allaboutpai.com Floods of '05

Pai Floods of 2005

Normally, the residents of Pai expect some small amount of flooding to occur each rainy season. Some guesthouse owners even purposely build their bamboo huts in the 1-year flood plain and close for business during each rainy season, knowing that occasionally the flood will come and knock away a hut or two (at a cost of about 15,000 B or $375 each) but the tradeoff—a quiet, lovely riverside location—is well worth it.

Well, 2005 was the season to break all assumptions. On August 13th, 2005, and again on September 28th, 2005, there were two massive floods which caused more damage than has been seen in many decades. I returned to Pai from a two-month trip on October 11th, 2005 and wrote this report as I marveled at the power of nature. Luckily, my house and possessions were spared, but many locals lost their home or their entire business.

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Table of Contents

Part of Life in Pai

This flood-related page is part of my general page about Pai, which you might want to read if you are not familiar with the area.

The Sky is Not Falling

I do not wish to understate the horrific loss that you will see from the images below, but I also want to help you get some perspective by stating this:

So, Pai is very much still open for tourism business now and will be able to accept a good chunk of its former volume by December.

Mud and Water

The two floods, precipitated by days of rain, caused the rivers to engorge and widen, eating up anything on the river banks, be it wood, metal, or concrete. The August 13th flood was particularly nasty because the water was thick with mud and with huge, heavy debris which acted like battering rams to anything in its path. In the Sep 20th flood, the rivers rose to a higher level, but there was not so much mud and debris.

Reports on the number of fatalities in the Pai valley vary greatly from the official figure of 2 (and 15 in all of Mae Hong Son province) to much higher unofficial estimates. No foreigners are reported to have died in the Pai valley floods.

Riverside

Many guesthouses are just completely gone, and in many places, lush green bamboo-hut-filled fields bordering narrow river chutes have been replaced by 30-meter-wide, shallow, muddy watery expanses surrounded by another 20 meters of lifeless mud and sand, littered with trees, major appliances, and giant boulders carried from kilometers away. The flood deposited so much mud that in some places, the elevation of the ground near the river actually rose several meters.

For example, the flood transformed this sloping riverside guesthouse (near number 1 on the map above):

River Park Darling Guesthouse Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
River Park Darling Guesthouse Before
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into this nearly flat plane of mud:

River Park Darling Guesthouse After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
River Park Darling Guesthouse After
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along with all of its neighbors.

To get a sense of the mud, here is the very high structure from which I took the picture above, before the flood:

River Park Darling Guesthouse Room Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
River Park Darling Guesthouse Room Before
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and after:

River Park Darling Guesthouse Room After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
River Park Darling Guesthouse Room After
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Notice how the mud has risen up the foundation poles. During the flood, the water went far past this point, all the way up to the street, inundating businesses on the yellow part of the map above.

The flank of the Pai river around number 29 and 35 on the map above used to look like this:

Behind Wat Ba Kham Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Behind Wat Ba Kham Before
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but now it looks like this:

Behind Wat Ba Kham After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Behind Wat Ba Kham After
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Interesting note: the owners of Rimtaling guesthouse, upper right, moved their entire guesthouse and renamed it the Paddy Field guesthouse on higher ground above town, about one month before the floods. But all other structures you see in this set of photos were toppled or removed by nature. The Rimtaling owners will be applying for the position of town psychics.

Mink, the owner of Yawning Fields pictured in my general page about Pai, is likely to build a smaller guesthouse up near Paddy Field this season, as her structures were also almost completely wiped out.

Family Hut and River View (across from 25 on the map above):

Family Hut and River View Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Family Hut and River View Before
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aren't what they used to be:

Family Hut and River View After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Family Hut and River View After
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And the same could be said for nearby Good View:

Good View Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Good View Before
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Good View After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Good View After
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Downtown

The town side of the river did not escape unscathed either. This scene from Golden Huts guesthouse (8 on the map above) mirrored that of many establishments after the flood:

Cleanup Task for Golden Huts: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Cleanup Task for Golden Huts
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And the pricey Pai River Corner, despite its expensive concrete anti-flooding ramparts, was literally sliced to half its previous size when the river changed course right through it, taking away all the riverside teak buildings and their foundations:

Pai River Corner Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Pai River Corner Before
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Pai River Corner After: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Pai River Corner After
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One of the most visible signs of the destruction is Lucky Bar, whose luck ran out when its foundation collapsed on August 13th:

Lucky Bar Not So Lucky: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lucky Bar Not So Lucky
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Lucky Bar on August 13th: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lucky Bar on August 13th
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In the pictures above you can clearly see how the river carried not only mud, but an unending supply of random debris, from broken bottles, food items, toiletries and hardware products on display at shops inundated along the path, to whole trees, boulders, appliances, and in some cases cars.

This is what made the post-flood situation so dangerous. If your foot and/or leg dropped into deep mud, you could never be sure what it would scrape on the way down. Bringing this point home, the whole area of Pai around the Mae Gawn stream mud debris took on that unmistakeable rotting smell of a trash dump.

Cleanup

For weeks, people worked together—even people from competing business and random passers-by and tourists—to scoop, shovel, and spray away mud to the edge of town:

Mud Cleanup at the Shisha bar (picture stolen from Chiang Mai CityLife Forum): If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Mud Cleanup at the Shisha bar (picture stolen from Chiang Mai CityLife Forum)
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Digging up Motorbike Buried in Mud (picture stolen from Neyma Jahan): If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Digging up Motorbike Buried in Mud (picture stolen from Neyma Jahan)
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Mudpiles Left over on 11 October 2005: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Mudpiles Left over on 11 October 2005
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After the August 13th flood (and even still in a few places as of October 11th), the mud was incredibly deep. It was hard to tell if you could step in any given place or if you would sink in all the way to your waist:

Deep Mud in Pai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Deep Mud in Pai
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Some folks had mini-tractors, and the city offered disorganized but well-meaning bulldozer service, to try and win the town back from the everpresent mud:

If image does not load automatically, click link below.

Click here if image does not load automatically.

In stark contrast to the almost simultaneous New Orleans reports of Hurricane Katrina, there was no killing or major looting, and the local Thais, though of course shocked by the events, tried to take them with humor and generally tried not to get too freaked out. Keeping their priorities in mind, the Thais made sure that even massively damaged structures like this one continued to proudly display images of the King (foreground and also upper right) and an altar for offering to the spirits (far distance):

Royal Family and Spirit House in Wreckage: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Royal Family and Spirit House in Wreckage
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Nam Huu Village

The flooding affected the large Pai and Khong rivers, but there was a particularly huge amount of water, mud, and debris in the formerly tiny Huay Mae Gawn stream (which for some reason Chiang Mai City life is calling the Huay Muang Kron).

This stream runs down the mountains along the North-Western wall of the Pai valley past the Kuo Min Dong (Jiin Haw) Chinese village and the Lisu village of Nam Huu, winds around past the road leading to Pai Hospital, passes through the Wednesday Market area of downtown Pai, makes a stop at the Lucky Bar, and finally empties into the Pai river.

For some unknown reason (the government has vehemently denied any connection to illegal deforestation, thus making this a distincly possible reason), this tiny stream became an unbelievable torrent which created the most dramatic scenes of destruction. The river at this point used to be a few meters wide and there were no boulders at all:

Torrent in Nam Huu Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Torrent in Nam Huu Village
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The unstoppable force of the river carved a great gash through this part of the valley, carrying boulders larger than cars and littering the area with dead trees.

Here is a movie of the unbelievable torrent in progress (note: the cheesy video overlays are not mine):


Nam Huu Torrent

Minor Note: we're not sure, but one short scene in the middle of this movie, where the river is pushing a giant tree and two trucks across the road, could be either Nam Huu or it could be the pump station outside downtown Pai near what is now Yoma hotel (used to be a gas station). The rest of the movie is certainly the Nam Huu area, however.

The road to the chinese village was cut off after both floods. After the second flood, it did not open up for cars until early October, when they built this temporary bridge:

New Bridge: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
New Bridge
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Wednesday Market Area

That same torrent from Nam Huu cut its way about 5 kilometers south-east, straight into town. When it reached the area just north of the Wednesday Market (north of number 30 and the post office on the map above), an area where the formerly unknown stream passed quietly in a drainage underneath the buildings and pavement below, it entirely obliterated the buildings on both sides of the road, and tore this gigantic gash right across the main street:

Torrent from Nam Huu Tears through Pai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Torrent from Nam Huu Tears through Pai
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Gash in Pai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Gash in Pai
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Above you can see the temporary wood and steel bridge erected over the gash. The Wednesday Market area itself got very wet and muddy but is otherwise undamaged. They have temporarily moved the whole Wednesday Market across town.

Here is a movie of the street during the August 13 flood. You will see objects float by from left to right in what seems to be a shallow stream, but what is actually a new, 3-meter-deep river cut right through the street. This is the gash over which they built the bridge pictured above. Amongst other things, you will see the river pushing by tons of furniture, a 1,000,000 baht computerised paint mixing machine from the hardware store, a pickup truck, and finally a giant cargo van which later smashed into and destroyed the Seng Tong market:


Seng Tong Torrent

The Seng Tong day market:

Seng Tong Market Before: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Seng Tong Market Before
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was fatally damaged when the torrent pushed a giant flat-bed delivery truck right into the building:

Seng Tong Market with Truck Inserted in It: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Seng Tong Market with Truck Inserted in It
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Now, in early October 2005, all that is left of Seng Tong are the foundation poles:

Seng Tong Market No More: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Seng Tong Market No More
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During the flood in the Seng Tong area, some people were stranded on a nearby roof and had to be rescued by a set of clever everyday citizens who set up a rope system:

Seng Tong Roof Rescue: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Seng Tong Roof Rescue
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The Thai equivalent of the "fire department" or "national guard" were nowhere to be seen until days later. For some reason the police station was particularly badly hit.

The whole scene was caught on video by at least two different videographers, who then sold glitzy edited versions of the whole catastrophe on VCD in Pai and in Chiang Mai. Some of the VCDs had special effects and ecological musical soundtrack (including a custom-made song from a well-known folk singer about messing with the forest in Pai) and cost between 100-200B (USD $2.50-$5.00). The Thais do not apparently see anything wrong with this economic activity and are interested in seeing more of the catastrophe they just experienced.

Even in the wreckage of this nearby building, completely destroyed by the torrent, we can see surviving homages to the twin gods of Thailand—the spirits, and TV:

What Counts: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
What Counts
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Other Scenes

Many bridges around town were out from August 13th until early October, when they were patched in various ways. Some bridges can only accept people and motorbike traffic. Some will certainly wash away with the next flood. The largest bridge, adjacent to the big school at the edge of downtown, made it through the August 13th flood but one of its banks completely washed away (for a length of more than 10 meters) in the September 28th flood. In early October, the locals improvised this structure to "fix" it:

School Bridge After Second Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
School Bridge After Second Flood
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Here are some scenes from places outside of town that happened to be near the flooding rivers.

The expensive Baan Grating resort (one of whose other franchises is in Tsunami-destroyed Khao Lak, ouch) sustained heavy damage and the whole area around it has become a mud and sand bar:

Baan Grating After Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Baan Grating After Flood
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The newly built Bulunburi resort, designed by an expensive Bangkok architect with an incredibly tall concrete walkway and high concrete foundation posts to withstand floods, actually made it past the August 13th flood. But in the high waters of the September 28th flood, the walkway broke away and the rooms collapsed. In another demonstration of how you cannot mess with nature, Bulunburi's rooms are now on the opposite side of the river from the main structure—the river simply changed course right through the middle of the resort:

Bulunburi After Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Bulunburi After Flood
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Bulunburi After Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Bulunburi After Flood
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Bulunburi After Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Bulunburi After Flood
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Sipsongpanna resort is also heavily damaged, but the owners confidently say they'll have the restaurant and maybe even some accomodation operational by late November:

Sipsongpanna After Flood: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Sipsongpanna After Flood
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2006 Update

As of July 6th, 2006, some of the former riverside guesthouses have relocated to higher ground, but about half of the guesthouses have sprung up again, including a seriously ugly yellow tower-like series of concrete condominiums, and an inexplicably densely-packed cluster of bamboo huts that almost lean into the water, taunting the river to come tear them away.

Today is interesting because last night, it rained for more than 12 hours—the first major downpour of the rainy season. Very few people got sleep last night, wondering which major structures of theirs were making a river journey to Burma. When the sun finally came up, we woke to this scene underneath the Pai bridge:

2006: Deja Vu All Over Again: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
2006: Deja Vu All Over Again
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as compared with the "normal" flow (taken on July 21st, 2006):

2006: "Normal": If image does not load automatically, click link below.
2006: "Normal"
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Here is a July 6th shot from Pai River Hill Guesthouse high above the town, where the river is supposed to only occupy the left half of the frame:

2006: Just Getting Started Again: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
2006: Just Getting Started Again
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and here is what it looks like on July 21st, 2006, when the water was sort of back to normal levels:

2006: "Normal": If image does not load automatically, click link below.
2006: "Normal"
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For the last 2-3 months, all along the river in both directions, people had paid lots of money for weeks of work in which 6-7 giant bulldozers scooped mud out of the river and deposited and patted down two 4m-wide, dirt-road-like river banks. The Pai River laughed at that and erased their work in a matter of hours.

Not to be fazed by something as trivial as futility, as of July 21st, they're at it again (you can see one bulldozer in the image above, cutting a curved U-shaped canal through the formerly flooded field in an attempt to carry the water...where?).

In another futile gesture that's more ritual than tactical, they've also started to pile sandbags along the river, though only in certain places and only about 1m high. The water will easily top this level in even a trivial flood. One cool thing is how they link the bags together by stabbing them with bamboo poles!

2006: Bamboo Sandbags: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
2006: Bamboo Sandbags
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Although this particular flood was not even close to the level of the 2005 floods described in the rest of this document (for example, water did not actually go up into town), it has everyone thinking: "here we go again?"

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