Home > Essays > Brittle
Worapoj Panpong
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul
Published: Mon Oct 25 2021
Art: Paul TheriaultSwimmers (detail), 2019, acrylic and found paper on scavenged wood
Brittle

The sea at Koh Samet is calm and clean at the cusp of winter, as the rainy season ends—it makes you want to sprawl on the sand, maybe dip your feet in the translucent, sun-filled water.

Phuket, Kanchanaburi, Chiang Rai, or maybe Phrae or Nan—I could head to any of those. I could be happy at any of them, too, since I know places to stay, places to eat, and in some cases, have friends I could say hello to.

Anywhere is better than stuck sloshing around in the capital.

Bangkok’s been flooded for more than ten days now. Not sure what metrics were being used, but I saw on the news that this is the biggest natural disaster in seventy-five years and it’s eating up land in twenty-six provinces. As of October 29, 2011, the death toll has shot up to 373, with the number of flood victims exceeding two million. Tens of national roadways are blocked off; traffic has no way to get through.

Aside from the tsunami at the end of 2004, based on the empirical observation of this forty-year-old, water has never wreaked such havoc.

People rowing in the streets I’ve seen before. But I’ve never seen the streets of Bangkok—hundreds of its intricate little side streets and alleys—underwater like this. Lots of motorbike-taxi stands have morphed into water-taxi piers.

Sandbags like the ones that soldiers use to build bunkers in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat are now treated as a necessity by every establishment, every household. Fancy towers and big banks have these bags stacked as if they were aiming to erect the Great Wall of China.

If sandbags symbolize war, the war in the three provinces down south is between people and people, but the great residents of Bangkok are waging a war against water. On October 25, 2011—the seventh anniversary of the killing of eighty-five in Tak Bai District in Narathiwat—bombs exploded at thirty-three different sites in the middle of the city in Yala, claiming three lives and injuring over sixty. You can’t call this an everyday occurrence, but with the arrival of the floods, column inches were immediately diverted, reducing the story from the south to tiny squares.

Newspapers have been setting jumbo headlines on their front pages every single day, accompanied by photos of the devastation. Constant TV coverage of the floods has turned the newscasters into virtual directors general of the Royal Irrigation Department.

The political witch-hunt on Facebook has paused for the time being, as people turn their attention to real news at times, fake news at times, and silly news at times, in an effort to ease the boredom, the loneliness, and the unbearable lightness of being. Some, though, have made a scandal of the prime minister’s choice of waterproof footwear. The charge: she cares too much about her appearance, as evidenced by the Burberry rain boots, with a price tag deep into the tens of thousands of bahts, that she wore to wade through the floods.

Watching the news is stressful; not watching it isn’t an option when you need to stay on top of the situation. I’m kicking back in my fourth-floor apartment—who knows if a crocodile is going to crawl in one of these days?

Rich or poor, home long swamped or lucky enough to be spared, it doesn’t matter—every face is lined with worry.

Will there be running water? Will the power stay on? What to do about the next meal?

A fist full of cash is no guarantee you’ll be able to buy supplies.

Even compared to the financial crisis of ’97, or the economic damage from the crackdowns on Red Shirt protestors in April and May 2010, the flooding in and around Bangkok this time is shaping up to be a critical case.

Critical, chronic, and sure to bring a whole host of side effects.

Still, I haven’t decamped from the city.

~

“Are you still a regular citizen, or are you a disaster victim now?”

After a long absence, this number, this voice, reappears on a day when the sea level is high, when conversations seem to revolve around one topic only.

I joke that I’ve been a victim for ages—since childhood, actually. The takeaway might be: I’m used to it, to the point that I find suffering normal, though it isn’t at all.

The asker, laughing, tells me to guard my status carefully, then says his house in Ampawa has turned into a disaster relief center. Relatives from all over the place have shown up as if for a celebration, as if someone’s son were getting ordained. Grandmas and grandpas, nieces and nephews, all on hand.

If you want to be Panglossian about it, you could see the gathering as a big, happy family reunion—and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In the absence of a crisis, an opportunity to convene like this is a rarity.

But given the choice, who wants an opportunity that emerges from a crisis? Can’t there be one that’s simply an opportunity?

A number of other calls come in. One, from a caller I half-assumed would never make my phone ring again in this life, surprises me with well wishes, the sincerity of which is palpable. The same can’t be said of SMSs from some higher-up types. Those I delete immediately after reading them.

When times are tough, we don’t need self-promoters or people trying to score points by riding the tide and picking up scraps. Don’t pretend to send a message from the heart when I’m not in your heart. No one benefits from that. It’s just time wasted reading, then deleting.

With these things, you can’t fool people. What someone’s like on the inside, what they’re made of—you can see through to that no matter how deeply it’s hidden.

Some friends call up asking if I have a place to stay, and if not, did I want come bunk with them? Another friend—this one’s got options to fall back on—has decided to hit the road and drive up to Chiang Mai, and he keeps asking me to join him: “You want to come? Go on a trip together?”

Two days later, he calls, sounding upbeat, to report that he’s scaling the mountains of Tak Province.

“If you’re interested, hop on a plane and get yourself up here. It’s great. I’m getting a lot of story ideas.”

I’m not worried about work, because we settled on pushing back deadlines for a bit. And to go on a trip with a friend, of course it’s tempting. But I’m still entwined in the arms of the forsaken Bangkok.

“You feel like the city’s ‘forsaken,’ even?” My friend, a newspaper man, wants to verify my word choice to be sure he’s visualizing the scene correctly.

I say yes. Other than when the government imposed a curfew in the middle of last year, Bangkok has never felt more deserted. Shops have put up signs announcing extended closures. People have packed their suitcases and fled for the country. Everybody’s doing what they can to escape—get out now, worry about the rest later.

Their routes home would surely require huge detours. There’d be no avoiding that.

The railroad’s northern line isn’t operating. The southern line just announced that its routes have been cut off: If you bought a ticket, come get a refund.

Hua Lamphong Station is packed with people lying around, waiting for signs of hope. The Tha Chang and Tha Phra Chan piers are submerged, with water spilling all the way over to Sanam Luang public square.

Drinking water can’t be found in any convenience store—absolutely none at any location (the other day they still had some in stock, but the rule was six bottles max per customer). Shelves once crammed with food and other supplies have become voids. Delivery routes have been interrupted, and many factories are underwater—so says an A4-sized sign posted on a fridge door in one of the shops. The same notice promises that the situation will be rectified ASAP, and confirms that the store will maintain its regular, round-the-clock hours.

“We’ll get through this crisis together. We’ll be a neighbor to you always.” Not the coolest copy, but at least earnest.

Hip cafés, bars and pubs, and the lobbies and lounges of five-star hotels are deserted—in complete contrast to the hotels and other accommodations in Pattaya, Phetchaburi, and Kanchanaburi, which, from what I hear, are busier than they’ve been all year, with the exodus of folks fleeing the water to dry their tears somewhere else.

Instant noodles are selling like hot cakes. There’s a shortage of sand. Egg prices have skyrocketed. Vegetables are prized like gems.

“You’re staying open every day, right?” I ask the woman who runs my go-to made-to-order food joint. “Until I run out of ingredients.”

Ingredients she more or less still has. Pork dishes cost the same, but the price of a fried egg has crept up to eight baht. A whole tilapia, sliced and fried, is eighty baht. Most items on the menu have gone up by five. I notice that not a single customer is complaining, maybe because they understand the situation, for one thing, and for another, the other shops shuttered days ago to escape the water. Letting this granny gouge you a little seems like a better option than starving.

In fact, I have no reason to put up with these circumstances and hang around guarding Bangkok. I was born a country boy. When the going gets tough in the city, ways to opt out and cut out are wide open to me. Plus, when I heard that the rice back home was at full term, ready to be harvested, my heart trembled, yearning to return and see the yield on the land of my youth.

Every time a long-distance bus drives by the house, my mother probably cranes her neck to see if she can spot her son. She’s probably muttering something about people in Bangkok possibly having nothing to eat, with such terrible flooding.

And if there’s nothing to eat, or it’s a struggle to stay, why not come home?

My mother wouldn’t understand the non-reasons I’ve mentally shackled myself to the capital, or what or who here is making it hard for me to break free and leave the city.

All things considered, I should have been the first in a scramble to pack up my things and take off. By now, I could be lying back, gazing at the stars from a paddy-side hut, my eyes and mind smiling. But no, I’m still in Bangkok, staying with her for better or for worse (mostly worse at this point), watching her take shallow breaths, listening to her snivel, and I’m following the news, which, more and more by the day, seems to inundate the screen like the water rising up outside.

But for some, right now every road leads to Bangkok. Having been in this profession my whole life, it’s not like I don’t know that an army of international press has descended on the city. Our suffering, our struggles, are a tasty feast for them. Beginning last year, and now into this year, the happenings in our country have been hot topics. As news, the stories unquestionably “sell.”

I get it, but to my surprise I don’t feel the urge to grab my camera. A photographer friend, on the other hand, has been dashing around the city like a madman. Wherever the flooding is especially severe, he’ll go and camp out there. I heard the other day he went and pitched a tent for the night on the Don Mueang Tollway, to snap pictures of planes swimming in the deluge. I respect and admire his journalist’s instinct. I get it: these pictures will capture a moment in history that it’s up to our generation to document—a history of brittleness, a country of brittleness, a society of brittleness. You rap on it once, and the whole thing crumbles.

With all due respect—because I don’t think the current disaster is trivial or easily solvable—all of it shows that our country lacks a taproot. Just a bit of wind and water and the entire trunk is shaken. We don’t know how to gear up for such a scenario, we don’t know how to manage it, because we’ve never studied the sky or water in an organized, detailed way. So, what ensues is chaos and finger-pointing, blame being launched at other people, other organizations. Brittleness isn’t unusual. But if you’re brittle today, you should aim to be solid tomorrow, not stay brittle year in year out, brittle time and time again.

One night, on a sidewalk near Hua Lampong, a local man said after watching the news on TV: “Shoot them all, the thieves breaking into flooded homes. As if people aren’t suffering enough, these criminals are kicking them while they’re down. People of that ilk shouldn’t be kept alive to weigh down the country.”

I agree that these burglars with flippers are scumbags, but shooting them dead is surely going too far for a crime like stealing.

It’s not only our society as a whole that’s brittle. Our mood is brittle too. We’re touchy, especially when food and goods cost so much.

I love Bangkok. I love the people, love the brightness and darkness of this city. But gazing at the moon tonight, I miss home. This afternoon, though out of character for her, my mother called. She said they were getting ready for the harvest and to come home for a bit if I have time.

My mother put it casually enough, like it’s no big deal, but after I hung up, I felt as though I were drowning in the floods.

2011

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Worapoj Panpong, after working at the Thai newspaper Manager and the lifestyle magazines GM and Open, became a freelance writer; he has published more than twenty collections of his interviews and nonfiction prose. In 2019 he was honored with the Silpathorn Award, a national recognition for mid-career artists. Originally from Nakhon Ratchasima, he lived and worked in Bangkok for twenty-five years before moving to the northern province of Nan, where he founded and runs the poetry festival Nan Poésie. (updated 10/2021)

Mui Poopoksakul’s translations include Prabda Yoon’s story collections The Sad Part Was and Moving Parts, Duanwad Pimwana’s story collection Arid Dreams, and Pimwana’s novel Bright. A native of Bangkok who spent two decades in the U.S., she now lives in Berlin. (updated 10/2021)
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