Rising Sea Levels, Part 2: Thailand and a nod to Oz

Last week I wrote about how rising sea levels are affecting low-lying nations such as the Kingdom of Tonga. Six weeks later, I was in Thailand primarily to photograph the effects of the flooding in the Fall of 2011, but while there I also learned from a new friend about how sea level rise is affecting some communities near Bangkok.

Since I was mid-way on my around-the-world journey, I decided it would be a good time to take a break from working and so went on a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat with my new German friend Nathalie. I did not quite reach nirvana but it was a welcome respite  from work (I only brought a point-and-shoot), I tried some new Thai food, I learned more about Buddhism and meditation, and best of all, I made several new friends.

Natalie mediating on our retreat.

Natalie mediating on our retreat.

One of whom, Bisidth, was very eager to help me with my project.  A couple of days after the retreat he emailed about Ban Khun Samut Chin (บ้านขุนสมุทรจีน), a small fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand that he remembered learning about on a TV show.  He sent me a link to the show and even though it was all in Thai I got the gist of it: This small village was being inundated by sea level rise. He offered to take me there so we quickly planned a weekend outing.

Some of the monks and Bongkot heading out on a canal on a longboat.

Some of the monks heading out onto a canal on a longboat.

Even though it is only ­about 50 km southwest of Bangkok, Khun Samut Chin felt much more remote. Getting there itself was an adventure. Bisdith picked me up and after an hour’s drive through snarled Bangkok traffic we reached a small town where we met another new friend from the retreat, Sutanit (who charmingly goes by her chosen English name, Dear, and Bongkot, Bisdith’s friend. We stopped to have lunch with some of the monks from the Khun Samut Chin temple then drove a bit farther and got on a longboat for a 15 minute ride through several canals. These canals are the primary “roadways” for the people in these seaside communities in the Laem Fapha area of Samut Prakan Province. We were dropped off at a pier where we each got a community-shared bicycle and rode another 10 minutes down a concrete walkway. We parked the bikes under a shelter and then walked another 5-10 minutes over a series of dirt paths, wooden walkways, and planks to arrive in the heart of the village.

Bisdith riding a bike too small for his tall frame down one of the walkways into the village.

Bisdith riding a bike (too small for his tall frame) down one of the walkways into the village.

Walking into the center of the village over the wooden walkways. A new community center is being built on the left.

The main entrance into the center of the village over a wooden walkway. A new community center is being built on the left.

Bisidth, myself, Bongot, Dear, and the village chief, Samorn Khengsamut (seated)

Bisidth, myself, Bongot, Dear, and the village chief, Samorn Khengsamut (seated).

monastra_120505_1383We were greeted by several dogs, the village chief Samorn Khengsamut, and other local residents who were busy packing shrimp and shrimp paste into bags to sell to local communities. Formerly populated by the Chinese, it is very connected to its roots. They have a small museum with old coins, pottery, and other Chinese artifacts found on their grounds. Mrs. Samorn showed us a 2003 newspaper article stating that the villagers were hoping to build a museum to house these treasures that were scattered among various households. I was glad to see that they achieved that goal. It’s a sweet little museum jam-packed with curiosities.

Inside the museum housing Chinese artifacts

Inside the museum housing Chinese artifacts

Pieces of Chinese pottery.

Pieces of Chinese pottery.

Since shrimp and cockles are the primary source of income for this village, much of the town is made up of large plots of water where this seafood is harvested. But not all the surrounding water is a welcome presence.

Some of the villagers harvesting cockles behind our hut. I felt like I had front row seats to some of the best action in town.

Some of the villagers harvesting cockles behind our hut. I felt like I had front row seats to some of the best action in town.

A bowl of fresh-caught cockles.

A bowl of fresh-caught cockles.

A wooden walkway over one of the shrimp plots.

A wooden walkway over one of the shrimp plots photographed at dusk.

In the past fifty years, the villagers have had to relocate their homes and school four or five times due to rising sea levels and the resulting soil erosion. The only building that has not been moved is the temple. The monks refuse to move it. To try to protect it (and other small temples still being constructed) they have installed concrete triangular pillars to break the surf as well as a sea wall. I find this a rather bold move since in their current temple, which has been flooded several times, they have had to raise the floor 5-6 feet to be able to still use the temple for prayers. I noticed there are places where the power of the surf is already breaking through their new sea wall. They must have a lot of faith to believe that it will hold and not be “taken” by the sea the way Sonny’s bench in Tonga was.

One of the many village dogs that acted as my guide down the walkway to the temple.

One of the many village dogs that acted as my guide down the walkway to the temple.

The temple in Khun Samut Chin showing water damage from rising sea levels.

The temple in Khun Samut Chin shows water damage along the windows  from rising sea levels. The temple is now separated from the rest of the village buildings that have relocated inland several times. To get to the temple one must walk or ride a bike down these concrete walkways. The Gulf of Thailand can be seen in the background.

One of the monks looking at a photo of the temple being flooded during a recent storm.

One of the monks sitting in a doorway on the raised floor of the temple looking at a photo of it being flooded during a recent storm.

Samut Khun Chun is a lovely village with an interesting history, but the chief is worried about their future. There is not much solid land left in this area on which to relocate if the seas keep rising and they need to move yet again. Some of the residents are already living on land they do not own. Student volunteers have come in and planted mangrove trees to try to curb the erosion (like in Tonga) but the sea is rising faster than the trees can grow. The school has had to be rebuilt several times. From their new pier, one of the monks pointed out one of its earlier locations to us in the midst of the ocean. All that was left was a concrete block barely visible in the waves. More apparent are the old power lines that used to run along the main road of the village. Now they look like toothpicks sticking out of the water.

Sea barriers that were put in several years ago to try "break" the power of the surf and protect the area where the temple is situated.

Sea barriers  that were put in several years ago to try “break” the power of the surf and protect the area where the temple is situated. In the distance (on the left) can be seen the old telephone poles that used to mark the main road.

The new sea wall already showing signs of being worn away by the surf

The new sea wall already showing signs of being worn away by the surf.

And one of the new smaller temples being constructed outside this sea wall but behind the concrete pillars.

And to the right, one of the new smaller temples being constructed outside this sea wall but behind the concrete  breakwater pillars.

At twilight, a monk mediates on their new pier behind the breakwater.

At twilight, a monk mediates on their new pier behind the breakwater. Here too, the old power lines are visible in the distance.

The village is trying to court tourists to bring in some extra income and to raise awareness of their plight.The chief has assembled an array of pictures and documents (many enlarged and neatly laminated) that she eagerly shares with visitors. They have built a small two-bedroom hut on stilts specifically for weekend tourists. Included in the price are three meals a day that included fresh crab, dried fish, and some of their homemade shrimp paste. All the food was delicious and the villagers were very friendly. I had learned a few words of Thai by this point but still had to rely on Bisdith and Dear to translate for me.

Our little hut on stilts.

Our little two bedroom hut on stilts.

Our dinner with fresh seafood. For breakfast we were served crabs. Thankfully I had already gotten used to eaten seafood for breakfast at the meditation retreat.

Our dinner with very locally sourced food. Since there is no refrigeration, most of the fish is dried.

A couple we met on one of the paths.

A couple we met on one of the paths.

The chief with her assortment of pictures, maps and diagrams explaining how rising sea levels are threatening their village.

The chief with her assortment of pictures, maps and diagrams explaining how rising sea levels are threatening their village.

A display showing how much the sea has risen and come insland over the last 40 years. The picture on the left was taken in the early 1970's, the middle one is from the mid-90's and the last one taken in the last several years. The red box marks the site of the temple.

A display showing how much the sea has risen over the last 40 years. The small red box marks the site of the temple. The picture on the left was taken in the early 1970’s, when the temple was still surrounded by land,  the middle one is from the mid-90’s and the last one taken in the last several years. (Double-click  on this or any of the photos in these blog posts to see the images larger.)

I would highly recommend a visit here except for one thing: the startling 5 AM wake-up call of the Army radio station over the loudspeaker which was right next to our hut. I told Bisidith he might want to suggest to the chief that this might not be the desired wake-up call of most tourists. Once I had wiped the sleep out of my eyes, I found it to be kind of funny. Soon the radio announcer and singers were joined by the morning birds, a rainstorm and a proper wake-up call of a rooster.

On the way back to Bangkok, Bisidith took me by Bang Pu, a seaside park run by the Royal Thai Army known for its Sunday ballroom dancing and seafood restaurant. I was excited to see the dancing, but the main reason Bisidth brought me there was to show me how the Army, along with the World Wildlife Fund of Thailand, have planted mangroves to try to break the force of the waves before they hit the land. Together these two groups have created the Bang Pu Nature Education Centre (BNEC) to educate the public on the need for environmental conservation.

Mangroves planted along the coast of Bang Pu to slow down the surf of the rising sea.

Mangroves planted along the coast of Bang Pu to slow down the surf of the rising sea.

It was a stormy day when we were there and I am not sure if it was high tide, but the water was hitting the buildings and their arboreal “breakwater” with a lot of force. Like in Tonga, the mangroves were put in to try to protect the shore but since the ballroom and restaurant are built out onto a pier there is nothing protecting them from the rising seas. Another concern is storm surges which can be more severe as sea levels rise. In recent years when there  is news that a storm surge might sweep up the Gulf of Thailand, attendance drops significantly at this seaside resort, hurting business. Many tourist destinations worldwide are located by the sea and will likely be the first to be able to tell you about the very real threat of sea level rise.

Waves crashing up alongside the Bang Pu seafood restaurant.

Waves crashing up alongside the Bang Pu seafood restaurant.

Another place from my travels abroad that bears  a brief mention in this post is Lake Cathie (pronounced – Cat-eye) in Australia. When I was in Sydney my friend Craig showed me a newspaper article on this quaint seaside town where the residents of Illaroo Road had just been informed that they were part of a “planned retreat” due to the threat rising sea levels, This means homeowners will be expected to sell their houses to the Council rather than another homeowner.

The article in the Austrailan on Illaroo Road in Lake Cathie, Australia.

The article on Illaroo Road in Lake Cathie, Australia.

Since I was already planning to drive up the coast from Sydney to Byron Bay my friend Nathalie and I made a detour to Lake Cathie. It was blustery day threatening rain but we discovered two of the article’s featured homeowners, Russell and Anne Secomb, out working in their yard. I told them I had seen the recent article in The Australian and asked what were their thoughts on climate change. “The climate is always changing,” Russell said. “Always has, always will.” He added that they, along with the other residents, were going to fight the Council’s proposed plan.

Russell Secomb working in his yard.

Russell Secomb working in his yard.

Even though Ilaroo Road lies 7 meters above the current mean sea level, the Council stated it is more concerned about erosion than rising seas. But now, after Hurricane Sandy and seeing what the combination of sea level rise and storm surge can do to oceanfront property, I will be interested to keep an eye on what happens in Lake Cathie in the coming years.

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