Back to reality: the new old normal in bangkok

After a marathon trek back to Thailand and two weeks in hotel quarantine, ASQ, upon our return, we are finally back home!

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got out of quarantine. When we were in the UK last month, life was opening up somewhat but it was a long, long way from normality. So we weren’t sure the extent to which Bangkok would be functioning as usual and how we remembered it.

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Leaving ASQ was a distinctive non-event – I thought (hoped) there may be cake, speeches, emotional hugs with staff etc. In reality they just let us through a previously closed rope barrier, gave us a certificate and wished us good luck with life. Memories I’m sure we’ll treasure.

Within about 15 seconds of hopping into a cab at the ASQ hotel, it was pretty clear that the ‘new normal’in Bangkok is a lot closer to the old normal than in many other countries. We were greeted by the reassuring throng of traffic, a swarm of cars and bikes and basically people just going about daily life.

When we got back to our condo, the fridge was (and still is) distinctly unwell, our pot plants had not only died but also disintegrated into a fine ash, but other than that everything was as normal. I was expecting an army of roaches to have taken up residence in our absence, but the whole place is remarkably spick and span given that it’s been untouched for over 100 days right through the peak of Thai summer.

We celebrated our new found freedom with an incredibly western meal of omelette on toast at an Australian style cafe, obviously.

Back to reality: the new old normal in bangkok 1

Out and about you notice some differences. For one, mask usage is almost universal when outside your house. It’s quite unusual to see someone on the street without a mask; and it’s a requirement to use things like the BTS, taxis and any form of transport. Wearing a mask in tropical heat isn’t exactly a bonanza of joy, but they become second nature extremely quickly to the point where you do not notice that you’re wearing it.

One annoyance with masks is forgetting to take them out in the first place, but the Thais have in typically resourceful fashion got around this by buying the same lanyards you would often see for reading glasses and attaching a mask to it. So even when you’re not wearing it, it’s at hand.

There is a bit of a contradiction in mask usage though – they get taken off when you go to a restaurant, cafe, or when running – the kind of activities where you’re actually often in close proximity to others.

On the flip side, temperature scanning is the norm upon arrival at almost any building, from the supermarket to the office to restaurants. If you scan over 37.5C, you’re not allowed in. They actually do this on arrival at our condo too, so I’m somewhat fearful of what may happen if we scan high one day. Can we not go home or what…?

Thailand have also introduced the Thai Chana app which is simple but smart – every time you go into somewhere, you scan a QR code to check into that place. Then when you leave, you tap back out. I guess this would allow for solid test and tracing should there be an outbreak – although probably around half of people actually use it right now from what I have seen.

Social distancing is in place; usually marked out by big red stickers saying where you can and can’t sit. But again this only stretches to a point – the BTS in the morning is almost as packed as ever, I can attest!

It’s unsurprising that people here are a little lax, as Thailand is reporting no community transmission of Covid-19, and hasn’t done for the last 10 weeks at time of writing. Given how incredibly stringent the rules are for getting into Thailand, plus the level of testing and distancing pre and during quarantine, I can fully see how Thailand have managed to stamp out local transmission. For more detail on this, I strongly recommend David Luekens’ summary of Thailand’s response to the pandemic.

For us personally, the last week or so has been great. We can go to restaurants, the office, the gym, swimming pools etc as normal. We get to meet our friends and hang out. After several months of very little social contact, I was a little concerned about re-adjusting to the hustle and bustle, but in many ways it feels like we were never away. Everything just feels, well, normal, and that’s a really nice feeling.

Almost everywhere is open, and it’s much quieter than usual as tourists are not here at the moment. But there’s the rub. This was Chinatown on Friday evening at what should have been a busy time:

Back to reality: the new old normal in bangkok 2

Usually this intersection would be heaving with both cars and people, but without the tourist trade, businesses stand to suffer.

This is the double-edged sword for Thailand. The country is especially reliant on tourism – something like 20% of GDP comes from tourists. Because such a tough line has been taken on prevention, there are no tourists to fill up the hotels, restaurants and taxis, many of whose workers live precariously enough in good times. The government is putting up some incentives for domestic tourism but can’t hope to cover the gap.

So whilst Thailand has done an exemplary job of saving lives and keeping the general domestic economy going during Covid-19, the impact will still surely be significant, because nobody can come in.

Aside from New Zealand, it seems unlikely any other countries would be seen as ‘virus free’ to the extent that tourists would be allowed in without quarantine. That won’t be nearly enough, but letting the virus in via tourism will undo all of the work of the last months. It seems unfair that Thailand has kept Covid away so far, but that potentially millions of livelihoods will still suffer irreparably while the wider world gets it under control. But that’s where we are unfortunately.

For us, we’re happy and more than a bit lucky to be home, and even better that daily life – for us at least – is similar to how it’s always been. Here’s hoping that becomes true for more and more people over the coming months.


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Mark Burton
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