BANGKOK, Thailand -- The worst floods in decades have killed 261 people, swamped an export manufacturing zone, and caused millions of dollars in damage to crops and property while government officials publicly prayed to Buddha and prepared Bangkok for a destructive deluge.

Some fleeing residents in the central city of Ayutthaya climbed aboard an elephant and clung to their valuables, including an electric fan and plastic bags stuffed with household goods, while riding the huge pachyderm through tusk-deep floodwater.

In Bangkok, multi-story public parking areas at shopping malls were turned into emergency shelters for automobiles, where people could park their cars for free -- as long as need be -- if their residential areas faced flooding.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected as Thailand's first female prime minister in July, announced on Sunday (Oct. 9) that she was canceling her visits to Singapore and Malaysia, scheduled for Oct. 11 and 12, so she could command emergency assistance.

At a newly established National Flood Relief Center at Don Muang airport, on Bangkok's northern outskirts, Mrs. Yingluck said on Sunday (Oct. 9) Thailand's 10 worst-hit provinces included Uthai Thani, Chainat, Lopburi, Singburi, Ang Thong, Ayutthaya, Nakhon Sawan, Chachoengsao, Pathum Thani, and Nonthaburi.

Floods have also ravaged 20 additional provinces, and killed a total of 261 people during the past 10 weeks of rain.

About 2.3 million people -- and 3 million acres of farmland in Thailand's northern, eastern and central regions -- were affected, Bangkok's Disaster Relief Center said on Sunday (Oct. 9).

Thunderstorms continued above much of Thailand on Sunday (Oct. 9), feeding overflowing rivers and forcing several dams to release excess water after reaching their holding capacity.

Many of the latest rescue efforts focused on Ayutthaya, 65 miles north of Bangkok, where floods blocked Thailand's vital, cross-country Asia Highway.

Ayutthaya's 3,000-acre industrial zone, where almost 200 factories have been set up by international and local businesses, was also partially waterlogged, Ayutthaya's Deputy Governor Thawi Naritsirikun said.

An embankment which protected Ayutthaya's industrial zone had collapsed in recent days, and the overflow wrecked a Honda Automobile factory and some other sites.

"We will resume normal production as soon as we get enough parts supplies," Honda Automobile's executive vice-president, Pitak Pruittisarikorn, was quoted as saying.

Honda moved a large number of its newly assembled cars to a disused parking lot at Bangkok's second airport at Don Muang, for safekeeping.

Canon, Hitachi, and other foreign firms were inspecting their Ayutthaya factories to determine if they were damaged.

Ayutthaya is set amid three rivers -- the Chao Phraya, Pa Sak and Lopburi -- which have all overflowed.

The three rivers swamped many of Ayutthaya's priceless ancient Buddhist temples, monuments, statues and other World Heritage sites which are under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

During the past few days, rising water entered Ayutthaya Hospital, forcing evacuation of more than 200 patients.

Doctors arranged for critical medical cases to be flown by helicopters to hospitals in Bangkok.

Most of the other patients, who were deemed not in immediate danger, were sent to Ayutthaya City Hall where makeshift medical facilities were set up.

Floods in other parts of Thailand damaged a total of 3,000 factories, including some technological and electronic firms, said the Federation of Thai Industries.

Bangkok's governor, meanwhile, invited his City Hall directors and department heads to a "Brahman Water-Lowering Ceremony" on Saturday (Oct. 8), "to pay tribute to the Water Goddess and to ask for her blessing, for the speedy end to floods in Bangkok," according to the official invitation.

This Southeast Asian nation's 66 million population is predominately Buddhist, but the government and most Thais include some earlier animist, Brahman and Hindu beliefs among their spiritual traditions.

Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who arranged the ceremony, carried a statue of the Buddha which was made in a posture with both arms straight out, palms facing forward, and fingers pointing upward -- a stance known as "Pacifying the Ocean."

Brahman and Buddhist "worship" and "chanting" ceremonies began at two auspicious times at Bangkok's tall City Pillar, but some people complained that officials should not use "superstitions" to deal with floods.

"The problem now for City Hall is, what do you do after the River Goddess herself ignores the water-dispelling ritual?" the Bangkok Post said in a mocking commentary on Sunday (Oct. 9).

"Anyone higher up the chain to appeal to?"

Bangkok is a busy, tropical port built along the meandering Chao Phraya river, and is already suffering flooded streets and markets in its eastern neighborhoods despite lengthy embankments.

Officials predicted Bangkok, which has an average elevation of only six feet above sea level, will be heavily hit next week when the swollen river brings more water from the north on its route past the Thai capital to the nearby Gulf of Thailand.

Industrial zones south of Bangkok, in Chonburi and Rayong, were preparing how to deal with the threat.

"Carmakers have applied the same strategies that we used when the industry was hit by Japan's tsunami," the Automotive Industry Club's head, Suparat Sirisuwanangura, reportedly said while describing ways to handle work disruptions, scarcities of spare parts, delivery problems and other flood-related dangers.

Panic buying hit some Bangkok markets where residents stocked up on rice, noodles, eggs, bottled water, and other basics.

Officials told residents to arrange sandbags to protect their homes, study evacuation routes, move valuables to higher ground, and consult insurance companies.

In the countryside, some enraged farmers threatened officials while complaining that the Royal Irrigation Department was flooding their crops to divert floods from urban centers.

Environmentalists said heavy deforestation across much of Thailand made the soil unable to absorb this season's heavy rains.

Extensive urbanization, meanwhile, resulted in houses, shops, schools, roads and other infrastructure being built on land where water naturally drained, so that the runoff is now blocked, creating raging torrents and inundating previously dry areas.

"Many villages are built right in the path of the water," said the National Disaster Warning Center's director, Capt. Somsak Khaosuwan.

"Many are illegally built by encroachers," he said.

China, which has close relations with Thailand, donated $1 million in cash to the Thai government to help the flood relief efforts.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)