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Small business ingenuity thrives in Thai floods

In this photo taken Nov. 7, 2011, a man prepares his boat attached with a taxi sign along a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand. Months of floods in Thailand have paralyzed auto factories and disrupted other big businesses and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars of damage to industry. But the slow-moving floodwaters have been a boon for quick-witted small traders looking to cater to some of the startling demands of water-weary Thais. In this photo taken Nov. 7, 2011, a man prepares his boat attached with a taxi sign along a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand. Months of floods in Thailand have paralyzed auto factories and disrupted other big businesses and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars of damage to industry. But the slow-moving floodwaters have been a boon for quick-witted small traders looking to cater to some of the startling demands of water-weary Thais. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
By Pailin Wedel
Associated Press / November 15, 2011

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BANGKOK—Flooded out but still want to make a fashion statement? Try these lime green rubber boots. Feeling stir crazy with the fetid waters surrounding your home? How about special snorkels to keep your car running in high water -- or a jet ski to navigate submerged streets?

In Bangkok, a tireless Asian mega-city never shy about making a buck, an ongoing flood disaster has provided plenty of opportunity for business ingenuity to flourish.

Months of floods in Thailand have paralyzed auto factories and disrupted other big businesses and are estimated to have caused billions of dollars of damage to industry. But the slow-moving floodwaters have been a boon for quick-witted small traders looking to cater to some of the startling demands of water-weary Thais.

At one of the flood markets that have sprung up in Bangkok, dozens of makeshift shops line the sides of a road just a few hundred yards from encroaching floodwaters -- ready to arm those coping with a disaster that has killed 500 since July.

Operating out of the back of trucks and on the sidewalk, the flood traders sell plastic boats, jet skis, waders, water pumps, nonperishable food, propellers and plastic tarp marketed as "refrigerator wraps." In other parts of the city, builders are erecting cinder block walls trying to protect shops and houses.

There's even a new car-towing service that uses styrofoam to float stranded vehicles to safety.

The capital's mechanics have been busy with special modifications that allow cars, trucks and motorcycles to navigate swamped streets.

Thong Dechapak said his family's auto repair shop has been refitting up to eight vehicles a day with an engine snorkel and exhaust pipe modification that together cost 10,000 baht ($333) -- a month's salary for many in Thailand.

The device for the engine sticks up above the car's roof like a diving snorkel, sucking in air so fuel for the engine continues to combust while driving through flood water.

"Right now there's a lot of demand. There are no spare parts left. We started getting client orders about two months ago" when provinces north of Bangkok began to get flooded, said Dechapak, 24.

"They keep coming. There are more and more every day," he said, vivid red and orange sparks flying as workers welded an extension to the exhaust pipe of a gray Frontier Navara pickup.

They've also fitted the exhaust snorkels to motorcycles for friends. The price: a case of beer.

Videos of modified Thai motorcycles chugging through dirty water are already causing a splash on YouTube. In one, the water is high enough to submerge the seat.

Many of the new flood entrepreneurs have themselves been flooded out of their shops or homes, but necessity -- and demand -- means they're not giving up their livelihoods.

Wiweena Boonsanong, 27, hawks colorful rubber boots in different patterns from plain black to lime green and purple army-print. Out of the 25 rubber boot shops dotted along a section of Ramintra Road in Bangkok's northern suburbs, she's the only one selling boots with different patterns.

Boonsanong used to sell women's shoes at a market near the now swollen Chao Phraya river that winds through the city of 9 million. That shop was flooded and she was forced to pack up. With her own house invaded by water, she realized that she didn't like wearing just the garden-variety black and brown ones.

"Women will always like to be in fashion even if it's flooded. We want to look cute," said Boonsanong, who had sold six pairs at 350 baht ($12) a pop within just an hour of setting up shop. One of her female customers agrees, "I'm bored with the ordinary colors."

Nearby, Wichra Lertrasamee's rather more high-end business -- selling a motor that has been adapted to function as both a water pump and a boat propeller -- is bustling.

The square machine sells for 9,500 baht ($315) and Lertrasamee is moving 15 to 16 a day. Lertrasamee said he had one customer who used the motor to propel a bamboo raft. Using another attachment turns the motor into a pump that can help clear water from a flooded house.

His family business started selling the device in his home province, Chachergsao, east of Bangkok. When floods started arriving from the north, he set up a makeshift shop in nearby Pathum Thani. When that province flooded, he moved his business to Bangkok.

He said he wakes up at 3 a.m. to arrive in the city by 5 a.m. for a prime spot at the market, sells out by noon and then goes back home to make more parts.

While dealing with one customer, another one walks in and asks about prices. "I want the piece, but I want a discount with it," the man jokes. Lertrasamee says the price cannot be lowered and the customer walks away empty-handed.

Away from the markets, a unique towing service has become a booming business that's helping to ease its founder's personal and yet now-all-too-familiar tragedy of having flood waters completely swallow his home.

"I have nothing left. Everything is gone," said taxi driver turned entrepreneur Sombat Kaewsaeng.

While trying to save his own car, he figured out that the only way to get it out of the water was to float it using large pieces of thick styrofoam.

He and his friends bet other people would pay for such a service. They scour online chat rooms for people who need their car moved and refer them to Kaewsaeng.

One customer, Puttha Nipakornmate, had his 2010 Honda civic wrapped in water resistant tarp in his garage where the floods are up to his knees.

"I've never seen such a service before," said Nipakornmate, while watching a crew of men slipping pieces of foam underneath the car and pushing the floating vehicle forward.

"The tow trucks are too big to get into my house" and the floods are too high to drive out. The service cost him 8,000 baht ($267), though the average tow costs 10,000 baht according to Kaewsaeng. The service can cost more depending on the car size, distance and water level.

Kaewsaeng admits the price might be high, but the costs are high too. The foam pieces costs 2,000 baht ($67) each, it usually takes two pieces per car and he can only use them three or four times before they get too soggy.

It requires about nine people to push and direct the car, and he has to pay them as well.

"I think it's worth it," said Nipakornmate. "I was going to bargain, but then I saw them walking in all that water for 1.5 kilometers. I had sympathy for them."

"And they gave me advice about my car too. They had a mechanic on staff."

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Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this story.