Bangkok, Oct 28: The main river coursing through Thailand's capital swelled to record highs Friday, briefly flooding riverside buildings and an ornate royal complex at high tide amid fears that flood defenses could break and swamp the heart of the city.
Ankle-high water from the Chao Phraya river spilled through one sandbagged entranceway of Bangkok's treasured Grand Palace, which once housed the kingdom's monarchy. The army was pumping out the water and tourists were still entering the white-walled compound.
The river has filled roads outside the palace gates for days, but the water has receded with the tides, leaving streets dry again.
But the higher than normal tides in the Gulf of Thailand, expected to peak Saturday, are obstructing the flood runoff from the north and there are fears that the overflows could swamp parts of downtown. The goverment also is worried major barriers and dikes could break.
Seven of Bangkok's 50 districts—all in the northern outskirts—are heavily flooded, and residents have fled aboard bamboo rafts and army trucks and by wading in waist-deep water. Provinces north of the capital have been submerged, with factories and homes ruined.
Most of Bangkok, however, has remained dry and most of its more than 9 million residents were staying put to protect their homes. Still, fears the inner city could flood has fueled an exodus this week, as Thais and expatriates alike sought refuge outside Bangkok and foreign governments urged their citizens to avoid unessential travel to the threatened city.
The U.S. State Department cautioned against all but essential travel to areas of Thailand affected by the flooding, including Bangkok, because of transportation difficulties and shortages of certain food items.
On Thursday, an emotional Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra acknowledged her government could not control the approaching deluge.
“What we're doing today is resisting the force of nature,” Yingluck told reporters. She said the water bearing down on Bangkok was so massive that “we cannot resist all of it.”
The floods, the heaviest in Thailand in more than half a century, have drenched a third of the country's provinces, killed close to 400 people and displaced more than 110,000 others. For weeks, the water has crept down from the central plains, flowing south toward the Gulf of Thailand. Bangkok is in the way, and today it is literally surrounded by behemoth pools of water flowing around and through it via a complex network of canals and rivers.
Flooding has closed Bangkok's Don Muang airport, mainly used for domestic flights, but Thailand's main international airport is operating as usual.
After visiting the Grand Palace, American tourist Kathy Kiernan said she wasn't too concerned about flooding in the capital.
“We were a little worried when we got in to see sandbags around our hotel,” said the 47-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah. “But so far it's pretty normal. Everything looks fine, though we know anything can happen.”
The government's Flood Relief Operations Center says its contingency plan involves the Thai military and government agencies transporting people from evacuation points in the capital to outlying provinces.
Within the city, 234 shelters are set up to house nearly 78,000 people. Authorities say there are currently about 7,500 displaced people in the sprawling metropolis.