“Hey you, move,” said a guy working for a travel company.
It was June 2020, and I was sitting in a minivan at one of Bangkok’s bus terminals. I had to move – just for the photo – so his company could “prove” that every second seat was empty and the social distancing requirements were met.
The Thai government had rolled out health and safety measures earlier in June that allowed domestic travelers to start heading out for some much-needed rest and relaxation. These included formal certification for hotels and tourism establishments under the Safety and Health Administration and government-sponsored financial aids for Thai people to stimulate domestic travel.
While I’m not Thai, I was also keen to get a decent breath of fresh air and started venturing out. My experiences varied from company to operator to hotel, but I can’t say that I wasn’t safe or didn’t feel safe, respectively.
Here’s a quick summary of what traveling in Thailand in the last three months has been like and how I’ve been tackling the risks.
I’ve been wearing face masks and shades and using sanitizers often
While the staff of the minivan business in question flouted the law in June, employees of another bus company complied with social distancing rules and stuck crosses on every other seat. Besides, people were cautious after the Thai government had lifted travel restrictions, wearing masks or face shields or both, using sanitizer gels often.
Just a month later, though, I saw a few peeps not wearing a facemask, most of which must’ve been expats or stranded tourists because Thais are pretty obedient when it comes to wearing masks, as a study shows. Traveling from Bangkok to Pattaya in July, I sensed that three tourists – two of which were Thai but speaking perfect English, so probably living abroad – didn’t take this COVID-thing seriously. They were not wearing masks and sitting close to each other.
I felt safe though, because I was wearing one and shades in the bargain. Also, it was reassuring to know that there hadn’t been any new local COVID-cases for quite a while.
All discussions about the effectiveness of masks aside, there must’ve been something Thailand has been doing right. And let’s face it, if all countries followed suit, COVID would be history.
Fast forward to another trip. Before setting off on a train journey from Bangkok, I pushed the button of the sanitizer dispenser, rubbed the viscous gel all over my hands, and entered Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station that impressed me with its wide-open space, half-dome roof and stained glass-windows.
I’ve replaced flights with minivan and train rides plus motorcycle road trips
Guardedly excited, I started this fabulous trip from Bangkok to Thailand’s south via train. It’s huge inside Hua Lamphong, but the waiting hall that’s filled with rows of seats was half-empty now due to coronavirus. A number of orange-robed monks sat there, radiating calm. It was peacefully quiet, aside from the loudspeaker and its echo announcing train departures in the wide hall, a sound that was vaguely reminiscent of an airport, not my favorite place currently.
I’m also one of those lucky ones who are still waiting for their refund for a canceled flight in April. Understandably, ending up with another canceled flight was not a risk I was willing to take. So as not to provide any more emergency funds and act as Writer Philipp Meier Bank, I’d decided to give airlines and online platforms with airline ticketing services a miss for a while.
Instead, I opted to use trains, buses and minivans for the time being and take that occasional motorcycle road trip. After all, feeling the wind in my hair on the back of my scooter, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the excitement of criss-crossing Thailand on land – these were soul-soothing things in these strange times.
Looking for my platform, I felt as though I’d just come out of a time machine, hurled into a world where riding a train was a real adventure.
Ticket collectors were wearing khaki uniforms, police-defying whistles announced imminent departures, doors slammed and hissing loco sounds filled the tremendous hall. Rolling stock creaked as yet another train pulled out of the old station, and arriving trains came to a grinding halt, billowing clouds of hazy diesel smoke.
Like a few clouds in an otherwise bright blue sky, this diesel smoke epitomized the current situation. The Thai tourist industry was on its knees, and people were struggling financially. Needless to say, delinquents with sticky fingers weren’t very far.
I’ve been playing it safe and never left my bags unattended
Generally, I don’t leave my bags alone, but this time, I nearly fell for some trick. I was sitting in a carriage, waiting for the train to leave from Hua Lamphong station.
About ten minutes before the scheduled departure time, a small Thai woman in her forties turned up with two thirtyish farangs. “What’s your seat number?” she asked.
“22,” I replied.
“What’s the number of your carriage?”
“Here’s number two,” the woman said assertively.
I’d checked the carriage number before I got on the train and was 100% sure she was wrong, but to save everybody’s face and prevent trouble, I set out to check again and take a photo to prove her wrong. I looked at my laptop bag on the seat opposite me, and for a fleeting moment, I thought to myself, “I won’t be long.”
But then – one of the foreigners was half-standing in front of that seat – thank heavens, the small voice within me asked, “Do you really want to leave this bag alone?”
On principle, I never leave any bag unattended, not even for a second. I put my backpack on and was about to walk away when the group were whispering something I didn’t catch, and suddenly the seat was no longer interesting. “You’re right; this is carriage number three,” the woman said.
At that moment, I still wasn’t thinking these were thieves, but my subconscious mind must’ve been wide-awake. Minutes later, as suddenly as the blade of a flick knife springing out, I remembered how they’d been eyeing my backpack on the seat in front of me, and it dawned on me what they’d been planning to do.
Thailand isn’t famous for kichamoi (thieves) at all, but now due to COVID, remaining vigilant pays. I don’t mean to overstate this case, but it’s a fact that people badly need money.
Spotting a long queue in Bangkok’s Chinatown, I first thought these guys were lining up to receive food packages donated by other Thai citizens, but a Thai friend told me they were selling their gold to a jeweler’s shop.
Another poignant reminder of the new normal is the practice of urging people to check in, though I don’t mean to say this is bothersome.
I’ve adopted Thai people’s mai-pen-rai-it-doesn’t-matter attitude
Whether it’s going to 7ELEVEN, Makro or a shopping mall, everyone is supposed to check in with their cell phone or by writing down their contact details. Besides, all people must have their temperature checked before entering public facilities such as Bangkok’s skytrain. It’s probably due to Thais’ “it-doesn’t-matter-attitude” that this hasn’t resulted in long lines.
I’ve also adopted this “mai-pen-rai-fashion” – it makes things a lot easier these days.
I’ve also gotten used to protective plastic barriers on outdoor tables that separate guests from each other, a common sight in Bangkok, my “backyard.”
I’ve been traveling more often in my adopted hometown
Traveling regularly near my home goes hand in hand with the new normal. I revisit Bangkok’s rooftop bars, enjoy staycations and city escapes in the heart of Bangkok.
To curb the spread of the coronavirus, hotels are now dishing out hygiene kits including facemasks, sanitizers and alcohol wipes. Also, lots of waitresses are currently serving drinks and food wearing face shields and rubber gloves.
Some hotels take it a bit too far, though. I mean, there hasn’t been a single COVID-case in Thailand for some three months now, apart from that Egyptian soldier. I was quite surprised when I wasn’t allowed to walk to a deserted breakfast buffet and had to place an order instead. “New normal,” the employee said to me as though it made sense and was to last for the next twenty years.
Well, one thing is certain – there *will* be a post-COVID era.