Come Hell, Come High Water: My Southern Thailand Flooding Story
The single raindrop never feels responsible for the flood. — Douglas Adams
While I was working on the next post in my backlogged roundup queue, it occurred to me that there was one event I kept circling back to again and and again, something that had stopped me in my tracks but that I’d never written about on my blog: living through the headline-making floods of January 2017 in Southern Thailand.
not our normal view…
While I gently touched on this catastrophic event that devastated the region I love after the fact on social media, I mostly shied away from it. Part of me felt like I didn’t have anything meaningful to say… there was no way to package it up in a little pinnable bow, like “How to Live Through Your First Natural Disaster!” or “Top Ten Ways to Make the Most of a Weather Event on Your Travels.”
But also, frankly, Koh Tao is a place where it is extremely socially unacceptable to publicly bring light to anything that might scare tourists off the island. Not only would writing a post like this in real time have deprived it of the reflection that’s come with time, it would have ruffled feathers in the tiny community I was living in.
Flooding is nothing new to Thailand — in fact, previous to the January 2017 floods, the most damaging and deadly natural disaster in Thailand were the floods of 2011. I had just moved from New York to Koh Tao, and as that flooding originated in the center of the country, we were very removed from it down in the Gulf.
I had a brief brush with it, though, when my boyfriend at the time and I ran our visas down to the very last day possible to exit the country, and found ourselves running around Bangkok, trying to find any bus that was departing for Cambodia while ticket sellers looked at us like we were crazy and told us in broken English that the city was going on lockdown. As we caught the last bus that would leave in that direction for over a week and sloshed through streets so water-logged we should have packed oars, we cheered. Considering the terrible loss the country suffered, I’m sheepish to admit that my personal memories of the whole thing are more like an episode of The Amazing Race than a scene from Apocalypse Now.
my old street
In the years that followed, I experienced all facets of Thailand weather — epic storms, blissful beach days, crushing heat, manageable heat, and everything in between. I learned that there isn’t a ton of accurate weather forecasting for the tiny speck of an island I was residing on, at least not from my perspective as someone who after nine years on Koh Tao still didn’t know how to read Wind Guru. My idea of checking the weather was Facebook Messaging my friends Simon or Paivi, who did know how to read wind charts, “hey, how’s the weather looking tomorrow?”
It seems half the time my friends were running around warning we better build an ark, it barely sprinkled. And sometimes we’d be expecting beautiful days, and find ourselves caught in a downpour. So when I heard warnings a big storm was coming after returning from my sister trip to Bangkok, I didn’t exactly freak out. We’d been blessed with some glorious blue sky days over the holidays, but it had been seriously wet for a while before that — surely this would just be more of the same.
Still, rumors of the gravity of this particular typhoon were growing, and the rain was absolutely hammering us. Our community board was abuzz with warnings to move boats to land or sheltered bays, to prepare to lose power, and to stock up on essentials like water. I was standing at the sink doing this huge pile of dishes and Ian was reading me all these Facebook posts in kind of a joke-y, “gosh everyone is freaking out” kind of tone, when suddenly I could hear a bit of panic creeping into his voice. I don’t know what it was he said, but I had a moment of truly freaking out — or, what some might say was a brief flash of sanity shining upon our hilarious lack of preparedness for such a disaster.
I used a water filter at my apartment to sterilize tap water — what if the tap turned off? At the time, I had almost every meal out at a restaurant or via delivery — what if the boats stopped running, as they often did in storms, and the island ran out of food? What if the power cut? Aha! I have that old headlamp, I cried, victoriously pulling it from my shelf. The batteries were dead.
So I did what any sane person would do: I went to the gym.
I’m not really sure what I was thinking in that moment, but it has become kind of a joke among my group of friends, because I think the community board fever pitch started hitting people around the same time, and everyone started to check in with each other about where they were and how they were and if they needed anything. So there I am on the treadmill, thinking how this storm is going to put a total cramp in my January running challenge since I prefer running outdoors, while every friend I have is texting me like, are you alive?! Have you moved your motorbike to higher ground?! Do you have water?! And I’m like yeah, I have a bottle of water, I’m at the gym.
One might say I was in a bit of denial.
By the time I hobbled off the treadmill the main road was already fairly significantly flooded, so I took the back way, weaving around coconuts and other debris on the stream-like roads and wincing as I edged through one pass that I was sure would flood my engine. When I got home Ian hugged me like I’d gotten back from war and I sent my parents a short email: hey, a storm is coming. It might be a big one. If you don’t hear from me for a few days, don’t freak out — the power and cell service could blow. But don’t worry, I’m totally prepared.
I was totally not prepared.
neighboring Koh Samui, via Facebook
The next day, conditions worsened. While the power was surging on and off and flickering, I hadn’t fully lost it for more than an hour, and my cell provider was still going strong, so I had access to the regular photo and video updates coming from around the island about completely impassable roads and worsening storm systems moving in. Those who had power, hot water and food opened their doors, and even local hotels and hostels started posting that their beds were open to anyone stranded in town, unable to return home.
By the next morning, I’d officially run out of food, and Ian and I were both eager to check on the dogs at Banyan. My landlord came by to check on the building and confirmed this was the worst flooding she’d seen in decades of living on Koh Tao. She brought me a bag of used red candles, which I gratefully lined up in glass soda water bottles with sand at the bottom, ready to light should we be plunged into darkness. Take that, total helplessness!
Ian and I decided to brave heading into Sairee to scrounge up what food we could for ourselves and the dogs on foot. A hole torn into the ground under my apartment building left me wondering how much longer I’d have power, and as we waded towards town, the water went from ankle deep to over-the-knee. We quickly realized that we should have just trashed our trainers and worn them — it was near impossible to keep flip flops on, and debris was flying past us in the water. (I tried to not even think about the terrible, overloaded sewage system on the island and what, exactly, we were likely standing in.)
At the main Sairee intersection, it was pure chaos. Bulldozers were attempting to clear the drains in the intersection so the water would recede, helped by dozens of business-owners attempting to salvage what they could of their storefronts. Tourists in rainbow-colored plastic ponchos snapped selfies and videos of themselves perched on the edge of the madness while police helped them cross the streets safely. And two starving expatriated idiots trudged through the thigh-deep middle of it, hoping to find a spare packet of instant noodles stuck between ransacked shelves. We knew from watching Facebook — the source for local news on an island with no local news — that many of the restaurants were severely flooded or out of food.
We headed to 7-11 for essentials and found a war zone. “Sandwich finish,” warned a sweetly scrawled sign taped to bare shelves. Ian and I decided to divide and conquer — he’d find dog food, I’d look for the human variety. I did a double take when I noticed Sairee Sairee, a local pizza place, was humming with soggy customers. I immediately ordered over 1000B in take out, about five times our usual order. When Ian met me there to help me carry it home, he burst out laughing. “I panicked!,” I cried. But it fed us for a while.
Then, there was the wedding. I was so insanely touched when my blogging friend Steph of Joy and Journey invited me to her henna party and wedding reception, held at a beautiful resort in Chalok. Can’t wait, I’d replied, with no idea of the madness about to hit Koh Tao. By the day of her henna party, I still literally could not access the southern side of the island had my life depended on it. When I finally reluctantly sent my regrets, she told me no worries, she got it — she’d trudged into town that day to try to do her hair trail only to find the salon filled above the chair line with water.
The day of the wedding the road was still impassable by motorbike, but we’d heard that taxis were starting to cautiously take on the journey. And so after Ian got off work, we made a truly epic island-crossing to be there. Our taxi driver dropped us at the bottom of the hill where the resort was, and we huddled by the road in a downpour, waiting for the resort shuttle to escort us the rest of the way. We white-knuckled the ride to the resort along a road that looked like it had been cracked straight off the hill.
Upon our victorious arrival, the wedding planner flatly informed us that the last shuttle from the wedding venue back down to town was leaving fifteen minutes later. After spending almost an hour getting there (on an eight square mile island, mind you), we weren’t turning around so quickly, so we shrugged and laughed and said we’d figure it out.
Steph being Steph literally offered for us to stay in their bridal suite with her and her fresh new husband — how sweet is she — but at the end of the wild, Israeli-style reception (Ian: “this feels suspiciously like a rave”) we took the semi-flooded beach path down to Chalok in the pitch black darkness, using my phone as a torch and laughing at our recklessness the whole way. When we reached the beach, we stopped for one more drink at a reggae bar and debated crashing in a hotel before eventually finding a pickup taxi that would bring us back to Sairee.
I was so inspired by Steph and her family’s positive attitude in the face of a washed-out wedding, it helped me to reframe my own experience as another wild adventure. It was kind of a fun decompression in the middle of a stressful and sometimes scary time on Koh Tao.
I tried to keep that in mind as my two most important communication and work devices were crucially damaged as a result of the flooding. First, moisture damaged my iPhone screen — I think despite my best efforts my phone got wet while I was braving the rain to gather supplies — which made it hard to read and type, and eventually required an expensive motherboard repair.
Worse — much worse — power fluctuations from the flooding fried the logic board in my laptop. I worked off a loaner while my baby went to Bangkok for repairs, but it took me a few days to make the switch and get as set up as I could be in the interim. I lost time, money, and work. It was definitely frustrating to have a setback like that at the moment I was meant to be grinding out content and getting back to work, but I quickly put my own problems into perspective as we watched news from our neighboring mainland provinces roll in.
By the time the month was over, the death toll had crept close to ninety, and the country would suffer an estimated fifteen million baht in financial damage. Homes and businesses were destroyed. How could I look at that and feel anything but humbled and grateful for my blessings.
I had a warm dry place to sleep at night, safe water to drink, and friends that wondered where I was and how I was doing and offered to literally walk through a typhoon for me if I needed it.
My heart is full thinking of the ways I saw the island come together — the businesses that donated their time and goods for the good of the community, friends that pitched in to clear flooded roads and clean ravaged beaches, strangers that opened their doors and wallets. Koh Tao is a community that refuses to let anyone slip through the cracks.
It’s also a community with a sense of humor. When one expat’s irate post about his flop flops being “stolen” from outside a hillside shop on a day the island was in full crisis mode and it was probably pretty safe to assume they washed away instead, the relentless resulting mocking raged for weeks, spurred its own Facebook account, and nearly two years later, is still referenced frequently as an island-wide inside joke. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to interrogate a hostile witness and find out whether or not they lived on Koh Tao in January 2017, just say the phrase “Ben [name redacted for privacy]’s flip flops,” and if they burst into hysterical laughter, congratulations, they did.
Things seemed like they were just getting back to normal when my childhood family friend Sara was due to arrive on Koh Tao. I warned her that the island wasn’t quite the postcard paradise it normally was, but she was still game — she had just two short nights to spare before heading to Myanmar for a graduate studies program. I was just strategizing how I might fetch her from the pier when I got a text — her ferry had made it as far as Koh Phangan and said yeah, this is as far as we’re going today, leaving her stranded. Of course, being a full year older — which seems like a pretty big deal when you’re like, twelve and thirteen — I felt very panicked over this situation until Ian sanely reminded me that Sara is, in fact, an adult, and I reluctantly agreed. By the time she made it to Koh Tao, her brief trip pretty much consisted of survey-ing the damage and helping me with a beach clean up.
Yet she brought with her an incredible attitude that I hope many travelers will, when their trips include encounters with unseasonable, catastrophic weather events. Obviously, keeping yourself safe is priority number one. Beyond that, try to see the bigger picture. Offer some suggestions, you say? Well then! Perhaps attend a fundraiser or, if there isn’t one happening, throw one. We had a huge one at Banyan that helped rebuild businesses and homes all over Koh Tao.
Perhaps see if anyone is organizing clothing and necessity drives — many businesses on the island came together to organize collections for local Thai and Burmese families who lost their homes and possessions due to flooding.
Perhaps lend a hand. Join an official cleanup, or grab a trash bag and head to the road or beach for a trash hunt. When I did so, I was always joined by friendly faces along the way and walked away feeling happy and exhausted.
Most importantly, smile, make the most of it, and keep traveling. Many popular travel destinations have economies largely based on tourism and frankly, after something like this they need you more than ever. I was so inspired throughout this time by the positive attitudes of travelers I came in contact with who made the best of trips they certainly envisioned differently. A smile goes a long way.
So, why did I wait almost two years to talk about this? (Aside from the fact that I’m really behind on blogging?) After all, I feel like most of my peers would be milking a natural disaster for every Instagram story reaction possible, but I stayed pretty mum throughout the whole thing. Koh Tao is a funny place to be a blogger.
Living in a community that is very dependent on tourism and has a longstanding suspicion of the media, I often found myself squirming when it came to my own profession. I’ve been kicked off our community board before for being “a reporter” and been accused of being an opportunist for talking to international press. Over the years, I’ve often struggled with how to share my own personal experiences and still stay a welcomed member of the Koh Tao expat community in good standing.
On Koh Tao, even posting a “holy shit!” video of people river tubing down the road on your private Facebook account is considered the act of a traitor by some. And they have a point — Koh Tao has many times been the victim of sensational news reports that keep reposting the same flooding videos weeks after the sun has returned, or painting a nuanced region with a broad brush. The resulting group mentality, unfortunately, is that the media can’t be trusted, anyone who speaks to them made a mistake, and the only acceptable way to present Koh Tao to the world is to post shiny, sunny, postcard-like photos that portray the island as an impossibly blessed paradise, shielded from the temperamental fluctuations of weather, and residing in a perfect year-round bubble of sunshine.
Anything else is controversial. Even the carefully worded Facebook posts I put up about fundraisers got me some raised eyebrows and comments from other expats that cheerily emphasized sun was back and discreetly implied to me, “you should have known better.”
Nowhere is perfect. Let’s own it, acknowledge it, and move on. It’s why I have a chapter in my Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao guide on what to do when it’s raining. Koh Tao is literally one of the most incredible islands on the planet. Nowhere is perfect. Nowhere is immune from a rare natural disaster, or an ocasional bout of rain. Pretending so is a waste of time — and who needs artificial perfection when your reality is so envy-inducing.
Even now, having finally pulled up almost all my Koh Tao roots (aside from what I hope will be my flagship annual retreat!) I still have this pit in my stomach over sharing something critical of the community, like I’m about to go testify in Congress about insider trading or become a police informant. Snitches don’t get stitches, in this situation, per se, but they could get snubbed at the bar, or worse, be accused of not being a “true local.” I just had to give myself a little pep talk, like, girl, you love that island. It’s been your spiritual home since you were a teenager. You can share the real along with the rainbows.
And here’s the thing. As I’ve put heart and soul into becoming a slowly more sustainability focused traveler, one thing I’ve started to think about is traveling to destinations that NEED tourism — maybe they’re recovering from a natural disaster, maybe they’ve been getting bad press, maybe the economy is hurting. Maybe all three. The devastation of natural disasters is so well covered, but the recovery rarely is.
What if instead of trying to convince the world that nothing happened in the first place, we said hey, things are still getting back to normal over here but it’s looking great and we’d love to show you all that’s magical about this place. And things did go back to normal head-spinning quickly, at least on Koh Tao. Water recedes, roads are rebuilt, the sun does come out again.
As typhoons, monsoons, hurricanes, fires and beyond have torn apart so many places near and dear to my heart recently, I think back to this time often. To those that still deny climate change, well, I wish I could show them what my eyes have seen and the wild ways the seasons and weather have shifted on my tiny island of Koh Tao over the last near-decade. What can we do? Honestly, I’m nowhere near scientifically inclined enough or well-read enough to really understand the ins and outs of climate change, but I do know that consistently making small steps towards a smaller footprint feels right and good.
So dang, we really went there, huh? Life and death and billion dollar deficits and weddings and flip flops and everything. Global warming, even. Side rants about the role of social media in authentically sharing a destination’s truth, the responsibility of the traveler in ethically choosing destinations, the whole bit. But it was that kinda flood — the kind of thing that makes you think big thoughts about the power of nature to heal and destroy, the power of communities to heal and rebuild, and the power of people to always wake up hopeful for a day of sunshine.
Have you ever lived through a natural disaster? Did you have batteries in your headlamp?
- ^ roundup queue (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ floods of 2011 (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ departing for Cambodia (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ sister trip to Bangkok (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ over the holidays (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ the dogs at Banyan (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ Steph of Joy and Journey (joyandjourney.com)
- ^ close to ninety (www.bangkokpost.com)
- ^ fifteen million baht (www.bangkokpost.com)
- ^ Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ flagship annual retreat (www.alexinwanderland.com)
- ^ deny climate change (www.ucsusa.org)
- ^ the ins and outs (www.edf.org)
- ^ a smaller footprint (www.alexinwanderland.com)