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Waterworld in Thailand

Rising seas are already devouring this coastal village. Is Bangkok next?

At low tide, structures from destroyed buildings protrude from the ground. This the view from Khun Samut Jeen Temple. (Pailin Wedel/GlobalPost)

KHUN SAMUT JEEN, Thailand — Casualties of this sea-swallowed village abound.

Waves lap at the foundations of abandoned homes, half-sunk into a marshy pudding. Barnacles cling to telephone poles rising from the sea. Mudskippers squirm among the ruins at low tide.

Khun Samut Jeen is a town in retreat. It’s also an ominous symbol of Thailand’s rising seas, which threaten to someday reach Bangkok just 15 miles north. (Read why parts of Bangkok may be underwater by 2030.)

(The Khun Samut Jeen temple once sat in its village's center. Now the temple-on-stilts is surrounded by rising seas. Its outer wall is seen here at low tide. Pailin Wedel/GlobalPost)

The community, founded centuries ago, has been thoroughly probed by researchers from the capital. They’ve left behind wave-breaking barriers, meant to replace the miles of destroyed coastal vegetation that once helped keep the sea at bay.

They’ve also left behind the phrase “lohk rorn.” Translation: “hot planet” or global warming, also accused of causing the sea to encroach on this village.

“I don’t know much about ‘lohk rorn,’ but it’s hot as hell right now,” said Somkuan Taengurai, 72, mother of the village’s elected leader. Fanning her brow, she sat cross-legged on her home’s elevated wood-plank floor.

Her house, like the others here, is perched on concrete stilts. Her front walk is a creaky pier. Somkuan and her husband, Pramern, have jacked up their living room floor so much that the windows now open at ankle-level.

“The ocean has swallowed so much,” she said. “So many people have to flee.”

Those who stay must adapt.

Villagers reach the outside world on motorboats churning through soupy, brown-water canals. Streetlamps light the waterways after dark.

Inside the town, a wobbly network of wooden bridges links small pockets of high ground, where clusters of wooden houses sit on pillars. Most in Khun Samut Jeen farm shrimp or shellfish.

Elders among the 1,000 or so remaining villagers can point to the village’s old school, visible at low tide as a distant concrete sliver in the gulf. Further out, they say, is an old temple, now completely submerged.

As the sea floods inward, townsfolk simply retreat and rebuild. Some families have relocated seven or eight times. They still retain the deeds to their underwater property, which is revealed at low tide.

“For now, there’s no compensation if your land is taken over by water,” said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia Regional Research Center. “The government doesn’t compensate for acts of God.”

The village’s temple, however, is defying the sea. Its five Buddhist monks have refused to relocate. And the temple has become an otherworldly island, linked to the mainland by a footpath jutting out over the gulf.

(At the seaside Khun Samut Jeen temple, monks have raised the main sanctuary's floor until the windows are at ankle-level. Pailin Wedel/GlobalPost)

“I never think about leaving,” said Phra Athigarnsomnuk Adibanyo, the temple’s head abbot. “We only think defensively. ‘How can we protect ourselves?’ Never do we think, ‘How can we flee?’”

At night, monks sleep on platforms as seawater sloshes underneath. Inside the main sanctuary, stained gray with water damage, the floor has been elevated several times. Like many in Khun Samut Jeen, monks must stoop down to open windows.

Strolling barefoot along a walkway ringing the temple, the abbot points to several man-made barriers rising from the sea. One was built by Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, he said. A newer one was built by contractors, hired by the monks after a donation drive.

But replenishing mangrove forests, he said, is their best defense. Deforested long ago by locals, the shrubby mangroves hold the soil taut. Phra Athigarnsomnuk and his monks now collect fallen mangrove fruits, tend to them in small pots and later replant them at low tide in the marsh surrounding the temple.

“The researchers told me about global warming, about the ice caps melting, how that makes the seas rise around our temple,” the abbot said. “All I know is to keep planting mangroves.”

As dusk settles over Khun Samut Jeen, tides shift and water creeps in. The setting sun casts amber glimmers over the marsh. Even the mudskippers, big as rats, begin to retreat before the sea level peaks around midnight.

“We feel a bit of a loss, but we’re not sad,” said Somkuan, who has already bought more property further inland. “We’ll just keep retreating. We have no choice.”

More from Thailand correspondent Patrick Winn:

Want to play monk? Fork over $700

Elephant polo: It's kind of a big deal

Seven reasons why Thailand is a mess

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/090506/waterworld-thailand