Sand bags in Bangkok (Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 21 April

How to survive floods in Bangkok

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, stops in Bangkok enroute to Western Australia and finds the city underwater. How does she cope?

But... but... I just got here.

How could it have already been a month? OK, 27 days. I'd planned on staying in Bali a month but then I'd gotten the news that my pal Lynne would be in transit through Bangkok on Saturday night. And so I'd bought my AirAsia ticket to get back to Bangkok the day before she did. I'd leave ten days later, using the next stop on my round-the-world ticket to move on to Australia.

My potential former home, Bangkok. Somewhere I'd be living permanently if life had gone a tiny bit differently, if a job editing comic books in Kuwait hadn’t suddenly materialised at the end of 2005, when I was living in Uganda and wondering what to do next.

Ubud had been good to me, I thought. I wasn't sure I wanted to head back to Bangkok so soon.

I took a final look around my lovely Bali bungalow, pulled open the desk drawers for one last check, and looked back into the bathroom to make sure I'd left nothing behind.

Kadek, the bungalow owner, had been right when she'd claimed I wouldn't need air conditioning. But I could have used window screens. Those Indonesian mozzies had been brutal, even with a built-in mosquito net.

I left my key in the door, waved goodbye to the gardener and pointed out the key to him, then walked down the path alongside the stream, to the road and out of the rice fields. I'd booked the airport shuttle yesterday and it surprised me by arriving promptly at 9am. My flight was at noon, so I was a bit nervous about hitting traffic on the way to Denpasar.

Which, of course, we did.

The shuttle zipped around Ubud picking up others, and the by the time we left town at 9:20, I was already nervous. The airport is an hour away.

We drove down the exhaust-riddled main road that leads from Ubud to Kuta and then on to the Denpasar airport, after sitting in traffic for the last 20 minutes. Our late arrival meant I had to hurry. I threw my bag onto a cart and scampered over to the AirAsia baggage check – I'd checked in online already, and had printed out my boarding pass at an Internet cafe by Penestanan’s Campuhan Steps.

Somehow I'd ended up without enough money for the departure tax. I exchanged the last of my US dollars I’d gotten in New York almost a year ago – a few singles – and hurried to the gate.

There wasn't time to buy lunch before I got on the flight. You can pre-order meals with AirAsia for a fee, or settle for whatever they have on-board. I won't make that mistake again. The pre-order selection is better and you're served first, while the food is still hot.

On arrival in Bangkok, I'd been expecting rain. But the day was beautiful and the sky was blue. I hadn't really been paying attention to the news of flood season in Thailand. I had assumed Bangkok's reported warnings of flooding was due to rain.

Soon I'd learn how wrong I was.

The airport bus that used to go to Khao San Road had been retired after a new train had been built, and I'd learned the easiest way to get to the backpacker ghetto last time I'd flown back, from Bhutan.

I caught the airport train to Phayathai, the last stop which is in downtown Bangkok. From there, you just hail a metered taxi to your hotel. The money savings isn't that big but the time savings is huge.

I strolled into Sakul House Hotel near Khao San Road. The workers and owners all greeted me like an old friend – probably because I've spent more nights here than any other tourist had since it’s a relatively new hotel.

I unpacked quickly and headed out in search of Pad Thai and a foot massage, and the only ATM in the Banglamphu neighbourhood that doesn't charge a 150 baht fee every time you take out money (hint: it's the gray and blue Aeon machine in the supermarket/department store, right by the supermarket exit).

And the first unusual thing I saw was that the Viengtai Hotel had sandbags all along its front walk and entrance.

So this flood warning thing... maybe it was serious, I thought.

I made a last-minute swap from Pad Thai to chicken with glass noodles, then went to Pian Spa in the Susie Walking Street for an hour's foot massage.

Mmmmm, I thought that night as I went to sleep to the muffled sound of buskers singing on the street below. How will I ever go home to New York?

The next morning, on my first full day back in Bangkok, I sat in Coffee World – which is like Starbucks or Costa – in the Buddy Lodge complex on Khao San Road, my usual pre-lunch haunt. I'm at my most productive between breakfast and lunch, provided I'm out of my room and have a late-morning coffee in front of me. I needed to get to the supermarket to pick up soap and buy credit for my phone, and I wanted to go to Chatuchak Market to replace my worn-out zebra T-shirts, but those could wait until I'd done some email housekeeping and processed some files for one of my freelance jobs.

The morning was bright, the sun brilliant. This wasn't what I'd expected when I'd flown back from Bali yesterday. I'd known there was flooding in Thailand, but Bangkok had mostly been left alone. When I'd left it in mid-September, the monsoon season had brought in reliable, dramatic rains. Same as every year. But the flood warnings sounded scary.

Anyway, I had to get back to Bangkok regardless of the chance of seasonal flooding. Sooner or later, all roads lead through Bangkok in this part of the world.

I sat outside in the smoking section of Coffee World. I dislike the smell of smoke, but the Arctic-level air conditioning inside wasn't tolerable for too long either, and I planned on being at Coffee World until my laptop battery ran down.

A older-middle-aged man with white hair and a pointy beard sitting across from me put out his cigarette and looked at his phone.

Outside, some Thai musicians were unloading their drum kit from a van, carrying it piece by piece into Buddy Lodge for tonight's performance. A delivery boy nearly slipped and smacked into three tourists outside the McDonald's across the hall as he raced into the back of the mall, taking someone their lunch. I could see a group of street fortune-tellers inside the McDonald's. They'd given up trying to make money off tourists today. Tourists still roamed Khao San Road in their tie-dyed cotton fisherman's pants and strappy tops, but not too many of them.

The man across from me asked me to watch his stuff for a minute, and when he returned, he struck up a conversation.

"Do you work here?" He asked.

"No. I'm on a long trip. I come to Bangkok to rest and get things done, restock, go to the dentist, stuff like that. Because it's easy here, and cheap."

The truth is I'm a city girl and Bangkok is totally my speed. I love the anonymity and convenience of cities. Bangkok feels a lot like home, but with sticky rice.

"So you’ve been here long enough to understand what I’m going to tell you. The floods… if there is real danger, we won’t know until it’s too late, because the government won’t want people to panic.”

This sounded alarming, so I asked what he thought I should do in the event of flooding.

"Get your max out of the ATM, because if the electricity goes, you can't get money. Have some water and snacks on hand, though it's too late to get those. The Thai people won't let on that they're worried when they become worried – that's the Thai way, you must know that by now. But they've been secretly stockpiling dried noodles and bottles of water. If you see three to six inches of water and there isn’t any rain, go, get out, pay 5,000 baht if you have to, just get out and get to Pattaya. It's dry there.”

I thanked the man. He'd given me a lot to think about. I headed back to Soi Rambuttri where a few tourists strolled by street food vendors, where Dr Sunil's dental office was still open for business and looking for customers, where six tourists lay flopped down on lounge chairs as their feet were systematically massaged at the spa with the swan-towels, like beached whales in Bangkok's afternoon sun.

The day looked so innocent.