Bittersweet Festival for Flooded Thailand

12/11/2011 11:55 GMT | Updated 11/01/2012 10:12 GMT

On dark, humid and gloomy Sunday a month ago, Sasikarn Kornair served up just about the best fried chicken I have ever tasted, standing knee-deep in rising floodwaters in her Arthika restaurant, which on a sunny day would sit in the shade of the nearby city hospital.

That sunny day came yesterday, when the local governor and tourism agency organised a feel-good photo-op style cleaning day for the venerable old citadel. The old Siamese capital, now site of ample gray and red-brick old temple ruins that are but the surviving fraction of one of the world's major cities prior to its sacking by invading Burmese in 1767, were surrounded by 3-4 feet of water on October 9 last.

Talking over the eye-watering vapours rising from the rough-chopped onions sizzling away on the hob, she said that "the water began to go down only on October 25", and added "it only was fully dry 3 days ago".

The images of happy-face volunteers eagerly scrubbing pathways and power-hosing mud off walls might be welcome relief for not only Ayutthayans who have endured over a month of inundation, but for a neophyte Thailand Government that has been coming under heavy verbal fire for its management of a flood crisis that could yet have several weeks to run, as the waters now drained from Ayutthaya back-up on those already flooding large areas of capital Bangkok.

Among those taking part in the Ayutthaya hose-down was Sasima Pianskool, who travelled from her flood-threatened home near the Rama 7 road in Bangkok to help out. She stopped to speak under a 33 degree sun, the glare offset by the shade provided by the Yai Chaimongkon temple behind.

"We are Thai, we love Thailand, we love Ayutthaya, that is why we help", she said. "In Bangkok I volunteer as well", she added, but told of her her concern for her own home. "It is not yet flooded, but if the Bang Sue canal breaks then it might flood". Over 500 people have died in Thailand's worst flooding in a half-century, and the threat to capital Bangkok appears far from over.

For Watsaporn Wattanakoon, Miss Thailand Earth 2010 and a regular on Thailand's Channel 7 TV station, the event was bittersweet, as it took place on one of Thailand's major annual festivals. Standing with mop in hand, she explained "today is Loy Krathong, but we are doing the clean-up instead of having the usual festival".

On Loy Krathong, which comes after the end of the rainy season, Thais usually loy - float - colourful flower and candle-laden mini-boats - krathongs - on rivers and public waterways, a symbolic rebirth in which the previous year's travails are floated away.

Back in Bangkok on Thursday evening, Loy Krathong celebrations were muted compared with previous years, after public warnings against floating of krathongs on the swollen rivers and canals, which authorities hope will siphon off the remaining floodwaters into the Gulf of Thailand without any additional submerging in the capital.

In Benjasiri Park near the Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok's closest thing to a Main Street, most of the crowd was comprised of young couples, for some of whom the joint-floating of a krathong is taken as a form of merit-making, some floating spiritual guarantee that the romance will last.

Flood or no flood, Loy Krathong is a big deal, therefore, for Thai couples. Chalermpol Punjatep, a 32 year old translator and technical advisor whose own Nonthaburi home is deluged, said he had never floated a krathong before. "It would be kind of lonesome and wrong to do so without someone", he conceded. Girlfriend Phattamon Somchit - a 26 year old who works in financial management - had a different tale to tell. "I have floated it many times", she giggled, "and with many guys too!", Chalermpol interjected, laughing. "But you are the last one I will loy with", whispered Phattamon, in consolation, before the pair floated their mini-raft together onto the waters at Benjasiri Park.