Awash in the worst floods in five decades, Bangkok seemed a very different city from the one I had lived in. I never vary my hotels when I am back. I check into the S15 on Sukhumvit or the Lebua in State Tower or the Dawin on Soi 4, where all the hedonism of the world seems to converge in a single point of time, and from these quite ordinary places (though refined by Thai attitudes), I venture out into streets that have changed only subtly at the edges. But this time I had to step over sandbags to use the ATM next to the S15 near Sukhumvit Soi 15, and this stretch of avenue, usually alive with little come-by-night mobile bars and street girls and deaf people selling Viagra and imitation Patek watches, was almost silent come midnight. On the news, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra could be seen assuring her national flock that the crisis hour had arrived, but that if people didn’t “damage the dikes” around the city they would all pull through together and weather the massive inundation that now threatened the capital.
As I sat listening to this in a beer garden around the corner, surrounded by stoic white men who were prepared to risk waterborne diseases to get their daily (and nightly) fix of Bangkok street life, I wondered why people would casually damage dikes during a national flood emergency. But of course I then realized that this was mere rhetoric. Thais make reluctant vandals, unlike their better-off counterparts in the supposedly developed world, and no one here would really be sabotaging a dike.
Out on the street at 1 p.m. the daylight had become sour under low clouds, and a group of women were laying sandbags across the threshold of a little un-innocent massage parlor. They looked like waifs toiling during the London Blitz.
The street—it was Soi 19—had emptied out, and later I went for lunch at Isao, a small sushi bar. I was with a Bangkok friend, an American who has lived here for 10 years. The atmosphere, she remarked, was just like the recent days of civil strife. One didn’t know what was going to happen, and there was (one couldn’t deny) a small thrill in that fact. She herself had stayed, while all her friends had fled to Thailand’s south. A country full of islands and spas is perfect for fleeing nature’s wrath.
I thought back to the hurricane in New York over the summer. In local delis on Atlantic Avenue at Bond Street there had been lines of wimpy hipster househusbands stocking up on canned soup and plasticated bread, clearly secretly delighted at the upcoming disruption of their boring lives. Such types don’t exist in Bangkok because Bangkok is not Brooklyn, and people here, generally speaking, never seem bored. A disaster in Bangkok isn’t a welcome respite from ennui. It’s an actual disaster.
I walked around half-delighted. If only all the mega-cities of the world could have their populations reduced by two thirds, they would actually be, once again, livable. The streets flowing with easy traffic instead of choked by mindless jams, the sidewalks breathing with the civility bred by space itself. A lot of stores were closed. Many of the insane street vendors who strangle the lower end of Sukhumvit had departed, leaving behind a strange intimation of the city of the past. The city as it was 50 years ago, perhaps, when half its streets were lazy canals and people boated to dinner by lantern light.
What would the city be like if the waters did arrive? But Bangkok has always had a precarious relation with water: it’s built on it. In the 19th century it was the “Venice of the East,” a city of canals, or klongs. Many streets are cemented-over canals. In 2006 I remember walking down to Sukhumvit to catch a taxi to the airport in a foot of fast-moving water. Heavy rain had turned the central city into a lake in a matter of hours.
As dusk fell, I wandered around the so-called back-sois, the snaking alleys that form a labyrinth behind the main streets. The gold and red spirit houses were lit up, and some people were eating dinner in their gardens as usual, protected by their high walls. No laughter, though. The strangely uniformed “guards” who sit outside virtually every Bangkok building looking like Argentine Air Force generals from the Perón era sat there with their habitual despondency, anxiously watching the drains. When I stopped to get a bowl of guaytio naam, I was almost begged to sit down, eat, and enjoy. The culinary mama-sans insisted. There was no one else around. No competition for food, no rivals. The posh Villa Supermarket on Soi 49 was closing down: the middle classes were making their escapes for the weekend. The sleek coffee shops of this affluent neighborhood were just as deserted. Only the huge massage complex at Health Land, where Thais of all types come for cheap nuad thai, traditional Thai massage, seemed to be as busy as it usually was. Eavesdropping, however, I picked up quite a few nervous flood jokes as people waited to have their dorsal muscles probed and their digits snapped. The fearsome rigor of traditional Thai massage clearly preoccupied them more than the remote prospect of drowning, or even wading home, which is unsurprising given the level of delectable pain that is meted out in the course of an hour and a half of writhing, oily interconnection between you and the masseuse.
The Thai news media seemed to agree that Saturday night would be the night of reckoning, and this was the conventional wisdom on the street. Thonburi, everyone said, the west bank of the Chao Phraya, would be very likely underwater by midnight. It was an unusual Saturday night, then, as I strolled up to Soi 38 to get my daily fix of ma-muang kiao niaow: mango- and coconut-flavored sticky rice.
This is street dining right at the corner of Sukhumvit near the busy intersection at Thong Lor and an ideal place to people-watch under the façades of the shop houses. Ordinarily it is pandemonium here, with the drivers of the rich rolling up in their Mercedes cars to pick up orders of takeout food. But now it was somber and slightly irritable, the noodle sellers and the prawn grillers waiting for nonexistent customers. I asked the mango girls why they hadn’t packed up and fled. “Nowhere to go,” they said sadly and probably truthfully. If Soi 38 flooded, they would just go upstairs and wait it out. The children would probably make boats out of paraphernalia and enjoy themselves.
I went to a bar on Soi 4, or Nana, in one of those places deemed darkly pleasurable by moralists and mongers alike, and the women sat glumly on their stools chewing on plastic straws and wondering aloud how bad business could get. The lucrative foreign men had stayed away, giving them a taste of what the city would be like if the West really did economically collapse. Mai dii—not good. There were, however, no sandbags outside the infamous parking lot of the Nana Hotel, and the night girls stood chatting on cell-phones and doing their hair in mirrors as if nothing much was likely to be up. If Noah’s Flood really came, they too would just run upstairs and wait. Their problem was mainly underemployment.
I could not help being struck by how much more stoically courageous these women were than the local bourgeoisie. They were rice farmers from the north, and they were made of sterner stuff. The prospect of a mere flood didn’t seem to unnerve them in the slightest.
Later I went into the Diplomat Bar of the Conrad Hotel and got myself a gin and tonic in that soothing décor of rattan. On the way there, an oddly liberating walk through Ploenchit, the streets half-empty, the taxi scavenging for fares, an oppression somehow lifted from that neighborhood as if its customary suffocation had been lifted. The hotel, like everywhere else, seemed to be running on two cylinders.
Affluent tourists at the bar appeared unable to make up their minds whether they were enjoying this situation or not. An Australian couple told me they had stayed purely out of curiosity. They were drunk out of their minds and enjoying the “privacy,” meaning the lack of other tourists, but they also had a plan B. If the waters came, they’d take a suite at the top of the building and make a party of it. It was to be a spectacle, an entire metropolis turned into Mark Twain’s dry description of Venice: “Streets full of water.”
The modern city is curiously unable to react to a disruption of its artificial normalcy, and yet at the same time—human beings being what they are—these same conurbations also possess an unexpected resiliency and stoicism. They, on some level, are too big and complex to truly panic. They have a blind faith in their own technical prowess.
And so, as the Saturday night of doom wore on, I crossed the swollen river to Wang Lang on the left bank and found that, contrary to all the news chatter and the panic of rich friends, people were there in the stalls eating ice cream and drinking from plastic bags of oolong tea, and the working classes who were inevitably going to suffer most were cheerfully expecting nothing to happen in the heart of their fragile city. They would have to wait to see if they turned out to be right.
Lawrence Osborne is the author, most recently, of Bangkok Days.