On November 1 2021 Thailand reopened international travel with the Test and Go scheme. This system offered entry for select international arrivals with one day quarantine before being allowed to travel freely in the country. I waited a month for the system to be running before returning, and these are my notes from one month in Bangkok in December 2021.
One night in quarantine
While it was a massive improvement on the 14-day quarantine, there was still a lot of paperwork to do with the Test and Go scheme. You also had to book at an approved hotel where they would arrange a covid test while you are there. I stayed at an ibis styles where the testing centre was set up in the car park.
I had just come from Europe and the UAE, where there was no quarantine required. At this point though I was ready to trade a day in quarantine to get me back to Southeast Asia. I had also written off the prospect of being able to visit Thailand in 2021, so I was relieved to scrape in a visit at the end of the year. This 2021 visit meant that I have kept an unbroken run of annual visits to Thailand since 2010. I was just happy to be back in a land where coconuts are sold from the back of a truck in the middle of the city.
The reopening of Thailand
Like Vietnam (where I was for 15 months over 2020/21), Thailand shut down its international borders while trying to contain the virus. Also like Vietnam, it worked for the most part of 2020 and early 2021. Then the Delta variant came and it became uncontainable.
I was last in Bangkok in March 2020, the month that still feels like it never ended. I had seen tourism-related businesses close down across Vietnam while I was there, so I was wondering what Bangkok was going to be like.
At first glance, Bangkok felt like business as usual. The street vendors are still surviving (despite the government’s intent of “cleaning up” the streets), so it looked like the same old Bangkok.
Inflation hadn’t seemed to have kicked in yet either, with street pineapple still 20 baht. I’m not sure how anyone is making money in this process.
Things are noticeably different where tourists usually congregate. I went to the MBK Shopping Centre, and it was deathly quiet.
One of the floors has been completely gutted out, so at least they are making the most of this downtime by renovating. The food court was at least business as usual. You could probably fill all six floors of the shopping centre with food vendors and still draw a crowd.
Lower Sukhumvit Road is usually a busy tourist area, and one of the worst-hit places was Sukhumvit Soi 3/1 (Soi Arab).
This alley is famous for Middle Eastern restaurants, but as of December 2021 it was almost entirely closed down.
It’s too soon to tell if these closures are temporary or permanent.
I walked down Soi Cowboy one night, and it was almost entirely shut down except for a few bars operating a bbq out front. This appeared to be a way to work around a law that was allowing restaurants to serve alcohol. I got called out to come in for a drink, but I haven’t had a drink for over 28 years so I am their worst customer.
I spent the month in Bangkok, and I was hotel-hopping instead of renting a place for a month. Hotels were so cheap with so few visitors in town, and I wanted to stay in different areas for research. I moved over to Silom when I found an old-school 4-star hotel for $16.45 USD per night.
Silom is famous for the girly bars and busy night market on Patpong Road. The last time I went here you could barely walk through the market it was so crowded. Now the market is closed and there are just a few bars that have half-heartedly opened. If you had never seen this alley in its prime you wouldn’t believe what a circus it used to be.
The food court at Silom 10 in the daytime is at least business as usual. This market serves the office workers of the area, and it is still my preferred place to eat in Silom.
The Chinatown night market on Yaowarat Road was also significantly less crowded than usual.
Parks had been closed during the year as well, so I was glad to be able to visit Lumphini Park.
I don’t feel like I have arrived in Bangkok until I see a Lumphini lizard.
Wearing masks outside was still compulsory, even in the parks.
One place that I knew was going to be slammed by the international lockout was the Khao San Road backpacker area in Banglamphu. I stayed there for a few days to have a proper look around in the day and night, and this area has fared badly. So much so that I will write a separate post about the desolation of Khao San Road.
I wondered about where all of the people working in tourism have gone, and how long it will take to get everyone back to work at the same level as 2019. The thing about Bangkok is that it’s usually filled with workers from every province of Thailand, and most menial jobs are filled with workers from neighbouring countries. Many people went back to their hometowns during the international shutdown.
After wandering around Khao San Road I felt sorry for the guidebook publishers who will need to re-research all of their accommodation guides. I have some guides that need updating, but I am just going to leave them until the dust has fully settled.
With tourism-related articles not being a profitable use of my time, I spent most of the month working on articles for Future Southeast Asia. Apart from feeling happy to be back in Thailand, I also felt like I was back in my “office” by doing on-the-ground research for this site.
I did an annual construction report for Bangkok, which took me to the major construction sites of the city. Many of these projects were already financed before 2020, so they are building through the pandemic with the hope that they finish when things are back to normal (whatever normal means now).
[Emsphere – a new mall on Sukhumvit Road]
Keeping track of construction also means that I am aware of what is being lost. Since I was last here the fabulous Dusit Thani Hotel was demolished, and when I arrived the historic Scala Theatre was in the process of being demolished.
Bangkok’s Metro transit projects are also going ahead with three new lines under construction. I also did a metro expansion report, which took me to the outer suburban areas. I used visiting metro sites as a random adventure generator. For example, there is a monorail line that will intersect with the Airport Rail Link at Hua Mak. I went out to take some photos of the interchange stations, and at first glance, the area was a dusty construction zone with big roads.
I’ve never been to Hua Mak though, so I stayed around the explore the back alleys.
What I found was lots of canals and houses that feel like a village.
I spent a month in Bangkok mainly to recover from the previous few months of solid travel. My main goal was to write for Future Southeast Asia while hanging out in cafes. I have a well-worn list of favourites on Sukhumvit Road, starting with Artis at Soi 18.
39 Espresso at Sukhumvit 39 is best in terms of quality of coffee and price (65b for a latte), but not the best place to grind for long stretches.
Pacamara is another favourite at Rainhill Sukhumvit 47. I used to go to Pacamara in Chiang Mai, so I get nostalgia for the early digital nomad days when I see their logo.
Okonomi in Soi 38 was a new cafe for me.
Sometimes you find the best coffee in the most absurd places. Coffee Academics are a specialty cafe from Hong Kong (I have visited them in HK), and they have a branch in the CentralWorld mall.
I was dismayed to find out that Casa Lapin in Soi 26 had closed down, but they seemed to have opened up everywhere else. My favourite is the Ratchathewi branch.
Hario Cafe is a Japanese-style cafe in Silom.
And Starbucks has snuck onto the list because the one at the Emquartier is in an amazing rooftop garden.
The garden overlooks Sukhumvit Road at Phrong Phong BTS Station.
One of the reasons I love being in Bangkok is being around an abundance of cheap and delicious food. As someone who doesn’t cook, I like seeing noodle carts set up outside a Family Mart selling soup for 40 baht.
I’m not a food blogger though, and I can’t be bothered taking photos of every meal and then trying to find another adjective to describe it. The one place I want to mention is Phed Mark.
This restaurant was established by my friend Mark Wiens of Migrationology fame. Like the best restaurants in Thailand, it only specialises in one dish – pad kaprao.
Mark was part of a group of bloggers that I met in 2010 when I started my run of Bangkok visits, and it has been great to watch Mark’s Youtube channel reach great heights.
The tourism recovery
We are in unchartered territory in regards to knowing how long it will take the tourism economy to recover. There is still a lot of friction to get in and out of the country. My next stop was Cambodia, and to fly there I needed to get a PCR test. The cheapest one I could find was at MedConsult Clinic in Sukhumvit 49 for 1500 THB.
I entered Thailand at Suvarnabhumi Airport, where most international flights are flying to. I departed from Don Muang Airport, where most of the low-cost airlines serving Asian destinations fly from. This airport was bursting at the seams in 2019, and it was set to be expanded before the pandemic broke out. When I arrived to get my flight to Phnom Penh I didn’t have to look hard to find my flight. It was the only international flight for the whole day.
For perspective, here is the Dom Muang departure board from the 14th of March 2020. This was the day I scrambled back to Saigon before all international flights were cancelled. This departure board shows flights from 11:55 to 17:55 (6 hours worth of flights), with half of the flights already cancelled.
December is the best month of the year to visit Bangkok as it’s the start of the dry season and not blazing hot yet (they call it winter). I always try and visit around then, so if I end up here in a year’s time I will see what has reopened and how the tourism sector is faring.
Greg Rodgers says
Jealous you got to try Mark’s restaurant! First on my list when I return. This post was excellent for me. Lots of nostalgia along with plenty of practical, ground-level updates. You are correct, I am going to have a -lot- of stuff to update about Khao San Road and other places if they don’t return in full form.
James Clark says
Hoo boy, well stay tuned for my next blog post because it is all about KSR (it needs a blog post of its own!)
mai tran says
Very useful post. Thank you James.
I visited Thailand in 2019 and planning to come back in the near future when no quarantine is required.