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ASIA : Heavy Rains Put Damper on Thai Tourism : Two months of downpours have closed major sites. Boat rides on Bangkok's river are at passengers' risk. Then there are the crocodiles.

October 28, 1995|ELIZABETH LU | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BANGKOK, Thailand — Tourists this year have braved Thailand's wettest rainy season in more than a decade. Though the end is in sight with the dry season officially due in November, the heaviest downpours since the dire 1983 floods have put the capital on alert as swells from the north gradually raise the level of the Chao Phraya River to alarming levels.

This time around, better flood prevention measures have kept the city center relatively dry.

But the heavy rain has deluged many areas on the outskirts of the city, triggering life-threatening flash floods in some communities and leading to the closure of several major tourist sites.

Last week, more than 3,800 people at a housing estate in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok, were left homeless when a flood wall collapsed and their neighborhood was engulfed in chest-deep water in a matter of minutes. A day later, thundershowers caused flash-flooding of the popular Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, forcing monks and visitors alike to wade through knee-deep water.

More than two months of such rain have prompted some tour companies to cancel boat trips on the swollen Chao Phraya as well as tours to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. The historic Oriental Hotel, for example, has canceled all boat trips until at least next month.

"It's too dangerous," said a tour agent stationed at the hotel, who described waves on the Chao Phraya as "high and rough."

But at the nearby Shangri-La Hotel, rides--including on long-tail craft and dinner river cruises--are still available at guests' own risk. The fast long-tail boats have worsened wave action and damage as they speed through Bangkok's system of canals, known as klongs.

Residents along the canals, angered by waves flooding their homes, have lashed back at boat operators, throwing rocks at them or tying ropes across canals to slow tourist boats.

Organized tours to Ayutthaya, a former Thai capital north of Bangkok, are also on hold. Although it is possible to get to Ayutthaya by arranging private land transportation, tour companies have postponed trips there because "they are afraid something will go wrong," said Natee Thamarato, managing director of Great Inter Travel Service. "They don't want to take the chance."

Some visitors have toured the ancient monuments by hiring their own boats once they reach Ayutthaya, he said, adding that "you can't get off the boat, but you can take pictures."

The foundations of some of Ayutthaya's ancient temple ruins have been weakened by the flooding, causing an estimated $1.2 million in damage, reported a spokesman for the government's Fine Arts Department. As a result, Thailand has asked for technical and financial aid from UNESCO's World Heritage Program.

Meanwhile, those attracted by the area's famed crocodile farms may not have to go far to catch the animals in action. Earlier in the rainy season, flooding helped hundreds of crocodiles escape their pens at farms up north; the creatures are feared to be making their way down the Chao Phraya.

The heavy rain has also flooded holes where pythons usually live, evicting the large snakes from their homes. The Dusit Zoo reports that almost 100 pythons have been captured in recent weeks around Bangkok.

It is unclear how much damage this year's flooding will cause to Thailand's tourism industry, the country's biggest income earner, which brought in $6 billion in 1994 alone. But monsoon rains this year have affected more than 1 million families in 66 of 76 provinces, the government reports.

Prices for fresh produce have skyrocketed at many Bangkok markets. In several communities north of the capital residents recently blockaded major roads to draw attention to their plight and demand government aid.

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