Thailand flooding damages its ancient capital

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand — Water fowl, monitor lizards and stray dogs have replaced the throngs of tourists at one of Thailand’s greatest historical sites. Record flooding has turned Ayutthaya’s ancient temples into islands, and a giant statue of the reclining Buddha appears to float miraculously on the lapping water.

Experts fear that at least half of the more than 200 waterlogged monasteries, fortresses and other monuments in the one-time royal capital have been damaged.

“Imagine a thousand tons of brick and stone resting on soft foundations, with no modern-style pilings. We are very worried,” said Chaiyanand Busayarat, director of the Ayutthaya Historic Park.

And as flood waters recede, some experts are proposing a radical change to prevent similar disasters in the future: Turn back the clock about four centuries to emulate the city’s urban planners and engineers of that time.

“We can’t prevent flooding so we have to learn to live with water again, like those who created Ayutthaya. Let’s take out the old city maps,” said Anek Sihamat, deputy director-general of the Thai government’s Fine Arts Department.

The Grand Hall stands Nov. 8, 2011, after heavy flooding in Ayutthaya province, central Thailand. (Associated Press)

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The Grand Hall stands Nov. 8, 2011, after heavy flooding in Ayutthaya ... more >

He recommended digging up old canals that have been paved over for roads and curbing the urban sprawl and industrial parks that block the natural runoff of water.

Capital of a powerful state for 417 years, seat of 33 kings, Ayutthaya has been described as one of the greatest cities on water ever, with a canal network that measured more than 85 miles (140 kilometers). Built on the flood plain of central Thailand at the confluence of three rivers, it was inundated annually, but its citizens lived in stilt-raised houses and used boats for transport.

Water also defended Ayutthaya, which once held as many as 1 million residents, until a brutal sacking by the Burmese in 1767 forced relocation of the capital to Bangkok, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south — where the same floodwaters that inundated Ayutthaya are now nearing the inner city.

The surge of water from the northern highlands, which began in late July and has killed more than 520 people, is the worst since the 1940s, although Ayutthaya experiences flooding almost every monsoon season.

In coming weeks, experts will assess damage and determine what will be needed to revive and protect the city, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991.

Advisers from Venice and the Netherlands, two places that have grappled with the challenges of watery environments, are prepared to come, while several countries, including Germany and Japan, have provided or promised funds. Anek, the Fine Arts official, estimated that some $20 million will be needed.

“Clearly what we hope for from this experience will be a more solid, more thorough flood mitigation plan,” said Tim Curtis, head of the culture unit at UNESCO’s regional office in Bangkok.

He said that Amsterdam’s 19th-century water-based defense line — another World Heritage site — and Venice may be used as models.

Witthaya Pewpong, the Ayutthaya provincial governor, said a dam has been proposed to shield the historic area while flooding would be eased by setting aside a large, construction-free area of the nearby countryside to absorb excess water.

Nevertheless, authorities “know that they will have to learn to live with water because it will always be there,” said UNESCO cultural expert Montira Horayangura Unakul. As such, urban planning should be consistent with Ayutthaya’s design as a city of water, she said.

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