ramp from north to south. Much of the water drains to the Gulf of Thailand via three major rivers and all that flooding has rolled downhill to Bangkok, causing the worst flooding in decades. The Chao Phraya River itself, which twists right through the heart of the capital, drains 60,975 square miles of land. Bangkok sits on low, soggy land to begin with, and this is why kings of generations past built the canal system. It’s not called Venice of the East for nothing.

Photo by Nor Oh

The flood effects in Bangkok will continue perhaps another month or more – no one knows for sure or at what point the waters will stop advancing on the city center. At the moment, downtown is dry, but the flooded areas along rivers and canals have been expanding. The Thai are very resilient people and with some of the saddening images of loss, you are bound to see as many photos revealing the “mai pen rai” philosophy (a common Thai expression meaning “it’s alright, never mind”): improvised boats, children smiling and playing in flooded streets, families sitting on top of their dinner tables watching TV in a half-flooded room. This is not to downplay the loss, but rather reveal the character of Thai culture.

Should you cancel your trip to Thailand? I wouldn’t. The international airport (Suvarnabhumi, or more simply, BKK) continues to operate. The photos you may have seen of The Airport are of the old Don Muang airport. Shots of planes in need of hip waders have caused unnecessary panic among travelers. If Bangkok troubles you, connect through to one of the other domestic airports and destinations using some very reasonable budget airlines such as Air Asia, Nok Air and Orient Thai. (Be sure the airline you choose is operating from Suvarnabhumi! All airlines affected by the closure of Don Muang Airport are doing so at the moment, but that may change as the situation improves.)

So Where To Go If Not Bangkok?

Tourist magnets Phuket and Pattaya are still open for business. Chiang Mai is always a winner (here’s GotPassport‘s great list of things to do in Chiang Mai). Probably my favorite spot in Thailand is in the south in the Andaman Sea: Tarutao National Park and Koh Lipe, Koh Adang, followed closely by the province of Krabi. Islands such as Koh Samui, Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand are always popular, and Hua Hin, the gulfside resort city just 2.5 hours drive from Bangkok, is a nice non-flight alternative. That’s just scratching the surface.

And remember, at this stage, Bangkok may have had its troubles, but the hotels (even those along the Chao Phraya River, such as The Shangri-La) remain open and provide updates on their websites. The Skytrain and the subway are still running. Restaurants are open, and so are the significant tourist areas. So if you are still wondering if you should book flights to Bangkok, the answer is “Yes.”

Twitter users should follow #thaifloodeng for a good Thailand flood hashtag and here is my own Twitter list for Bangkok troubles.

To donate for Thai Flood Relief, consider the Thai Red Cross Society.