BANGKOK (Reuters) - Traffic clogged roads out of the Thai capital on Friday as tens of thousands of people fled ahead of a high tide expected to worsen floods that have inundated factories and prompted foreign governments to warn their citizens to stay away.
The main concern is that Bangkok's Chao Phraya River will burst its banks over the weekend during the unusually high tide that begins on Friday. Buildings across Bangkok have been sand-bagged for protection, and some vulnerable streets were nearly deserted.
Thailand's worst flooding in half a century, caused in part by unusually heavy monsoon rain, has killed 377 people since mid-July and disrupted the lives of nearly 2.2 million, until now mostly in the north and central provinces.
Television footage showed cars and trucks bumper-to-bumper leaving the city and the main airport's departure lounges packed, but the traffic department said it could not put an exact figure on the size of the Bangkok exodus because much of its monitoring equipment was under water.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she was considering a proposal to dig channels into some roads in eastern Bangkok to drain water into the Gulf of Thailand, an idea backed by the chairman of the Thailand unit of Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) whose factories have been badly flooded.
"We need to look into several details on whether it works," Yingluck told reporters.
The Meteorological Department warned residents living along the Chao Phraya they could face rising waters. Roads around the Grand Palace, a top tourist attraction, are partially flooded along with some streets in densely populated Chinatown.
On Friday morning, on a street in front of the Grand Palace normally bustling with tourists, a two-metre (6 1/2-ft) snake was caught by a motorcycle taxi driver. Residents have also had to contend with crocodiles escaping from flooded farms.
While many of the inner-city streets of Bangkok remained dry, the suburbs continued to struggle.
In the riverside shantytown of Bang Phlad, small wooden homes were knee-deep in foul-smelling water with rubbish floating on the surface. Residents carried belongings above their heads, struggling against the current of water pumped back out to the river.
Tem Kaewkeow, 73, sat on a pile of tyres, staring at the blank screen of a half-submerged television set.
"Everything is damaged, but what can I do? This is the force of nature," he said, shirtless and sipping on water he had boiled on a small gas stove.
"I don't plan to leave. This is my home."
At the district's Yanhee hospital, two dozen emergency room doctors and nurses shovelled sand into sacks to fortify a one-metre (3-ft) wall protecting the building as water levels rose in a nearby canal brimming with trash.
"Everyone here is working around the clock to protect the hospital," said Dr Supot Sumritvvanitcha, the hospital's chief executive. "We're using trucks, motorbikes and boats to get help to people. Yesterday, we brought a pregnant woman here by boat to deliver a baby."
In Nonthaburi province bordering Bangkok, walls of sandbags were collapsing under the weight of surging floodwaters. A policeman dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a vest directed traffic on a megaphone as water gushed out of drains.
Cars with wheels submerged crawled at a snail's pace along the road and exhausted drivers were seen pushing stalled tuk-tuks -- Thailand's ubiquitous three-wheel, open-air taxis-- through the water.
Yingluck's government declared a five-day holiday from Thursday to allow people to leave. Roads out of the city to the flood-free south were jammed. Many were heading for the seaside town of Hua Hin and the eastern resort city of Pattaya, where hotel rooms and homes to rent were scarce.
Bangkok, a low-lying city of at least 12 million that accounts for 41 percent of Thailand's $319 billion economy, is in danger from run-off water from the north coinciding with the high tide on the Chao Phraya, already at a record high level.
The economic toll continued to pile up across Thailand, Southeast Asia's biggest auto production hub and a major base for multinational companies, many of which face supply and production disruptions after the floods shuttered at least seven huge industrial estates north of Bangkok.
The Bank of Thailand nearly halved its projection of economic growth this year to 2.6 percent from July's 4.1 percent estimate, and said the economy -- Southeast Asia's second largest -- would shrink by 1.9 percent in the December quarter from the previous three months due to the floods.
Daihatsu Motor Co 7262.T, which makes mini-vehicles for Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), said it would reduce work to produce Toyota-badged cars at two Japanese factories next week due to a shortage of parts from Thailand.
But insured losses are likely to be at a manageable level and will not trigger widespread solvency problems, said credit-ratings agency Fitch Ratings.
Many Thais are uninsured and Japanese non-life insurers in Thailand will bear the brunt of losses at the factories.
Fitch, citing Thai insurance regulatory data, estimated the country faced about 140 billion baht in losses, including damage at the seven industrial estates. About 80 percent of that is covered by Japanese insurers, but they are unlikely to be badly affected with about 85 percent of their coverage ceded to foreign reinsurers, Fitch said.
The defence ministry said 50,000 armed forces personnel were standing by with 1,000 boats and 1,000 vehicles to help evacuate people. A government crisis centre said there would soon be evacuation centres in eight provinces that could take in between 100,000 and 200,000 people.
Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Damir Sagolj; Editing by Nick Macfie