On the streets of Bangkok, tuk-tuks weave their way through chaotic traffic, food stalls on the footpath are busy serving noodle soup, and garish video billboards flash from the walls of the city’s megamalls. In some ways, Thailand’s capital is just as you remember it.
But as I walk along one of the city’s main arteries, Sukhumvit Road, with the humidity sticking my shirt to my back, there’s one thing that’s clearly disappeared since the coronavirus pandemic – tourists. The Sukhumvit neighbourhood would once have been teeming with foreigners, spilling out of the hundreds of hotels located here and into the dining, drinking and shopping establishments that line the main street and the many sois (or side-streets) that come off it. Now, the empty tables at restaurants are obvious, and many of the shops aimed at tourists have their shutters permanently pulled down.
It’s obviously a sad state of affairs for the local businesses but, for visitors, there are some upsides. While the usually popular districts of Sukhumvit and Silom lack much of their vibrant atmosphere, the tourist sites that can often be frustratingly busy are much calmer at the moment, making for a more enjoyable visit.
When I arrive at the Grand Palace mid-morning, the woman at the ticket office tells me I’m just the second Australian to come through today (the highest number of visitors so far have come from France, followed by the United States, apparently). Exploring the official residence of Thailand’s royal rulers, it’s easy to snap some photos without people in front of the imposing facade that blends traditional Thai architecture with 19th-century European styles. In the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, considered the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country, I sit peacefully on the floor with no tour groups around me and admire the jade statue of Buddha in the centre and the detailed mural around the walls.
All across the world, countries that rely on tourism have been hit hard by the global pandemic, but Thailand has been one of the slowest to bounce back. While its Asian neighbours have largely dropped entry restrictions, Thailand only just three weeks ago dropped the requirement for visitors to book the first night’s accommodation in an authorised hotel, where they had to quarantine until they received a negative result from a mandatory PCR test on arrival. Clearly it had been putting off many potential tourists, along with mandatory face masks in all settings, including on the street.
In Bangkok, the face mask rule is strictly adhered to by everyone, and it can make a hot and sweaty day slightly uncomfortable. But, when I move to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, both locals and tourists are less strict about the requirement, with the majority of people maskless until they go into venues such as shops that enforce the rule. And, while that does lead to a more relaxed tropical vibe that reminds me more of pre-pandemic Thailand, the lack of foreigners is more starkly obvious here on the tourism-dependent islands.
In the Chaweng neighbourhood of Koh Samui, usually a bustling hub of hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs, the main street is almost deserted – both day and night. At least three-quarters of the shops are permanently closed, with too few tourists to make business viable. It seems to be mainly massage parlours and convenience stores that are trying to ride out the lull. Even the songthaews, the enclosed pick-up trucks that act as public transport around the coastline, are mostly empty and give only a half-hearted honk as they pass me.
There are still some tourists here, but not the ones who would come for the nightlife because, well, there is none. Instead, it’s mainly visitors staying in villas set amid the lush jungle away from the main towns. Not only are they not as bothered by the dull atmosphere in Chaweng or Lamai, but they’ve been able to find excellent value with properties offering deals to entice guests. Private luxury villas with three bedrooms can easily be found for less than $300 a night, with plenty of availability for ones that would normally book out months in advance. Prices are similar in Phuket and even cheaper on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.
All of this means there are pros and cons to travelling to Thailand at the moment. There’s still the hassle of paperwork before you depart, and a requirement to have a certain level of travel insurance, although scrapping the mandatory PCR test on arrival takes away much of the risk of testing positive and needing to isolate in a hotel or hospital.
As long as you’re not the type of traveller looking to party, you can enjoy the quieter tourist sites and more peaceful neighbourhoods. It’s certainly easy to pick up a bargain for your accommodation and you’ll still find local areas like markets and street-food stalls to be vibrant, offering a more authentic Thai experience than when the hordes of international tourist return, which will presumably happen in the coming months now that restrictions are easing.
Explore more: tourismthailand.org