TDA Reports From The Field: Thai Travels In The Age Of Coronavirus
Coby Werlin has worked with TDA Global Cycling as a Content Creator on the 2019 The Odyssey & North American Epic Cycling Tours.
The following is an account of my past 3 months of traveling through Southeast Asia, as the COVID-19 virus, and its subsequent xenophobia, spread:
I bought my plane ticket to Thailand from a hotel room in Mexico while working the 2019 North American Epic. In conjunction with the NAE, I followed the events of the Bamboo Road that was operating on the other side of the globe, the beautiful photos and stories of which further fuelled my anticipation for my first venture to Asia in January after my tour had finished. My partner and I had a wonderful first 2 months of travel – from Bangkok up to northern Thailand, then over to Vietnam from Hanoi down to Da Nang, and back to Thailand to visit friends in the Thai islands of Koh Samui & Koh Tao. It was the quintessential Southeast Asian experience – motorbiking through dramatic landscapes, night markets packed with culinary oddities, spectacular beaches, and quirky hostels, all at an incredibly affordable price!
Meanwhile, the coronavirus had been escalating in severity, and even though China was only a short distance away, the news felt foreign. Everywhere we’d go, there would be rumours circulating about certain closures or exclusions to Chinese nationals, but thus far we hadn’t actually been confronted with these sorts of restrictions. By the time we’d returned to Thailand to visit the gulf islands in late February, we’d perceived the decrease in Chinese tourists as a good sign, since Chinese tourists account for almost 30% of all of Thailand’s foreign tourism, meaning there would be less crowds and more choice for us as tourists for the remainder of our trip. It was in that sweet spot that we decided to extend our travels, thinking there was little reason to venture home (as cases in the USA were rising), and that it would be a golden opportunity to visit some of Asia’s most popular attractions that we previously hadn’t planned to visit, like the Phi Phi Islands, and Bali.
But first, we made our way down to the lesser-known island of Koh Lanta, a largely Muslim island near the border with Malaysia, specifically because it offered a similar experience to Koh Phi Phi but without the crowds and expenses. We took up a volunteering job staying with a local Thai-French family, looking after their young daughter and performing simple gardening maintenance, in exchange for accommodation in their lovely open-air apartment tucked away in the jungle, and a short motorbike’s drive to the beach. It was such a nice situation we’d found ourselves in that we decided to stay longer, and it was at this time that many southeast Asian countries began closing their borders, and that the USA urged us to fly home while simultaneously acquiring the title of most coronavirus cases worldwide.
I didn’t know what to make of the situation – stay trapped in paradise, or take the risky flight only to become hermetically sealed off at home? We chose, for the time being, to stay, since Thailand was reportedly a low-risk zone and we had a very comfortable setup to wait things out. Then, things began ramping up slowly in Koh Lanta when a mere 6 cases were discovered.
It began with harmless temperature checks at 7-Elevens: they would rarely be accurate or indicative of actual infection, but it was just a precaution that the local government had enforced to look like they were taking the virus seriously, so we didn’t mind. Next came the mandate for hotels to close, and to admit all foreign guests to 1 of 3 designated “quarantine hotels” (all of which were rather expensive, even for Thai standards). The loophole of this was to immediately find a long-term rental that wasn’t regarded as a “hotel” of any kind (which we reluctantly did because, obviously, the “quarantine hotels” sounded like a nightmare). Then came the order that all businesses could only operate between 5am – 12pm, which was a coy means for local authorities to interrogate (only) foreigners seen outside after noon, asserting there was no reason to be outside, and ordering them to return home, while Thai locals went about ordinary life. Next came the order that foreigners were no longer allowed to drive motorbikes on the island, which posed a problem for many tourists like ourselves, who depended on our bikes for food shopping.
These foreigner-only mandates left us stuck in our small & costly bungalow, nervous to leave even for essential goods for fear of corrupt cops and the glares of locals in the streets – of which there were many. The Land of Smiles turned so quickly from welcoming tourists to loathing them. Expats who had lived on Koh Lanta for years, even decades, were beginning to be treated like second-class citizens, not because of any recent travel history, but purely because of their outward appearance. Of course, not all Thai people thought the same of the foreigners, but it was evident that a large number of the local Thai community, including the police, were convinced that foreigners equaled coronavirus, which I found to be completely untrue when reviewing the origins of coronavirus found in Thailand (ie: a Thai boxing match in Bangkok, or a Thai Muslim gathering returning from Malaysia). While ignorant party-going tourists were by all means part of the problem, the local government acted as if Thais were impervious to the virus, and that their frolicking in the streets and jungles and beaches in large groups was harmless.
It was clear, then, that Koh Lanta did not want foreigners in their province any longer, even if the Thai people themselves had conflicting feelings between wanted and unwanted levels of tourism. So we scheduled a departure route, left the island, and flew out of the province. Upon reaching Bangkok where we spent 2 days before our flight overseas, it was all too apparent that the restrictions were not at all country-wide, but were specific to the province of Koh Lanta (even though Bangkok had more positive cases than anywhere in the country). While Thailand was indeed on a soft national lockdown, we felt like respectable people once more walking the hot streets of Bangkok, where we were met with that same friendliness that the country is known for, even in pandemic times.
As conflicted as I was to be leaving, I reflected that under such drastic circumstances, it wasn’t ethical of me to be putting further strain on a foreign government for my wellbeing; they had enough on their plates to keep their own citizens safe and I would rather burden my home country with my safety than the Thai government. While I felt that the restrictions and treatment I received on Koh Lanta was poorly implemented, myopic, and downright discriminatory, I recognize in hindsight that Thailand, like just about every nation in the world right now, is continuously struggling to find the “right” thing to do to protect their citizens, first and foremost.
So here I am back in Seattle, a pandemic epicentre “passed its prime” (let’s hope), trading tropical snorkelling for mountain hikes, bored but safe. With my future plans to join the South American Epic on hold for the moment, I can only resolve to take a pause from my international travels and join my fellow Americans, and humans, in relishing the subtle beauties of home living – something that, come to think of it, I haven’t done in quite a few years.
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