Ayutthaya was the capital of a Thai state for over four hundred years before it was destroyed by the Burmese in the eighteenth century. Just north of Bangkok, it is an attractive melange of tilting stupas and headless Buddha statues scattered around a rather tatty, low-rise Thai town centred on an island in the middle of three rivers. In its heyday it must have been an extraordinary place; I always forget that Europeans had been in contact with Thailand for the best part of half a millenium, and Ayutthaya was the Venice of the East, and always full of Dutch and Chinese and French and Malay and Portugese and Japanese and British traders, and generally wildly cosmopolitan. Lucy and I spent a peaceful weekend there ten days ago, ambling around temples, admiring nineteen-metre-high gold-plated Buddhas (size matters) and filling up on palm sugar roti. We did comment, as we were crossing the river, that the water levels seemed pretty robust, and a brisk trade in sandbags seemed to be going on around some of the larger temples.
Alas, the sandbags appear to have been insufficient, and Ayutthaya this week is in some places three metres underwater, suffering the worst flooding in a century with no sign of the rain stopping and threats of more water being released from dams upstream. A lively interest in these events is being taken in all this by the residents of Bangkok, directly downstream from the worst of the flooding, since judging by the hysteria in the local and international media we are about to suffer a similar deluge which, if not wholly Biblical in magnitude, might yet require the services of a small ark. The worst of the runoff from upstream is due to coincide with unusually high tides this weekend, thus condemning large parts of Bangkok to an interesting few days. At the moment, the national and local government are busily contradicting each other and themselves, alternately proclaiming the apocalypse and denying there will be any problems at all. The general feeling seems to be that as long as the flood walls hold, there shouldn’t be too much trouble, but the occasional pronouncement that the government is “at its wits end” or that there’s no chance that the sandbag walls will be finished before Thursday does not fill one with confidence.
From my lofty position on the tenth floor, well stocked with drinking water and cookies, I am in the fortunate predicament of being able to take a solely professional interest in proceedings: having spent much of the last three weeks listening to presentations about Bangkok’s flood defences, I will be curious to see how they respond to what is effectively a once a century event. Old hands in the office gloomily predict that despite the fact that we are a reasonable hike from the river, getting into work is likely to involve a certain amount of paddling over the coming week or so, but I do have to salute the admirable phlegmatism with which people are greeting the prospect – no one has thought of suggesting that a spot of flooding might be a reason to skip work.