05 December, 2011

Bangkok, the 2011 floods, and premonitions of a watery Armageddon

 This recent photo is a sadly humorous hint of the looming threat to Bangkok's very existence. Bangkok's Watery Doom may well creep up silently in the next 10 years, perhaps 15 (if luck holds). The city is only one metre above sea level (on average), and has been sinking by about 10cm per year. Oh bittersweet Arithmetic! thy name spells Truth.
If you click on this link, you will get an interactive flood map (flood.firetree.net) which will look something like this:
(You can biggen any photo by clicking on it)
Your family can have hours of fun mercilessly flooding the entire city of Bangkok with whatever depth of water you choose. Whee! It's just as if you're playing some silly computer game, except that, like, this is for real, dude...  The map represents average Sea Level under normal conditions at present. But with a mere click of your mouse, you can raise Sea Level by any depth you dictate - simply click the drop-down menu at the top left of your screen. Watch what happens to the entire Bangkok river delta. Ouch.
Note, though, that some areas on the coast near Bangkok, notably Samut Sakhon and Samut Prakan, are already regularly under seawater at high tides. They're an omen of things to come.
 Or you can zoom in to visit whichever specific part of Bangkok you want to inundate. To zoom in to the glitzy shopping tourist area around Pathumwan, Silom and Siam Square, for instance, click the + (the slider at the top left corner of the map) about 4 or 5 times.  You'll arrive at a screen which looks like this:
 You may notice, however, that the deeper you click your desired flood-depths, the more the central area of Bangkok (around Pathumwan, Silom, Siam Square, etc) appears to remain stubbornly and reassuringly dry. But no, it's not perched on a hill, nor protected by dyke walls à la Holland. Even if you increase flooding to, say, as much as TWENTY metres deep, there are still apparently some spots which remain dry! 
So... can the technology be so wrong??
 Simple explanation: the central city area is extremely highly built-up, with large trees frequently filling gaps between buildings. The mapping satellite necessarily understands the tops of these buildings and treetops as representing ground-level, thereby considerably under-estimating realistic flood depths. Only in larger open flat areas - such as Benjakiti Park (just to the east of Lumphini Park) - is the terrible and soggy truth more accurately revealed. Some twenty million environmental refugees may need to re-locate - quite soon. That's a monumentally more massive evacuation than George Dubya Bush's tiny dress rehearsal at New Orleans.
George? Remember George?
 Many people - initially those with means - are already choosing to abandon Bangkok in search of drier areas. Prices for nearby elevated land - what there is of it - are truly skyrocketing out of reach of all but the One-Percenters. One of the logical and eligible new places to colonize, at first glance, might appear to be Kanchanaburi, to Bangkok's north-west. But that may well be a case of "out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire". Kanchanaburi is on a known earthquake fault-line, yet boasts a huge dam whose wall is already visibly damaged. A major breach could wipe out no fewer than 13 provinces, including Bangkok. The wall is rated as "safe" only for quakes up to 7.5 on the Richter Scale.  Er, now what were those principles we were supposed to have learned from Fukushima?
But do I note (with some surprise, I must confess) that the Thai parliament has (as I suggested back in 2007) cautiously raised the sensitive possibility of re-locating Bangkok in its entirety - wow. At last, someone's waking up! A move like this, as it happens, would actually be a continuation of an ancient Thai tradition. The Thai capital has been shifted several times over its history (eg Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, etc), but that was well before the era before concrete skyscrapers, Skytrains and other recent idiosyncracies such as "permanency". Traditional Thai teak houses were once designed without nails to be dimantle-able and easily relocated. I suspect this latest timid hint about shifting Bangkok will promptly get shunted sideways - these are fragile political/economic times. Sure, the proposal seems to have submerged into political oblivion already - it's all too hard - but there can be no doubt that the 2011 Big Flood will change the Thai national conversation forever.
Besides, there will soon be precious little choice.
 Ironically, a traditional symbol threading itself through the silken fabric of Thai
society is that of the Boat. Bangkok in particular used to be very much a water-
based culture ('Venice of the East'), with food-vendors paddling canoes from house
to house along endless networks of canals. These days, antique "noodle-vendor
canoes" are frequently featured in restaurants, even way up on dry land, as
prestigious historical evidence of the establishment's 'food pedigree'.
OK... let's talk Causes.  Why does Bangkok flood?
Firstly, filling in Bangkok's networks of canals to create roads was a bad call - FAIL - and has contributed in no small part to the city's current flood woes.  These days, floodwater now has nowhere to spread out when a monsoon flood does come down the river delta - as it always has - from the north. Bangkok was built on a huge swampy drain, let's face it (another bad call: FAIL). Suvarnaphumi Airport, for example, was built on an area formerly known as 'Cobra Swamp' (nŏng nguu hao). It is still one of the lowest areas in all Bangkok, but now has a 3.5 metre dyke wall all round to keep floods out (and the cobras in??).
Secondly, unregulated massive pumping up of groundwater (for both commercial and domestic use) is contributing to the entire cityscape sagging loosely downwards under its hugely heavy load of concrete and steel... FAIL. (Get a load of this pic of the Skytrain near Siam Square, or here at Ratchaprasong intersection. Imagine the foundations). Bangkok literally floats on a giant waterbed - Thai people are quite blasé about fresh cracks appearing in walls or floors... mâi bpen rai.
And thirdly (but hardly least), do I need to mention those pesky rising sea-levels due to Global Warming?  Note also that Bangkok's Chao Phrya river is tidal for quite some distance inland, therefore can virtually stop flowing at times of very high tides, thereby severely increasing the back-flow into the few remaining canals. Even back in 1992, while I was staying at a friend's house in Bangkok, he warned me that the downstairs toilet only flushed properly at low tide... and yep, you bet, that failed too :-(
So - how much longer can Thai people continue to look away, citing Severe Chronic Cognitive Dissonance Syndrome? Bangkok, which is slowly succumbing under this gigantic environmental pincer effect, is even now being unwillingly forced to revert to its traditional boating habits:
What will this Bangkok street look like by 2020?
Hey, but at least canoes don't emit CO2   ;-)
After you're done flooding Bangkok, why not navigate the map
to check the flood status of your own country/town/street?
Good luck (in Thai: chok-dee).
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15 November, 2011

Dear Diary: Who's a grandpa now? Loykratong 2011. China trip. SO much to catch you up on.

Dennekka Rae Wilde Symes will break hearts in time to come. 
Yep, we're quite the dotty grandparents.
 FINALLY - we got to visit our grand-daughter Dennekka in Straya. And wouldn't you know it... as soon as we left, out popped another - Sonny John Wilde Symes - weighing in at a hefty 9lb 8oz, thereby automatically qualifying for the Mount Isa Under 4 football team. Now we're dotty all over again, and will just have to go back asap to be introduced to Sonny :)
Also visited my ageing mother again ('great-granny' Noreen Stokes) in Adelaide, and Nicolette in Sydney... hi, Nic & Fadi. Yep, it was a full-blown "catch-up-with-the-rellies" trip, and we're not down from the high yet.
Granny and Grandpa get to know Dennekka.
Being a family is tiring work.
Sonny relaxes on an internally-heated orthopaedic mattress called "Dad".
 Fa-aantastic to see my son Dale again after 7 years here in Thailand, and to finally meet Jasmine, Dennekka's mum (who was 8 months at the time ...hi Jasmine, hope you're feeling more sprightly now :) Well done to the pair of you, and we certainly admire your Big Joint Project.
Since our last post, Marie went from Chiangmai to Shanghai & Yiwu with 2 friends for 10 days of retail therapy, rides in Very Fast Trains, and politely refusing Fido Burgers. Here are some of her funky pix:
The 'Bund', from the British colonial occupation of Shanghai.
Modernity peeps out from behind... and below:
You can biggen any photo by clicking on it.
OK, the floods. In the meantime, Bangkok, as you may have noticed, has had a few floods. Take a look at this Youtube film taken from a helicopter. Try to imagine living like this and maintaining your patience for weeks on end - and this was when the floods had not yet reached their peak during high tide times. Here's the Weather Underground website for more detail, maps.
You can decide whether these pics are serious or funny:
See more flood pix here, including cats with life-jackets, a sky-scraper
tricycle, a tuk-tuk on stilts, and a motorcycle with a snorkel.
As I've said before in FunkyPix2, building an ever-heavier city on a spongy river delta with a high water table (read: "drain") was never going to be a winner. Poor choice. FAIL. And now there's global warming to add to the problems of a city sinking by about 10cm per year. Per year!  Bangkok, on average, sits only one metre above sea level - ONE metre! Do the sums. Future swamp, man. Parts of Samut Sakhon are already permanently under sea-water. Hey, Chiangmai's lookin' even better, folks :)
BREAKIN' NOOZE... Thai parliament is currently considering the possibility of relocating the entire city of Bangkok! Over the centuries, the capital has been shifted to various locations such as Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, etc, so another move would be a continuation of an age-old Thai tradition. But that was in the days before skyscrapers, concrete and permanence. I'm trying to imagine what the abandonned ruins of Bangkok's Skytrain might look like to tourists 700 years from now ("Hey check this out, Marrvin, ah think there merst hayav bin two perrallel medal rails alahng herre... ah jess cain't imeergine what thayat mardev bin used forr... and Oh My Guard, thar's a jargantic ledder 'M' in red'n'yella"... weirrd"). In an eerie parallel development next-door in Burma, the military regime has literally abandonned Rangoon and built a whole new capital at Naypyidaw. Stay tooned to funkypix2.com/realestatebargains4u.
The Bangkok floods have played a big role in Thailand's ongoing "red vs yellow" political circus, too. Roll up! Roll up! The main reason the newly-elected Redshirt prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was pushed into power was to legislate to get her criminal fugitive brother Thaksin Shinawatra back into the country without having to serve his (fully deserved) 2-year jail sentence for corruption. Any unilterally legislated amnesty like that would make a total ass of the Law... and (Buddha bless us all) that is exactly what is happening. And hey, when better to do it than during a flood disaster which might help to dampen down enthusiasm for street protests!
So PM Yingluck, flustered and keen to avoid any political blame for her brother's dodgy amnesty, found herself "unfortunately" stranded [sob] out in the flooded provinces at the time of the cabinet meeting. Her army helicopter had no night navigation equipment, she plaintively bleated (it did, actually, and there was a backup 'copter as well). Hmm. Zero cred... FAIL. Meanwhile, the deputy PM (Chalerm) went ahead with a highly secretive Cabinet meeting with a sign on the door 'INNER CIRCLE CRONIES ONLY'. After the meeting, the public wasn't permitted to know the outcome. Ain't Thai democracy grand? Well, er, "flexible", let's say.
x Yingluck: What amnesty? I'm stranded out here. Ask Chalerm.
x ChalermShh, it's our secret. Parliamentary privilege, y'know.
x Govt (redshirted) spokesmanDunno, nobody told me nuffink.
In fact, plans for Yellowshirt protests against Big Brother Thaksin's proposed amnesty (and/or return of confiscated passport) are already underway, floods or no floods.  This next pic could well be foretaste of another uprising in the weeks to come. Perhaps Bangkokians should brace for the OCCUPY SANSAEB CANAL Movement, the revolution which may be known to Historians as "The Thai Autumn", designed to discourage tourists from ever setting foot in the country again...
The Million Man Paddle? Well, it might flush the water out to sea if they
paddled hard enough. You think I'm kidding? No less an authority than
Yingluck's hand-picked Science Minister ordered 1000 boats to rev their
engines on the Chao Phrya River to speed water out to sea (here's the pic).
Yup, any Grade 10 science student could pick the flaws in that bright plan,
but nevertheless, the government trumpeted the exercise as a huge success.
(I also predict the publication of an electronic game called "Angry Boats")
By contrast, it's sunny and dry up here in beautiful Chiangmai. The living's good, and still as tasty as ever :)  Here's a recent view from our apartment balcony...
...but here's what things might look like if we were in Bangkok at the moment...
 As you might have guessed from our paper lanterns, it was the time of the Loy Kratong festival in Thailand - although Bangkok sadly had to cancel theirs due to the floods. As a consequence, lots of tourists bypassed Bangkok in favour of Chiangmai. During Loy Krathong, one dispatches one's previous year's bad luck and accumulated evil-ness off down the river in little candle-boats, or away into the sky in hot-air paper lanterns. Really it's just an excuse to be kids again... especially when it comes to the fireworks which are freely available in shops everywhere. Dennekka, where are you?
So - here are a few of our 2011 Loy Kratong pix, among which the eagle-eyed observer may spot some cameo appearances by Anna. Last year's festival is reported here.  But we start with me having an altercation with a passing lion even before evening fell:
A restaurant regaled with typical Loykrathong decorations:
Kratongs float off, taking with them all your ill fortune, offering you a fresh start.
They comprise a plate-sized banana-leaf boat, a candle, 3 sticks of incense, flowers,
a small coin and hopes for the future. Many people add a fingernail clipping or some
of their hair to personalize it.
Kratongs on sale near the Ping River
The royal sacred white elephant. Legend has it that the king who established
Chiangmai more than 700 years ago decided that it was auspicious to do so after
a white elephant was seen walking three times clockwise around the summit
of Mount Doi Suthep (that mountain visible from our balcony).
After the third circuit the critter, like, dropped dead.
  Yet another noodle vendor canoe...
Marie gives hi-fours to a new friend
In this brief Youtube video clip of Chiangmai's Loykratong street parade, you get to see the legendary Buddhist ascetic hermit Phra Reusii getting his annual gong. After all these years, Phra Reusii still hasn't got a Facebook page, yet he makes damn sure that his float is followed by the customary 50,000 decibel speaker-stack playing the ubiquitous Loy Krathong song. Probably spent years on his mountain-top composing it. Towards the end of the video, you'll see a few of the thousands of hot-air paper lanterns as they continuously rise into the night sky (the video will open in its own window for your convenience - after viewing, just close it and you'll be right back here again).
Quite a bit of technology to catch up on, old fruit . . .
Anna, en route from the UK to Asutralia, stopped by to say g'day to a 3-week old tiger cub and feed a few other assorted mini-beasties:
 (Anna's the one lacking stripes)
The gorilla her dreams
(See what happens when you forget to feed one?)
The train driver is reaching for the button called "Squirt Venom Now".
Water, actually. We assume.
...and Marie, our DNA (Designated Neandertal Authority), narrowly escaped being roasted alive by a volcanic eruption (just visible behind the tree) at Chiangmai Zoo's Adventure Park. Boiling lava oozes up threateningly between cracks in the foreground:
 Lean close to your screen and you might hear faint but scary roaring.
Later, we saddled up the Honda Jazz and rode up to the pretty and lush region north of Chiang Rai, close to the Burmese border. Visited the village of Mae Salong, which is Thailand's "Little Beijing". The population is distinctly of a Chinese persuasion, being decendants of the Kuomintang who were given Thai settlement rights in exchange for (allegedly) ceasing opium production in the years of the Golden Triangle warlord Khun Sa. Although not spectacular, here is one of the old Chinese-style houses which hadn't been excessively chintzed up for the tourist industry:
...and going to the opposite extreme, the so-called White Temple (Wat Rong Kuhn) near Chiang Rai is as glitzy/touristy as they come. Here is a dramatic little cautionary tale about the down sides of drinking alcohol (hey, you should see the one about smoking):
Yeah, OK, but there's a string of bars just down the road.
Anna's gone back to Straya now, but en route we saw some of Bangkok. As we only went to the central city and the airport, it was all dry - the rich folks had enough spare dosh to bribe officials to devert floodwater around the city in the east and western 'burbs. We noticed, however, that Capitalism was taking its natural course, and opportunistic 'flood-gear' fashion shops were popping up on every corner:
 A whole new meaning to the term 'Venture Capital Float'. And after returning to
Chiangmai, we noticed sudden increases in land values in more elevated regions.
 Water in the Chao Phrya River was fast, turbulent, brown as anything, and carrying all sorts of suspicious objects along in its frothy wake:
Bangkok: old & new.
When in Bangkok, what to do? Here's your answer:
Waiting for Anna's plane at the airport, we unearthed further evidence that Thailand's economic recovery is being spear-headed by exports of flatscreen TVs. During our trip to India, we had seen a constant stream of flat-screens arriving in Kolkata and Delhi. This, however, was the first time we had seen them at the start of their trip, in the departure queues at Bangkok airport. So funny... mm, well, I guess you had to be there...
We'll miss Anna, and wish her the best of luck finding work etc, but we worry because the down-and-under recession in Straya has hit everybody really hard…
* People are getting pre-declined credit cards in the mail;
* Wives are having sex with their husbands because they can’t afford batteries;
* CEO’s are now playing miniature golf;
* A stripper was killed when her audience showered her with rolls of 5-cent coins while she danced;
* If the bank returns your check marked “Insufficient Funds,” you call them and ask if they meant you or them;
* McDonald’s is selling the 1/4 ouncer;
* Angelina Jolie adopted a child from Melbourne;
* Parents in North Shore are firing their nannies and learning their children’s names;
* A boatload of Australian refugees was arrested near Indonesia (my blogs always come true);
* Casinos in Queensland are now owned by Somali pirates.
I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, savings, retirement funds, etc., I called the Suicide Hotline.  I got a call centre in Pakistan, and when I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck.

25 August, 2011

Dear Thailand Diary...

Camel Inactive.  This weird papier-mache beastie confronted us for a few weeks as we
did our twice-daily Jolly Geriatric Walk (Hobble?) around the nearby shoppimg centre.
Having just returned from an Oddysey in Rajasthan, it was all a bit too deja-pas-vu.
PS - I've created a new search category called "Dear Thailand Diary".
Stay-at-home posts such as this one can henceforth be conveniently found grouped
there, as distinct from those under "Thailand Culture"or "Travels Outside Thailand". 
See all your search options under "Browse by Category" in the sidebar >>>
We've actually stayed put in Thailand for a few consecutive months now... almost a record for unrepentant travel-addicts such as we. Various friends and family have been a part of it all, and our collective misdeeds are documented below in a scrambled sort of fashion for your amusement/amazement...
 Kuhn Anna prepares her trusty iPhone for her fearless assault on Bangkok's 84-storey Baiyoke Tower. Yep, amazing how all the abseiling ropes can get squeezed into such a tiny device - and she still managed to txt msg us on the way down.
Then she donned her pith helmet, climbed aboard a water-buffalo, and went exploring the 700 year old ruins of Sukhothai, one of Thailand's numerous former capitals:
...and at Si Satchanali, site of some of Asia's most ancient pottery kilns:
 Walking under the belly of the giant elephant (at the northern town of Denchai) traditionally confers great powers on you. Mr Thaksin always made a point of doing it oh-so-humbly, but only ever bothered if TV cameras were rolling.
 And speaking of Matters Political, here are a few of the posters from the recent election. Yup, things are different in Thailand...

(Our visiting friends Kevin and Trish learned a few important political
pointers which I trust they plan to transmit to Australia's Mr Rabbit.)

Sure, Thailand now has yet another government it deserves. But until the Thai education system undergoes a transformation and weans its students off rote-learning in favour of analysis and critical thinking, simplistic unfundable campaign promises from both parties will continue to sway sucker voters. How about a 25% increase in the basic wage? Yeehah, why the hell not? Or maybe free tablet computers for 800,000 children. Yippee, freebies! Duh, and when all the cheering died down after the election, somebody noted that there was no porn filter, and, um, who was gonna pay for those increased wages? Stay tuned for the predictable back-flips, folks.

Now the new PM is caving in to pressure from Redshirts to restore the 1997 constitution. This parallels the urge of Australia's former Howard government to return to the 1950s...
...and another iconic Thai metaphor, just for good measure:
I have to admit, though, that the chaos is fun. There's always a surprise around the next corner:

Internally-illuminated statues near Chiangmai's 700 year-old Suan Dtok gate.

We took a short holiday from retirement at Hua Hin beach (about 2 hours drive south of Bangkok). Ostensibly the sea air was to help Marie to recover from a viral flu, but in truth it was mostly an excuse to get back to the superlative seafood buffet (drool) overlooking the beach at the Sofitel Resort:
M had a Gothic Moment in the lobby while recovering from the meal:
On our walks we noted that the old Huahin is fast disappearing. It used to be principally a fishing village - now it's morphing into a tourist town with fishermen attached. Traditional teak houses like this one are rare now...
...while German, Danish and Scandanavian cultures are swamping the scene (hey, when Russians and/or Israelis come en masse, we'll go elsewhere. Some Thai hotels at the tourist beaches already refuse entry to Israelis as they are frequently problematic).
Yep, road signs are different in Hua Hin:
Alan, our sapphire-miner friend from Queensland, came on a 3-week dental holiday to the red north. Here he is at the Chiangmai Night Safari (he's the one in red):
...and went camping in a wee hoosie ('sala'):
...and visited Chiangmai's silver wat (Wat Srisuphan) with its regulation standing portrait of the King:
Marie's been going to Thai classes, and despite me trying to crib off her lessons, she's becoming completely incomprehensible to me. Phuut chaa-gwaa daai mai khrap? I'm just jealous. And lazy.
Here she is walkling to school while I continue to fritter my time away composing music - this is one of my infamous "Where's Wally" picture series:
You can biggen any picture by clicking on it.

Here's the view towards Doi Suthep from the same balcony. First dry, then wet'n'windy:

...but on calmer nights (when you sneak out for a snack at the fridge, for instance),it looks more like this from the kitchen:
[see more pix of the apartment and Marie's cave]
The balcony is our Social Central. Here's the occasion of Ronny's 80th birthday with a bunch of our Thai and Farang friends, with Ronny/Rani literally talking up a five-o'clock storm - which, because of R's eloquent oratory, no-one actually noticed:
In fact, the wet season is by far the best time of year for cool weather, flowering trees, avoiding crowds, etc. Just don't tell the tourists. We want it all for ourselves.
And being kept indoors on your 60th is the perfect excuse, of course, to whip up a mini-trifle:
...but you always have to be wary of raids from local ratbag sugarholic maniacs:

The threateningly red colour of the cherries on the trifle proved to be an ominous portent of the radical redecoration of the King's portrait on Huaykeaw Road, as storm-clouds gather on the distant horizon. What is mean?  Passing in front is one of numerous new Fukushima refugees, gratefully lugging home some radiation-free shopping.
Then we hopped a passing Lao Airlines twin-prop for the 1-hour flight from Chiangmai to Luangprabang for a quick sandwich:
On the approach to Luangprabang, formerly the French colonial administrative capital.
The river is the Mae Naam Khan, which feeds nearby into the Mae Khong.

Sisavangvong St, the main drag, hasa few more lights at night now, but they're all provided by privately-owned restaurants and shops, not government streetlights. Ironic, that, for a country which promotes itself as Asia's 'generator'. Huuuuge amounts of cash goes into the Lao government's pockets from selling hydro-electricity to Thailand, but ordinary citizens in the burbs continue to rely on self-funded kersene/candle-power and early bed-times.
The night-market carries on as usual.
 A nearby building site uses thin strips of bamboo as internal reinforcement for a new concrete floor.
Maybe they couldnl't afford rio bar due to corruption expenses.

Outside our hotel ('Luangprabang Residence'... excellent) was a daily morning market selling all manner of veg and meats, including live eels and frogs, unidentifiable parts of un-named animals, plus a clearly identifiable calf foetus, complete of course:

 A child enjoys the sensations of paddling his toes among a seething mass of squirming eels.

 A signature Laotian condiment is the so-called Buffalo Jam. Help yourself to packets
 of dried buffalo skin, the key ingredient. Hey, it works for me... quite nice, actually.

 Off to school again, this time to a class in Laotian cookery. Marg and Andy happened to be there. The chef is closely inspecting how Marie is folding her spring rolls... perhaps he's picking up some tips:

 (Beware the scarecrow in the fake rice paddy... he reputedly adores sweet & sour fish)

 Laotian Desserts 101.  Sticky rice with mango. We pigged out over lunch.

That evening we ate out... no we didn't cook it... local specialty dishes inclding a rather tasty Mae Khong Terapia:

Watch this space [----------] for a link to our forthcoming trip to Oz.
Oo-roo, seer mite.