I’d barely returned from my third Get Out There Tours Guided Trip – Serenity In Siam III – when the news hit about a strange new kind of SARS. Already in the end of January, a friend and I half-heartedly donned masks for a flight to Mexico. By March things were shutting down and I began to read and watch everything I could about Thailand, after all, I consider it my second home and I had momentum going for my Signature Trips to Thailand with Serenity In Siam IV due to happen in November 2020.
The rest of that story need not be told. No one was going to Thailand for a very long time. But I continued to watch the news and read the articles, proud of my friends in the Land of Smiles for covering up their famous grins and being one of the countries least effected by the Global Crisis caused by the COVID 19 Pandemic. By spring 2021 with my next trip due to take place in November, the numbers started rising. Vaccines were coming out all over the world and Thailand purchased a bad batch, resulting in ineffectiveness for many doses. Numbers kept rising and then came Songkran.
This part of the world, afterall, was used to wearing masks out of respect for their family and fellow countrymen. It’s not uncommon to see a market hawker wearing a mask on a “normal” Saturday at the market pre 2020 merely because they have a common cold. And of course, all of Asia rapidly helped end scares caused by SARS and the Chicken Flu with relatively little loss of human life. The masks weren’t the issue. It was the strength of the evil COVID, coupled with the refusal to cancel Songkran, the New Year Festival drawing Thais back to their villages to celebrate with shooting off water guns and dumping buckets of water on one another; a perfect storm for the spread of the mysterious COVID. Things got bad.
The government had already shut bars and massage parlors but now shut off regions. Families could not travel home to visit their loved ones in their villages. Things got slightly better and the country became concerned about the lack of revenue from Tourism. And tourists wanted to come back. The rest of the world was opening up. The Phuket Sandbox was born.
The Phuket Sandbox became the model for the rest of Southeast Asia for reopening a country devastated by the Pandemic. Thailand did many things right, and naturally, many things wrong. There was, after all, no true Benchmark for this type of Health Crisis. The guidelines for entry into Thailand via The Phuket Sandbox (and later, Samui Sandbox) were fairly strict and confusing with travelers needing to jump through a set of chaotic hoops, namely The Thailand Pass, to enter the county. Most travelers struggled to get documents uploaded to the Pass and/or did not bring the correct documents to the airport. Many tested positive in Phuket and had to be rushed off to a Quarantine Hospital. Who in their right mind would want to travel there during a time such as this? Well, me, of course. And a repeat Serenity In Siam and loyal Get Out There Tours Traveler. Serenity In Siam IV would happen.
For the most part, it was the same old chaotic Thailand, but on steroids. But the genuine joy that those in the hospitality/travel industry demonstrated at having us back, was apparent and touching. Even the elephants were happy to see us. The air was cooler, the sky was bluer, the oceans were clearer, the smiles bigger. Lines were shorter, food was hotter, traffic was lighter, and prices were… higher! Most hotels were running at one third capacity with much of the staff in our Phuket Hotel (where we had to stay for one week) and our resort on Koh Yao Noi still at home in their villages working any job they could find from farming to running restaurants.
The hardest part was traveling with the fear that even though we were careful and wore masks as required, we still carried around a lingering concern that we might test positive and not be allowed to fly home. The day before our flight home were shuttled to a small clinic in Kata Beach were we had painless swabs taken and results provided three hours later. Negative. Time to pack more souvenirs than we had ever purchased before, possibly afraid of another lockdown.
Fast forward, June 2022. No lockdown, only more opening up of the country. In fact as of July 1, all travel restrictions (bar vaccine cards or negative tests) and requirements to enter will be lifted. While my group is extremely small, I am glad to be making my regular annual trip to Thailand with two travelers who’ve never seen the country before. They’ll be welcomed with once again colorful coral and clownfish right off Koh Phi Phi’s beaches (truth), maskless smiles, sunny skies, and, unfortunately, higher prices. Stay tuned for more thoughts on how Thailand has passed on some new costs for tourists to the tourists.