12 Aug Thailand travel in 2022 – our return to Asia
Back in the not-so-distant past, when Covid was keeping borders firmly shut and planes grounded, I used to dream of Southeast Asia. I’d try to recall, as vividly as possible, the soupy heat and mosaiced temples; passion-fruit shakes and foot massages; the bath-water beaches and macaque-filled forests. More than that, I longed for the feeling I only get from being in Asia, the endless freedom found during that first magical year of travel, where every day was a shiny new adventure. So, when 2022 dawned and the borders started to open again, we crossed our fingers and booked a one-way flight to Thailand.
Navigating Thailand’s Covid travel restrictions
Nowadays, all you have to do to get into Thailand is show a certificate of vaccination (or take a PCR test if you’re unvaccinated) but back in March, when we arrived, there were loads of Covid-related hoops to jump through. To get the Thailand Pass, we had to book hotel rooms and PCR tests in advance, buy expensive Covid-cover insurance and book private transport straight from the airport to our hotel.
Masked-up at Heathrow we had a whole folder of paperwork to show and when we did finally arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport – a deserted ghost of its former self – we went through a second set of lengthy, sweat-inducing document and temperature checks. Ushered straight to a private car, we were taken for a Covid test en-route to our hotel, where we had to quarantine until the results came in. There was a second test required for day five of our stay, which we had to log on the Morchana app. Despite the nerve-wracking start, it all felt like a small price to pay for finally being back in Thailand.
Bangkok felt familiar-yet-strange; the sun-baked roads and fleets of lemon-and-lime coloured taxis were the same, the neon-illuminated streets of Chinatown were still crowded with food stalls, yet every face was covered with a mask and every 7-11 had a temperature check machine at its entrance. City life continued despite the dozens of boarded-up shop fronts. Khao San Road was the worst, the few remaining near-empty bars pumping music to attract the trickle of tourists – the hotel we used to stay at, Rambuttri Village, abandoned.
One morning we braved oven-like temperatures to visit the Grand Palace. My memories from previous visits involve weaving through crowds of visitors and trying, unsuccessfully, to nab a photo without anyone in the backdrop. This time, however, there were no queues at the ticket desk and the complex was the quietest I’ve ever seen it – we were able to wander unhindered through the sparkling temples, the halls adorned with Buddhist murals. I doubt there will ever be a time like it again.
Heading to the South of Thailand
After a week in Bangkok and passing our day-five Covid test, we headed down south. That first evening on Koh Samui we went to the fisherman’s village, Bo Put, where it was heartening to see modest levels of tourism breathing life into the island. Rather than the pre-Covid crowds of westerners though, the bulk of visitors were domestic tourists taking advantage of heavily-discounted hotel rates for Thai people. This was a welcome trend that we saw echoed across our seven-week stay in Thailand.
We rented a motorbike and checked into Code, a modern, sugar-cube-style hotel that sat on a hill overlooking the sea. After long work days, we’d swim in the huge pool, surrounded by fragrant frangipani and orange-beaked birds as the light faded from the sky and the distant alien-green glow from squid boats lit the horizon. One Saturday, we literally lay under a palm tree (half scared of being brained by a falling coconut) on my new tie-dye sarong, so grateful-yet-incredulous that this was our life.
We based ourselves on Koh Samui to begin with in order to visit the immigration office and extend our visa. Thinking it would be a much quieter experience than we remembered from our pre-Covid visits, we arrived mid-morning to huge queues of visitors doing the same. Long-term stays in Thailand are definitely still a thing – many people, like our friend Darren who we met up with in Bangkok, have been in Thailand since the beginning of the pandemic, taking advantage of the Covid exemption rules to stay indefinitely.
One weekend, we took a speedboat over to Koh Phangan, one of our favourite Thai islands. We stayed in a garden bungalow among tropical birds and flowers, falling asleep to the roar of cicadas. Hopping on a motorbike, we spent a bone-jarring day following roads through forests of skinny coconut palms, my feet getting horrifically sunburnt as we explored bone-white sand bars and jungle waterfalls, watching the same buttery sunset from Haad Salad that I remember from our time there 10 years ago. In the evenings, we gorged on incredible vegan food at EAT.CO and headed down to Zen Beach where crowds gathered to play music and dance.
Take me to my beach: Koh Phi Phi post Covid
Easter brought with it a solid chunk of time off from work and our friend Heather, who’d moved back to Australia during the worst of Covid, came to travel with us for a month on her way back to London. We decided that this narrow window of relative post-Covid peace was the ideal time to hit up some of Thailand’s most famous tourist spots. We took a boat trip from Phuket around Phang Nga Bay, where we stopped at forest-covered islands and rowed across the emerald water among towering limestone rock formations, floating under a heart-shaped slice of sky.
Next up was Koh Phi Phi, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. Andrew visited the island back in 2013 with his sisters while I was up north with my parents and remembered it as a noisy, backpacker mecca. We were hoping Covid would have calmed the island but despite the many closed-up hotels, there was still a strong party scene, with music pumping from bars throughout the night. On a scorching hike back down from the island’s viewpoint, we were cornered by a group of tooth-baring macaques that a Thai ticket officer had to shoo off – you know you’re back in Asia when monkeys send you into a panic.
Although ours was one of a dozen boats touring Koh Phi Phi and stopping at the same spots in uniform fashion, I enjoyed being back in tourist mode, bumping over the waves in a longtail boat, stopping to snorkel and getting stung by jellyfish, a Thailand tradition for me. The highlight of the day was stopping at Maya Bay – The Beach – where the water was a perfect plane of reflective topaz, the sherbet-white bay sheltered by hulking rocks.
Thailand travel in 2022: Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park was the highlight of my Thailand 2022 trip. Like so many Asia adventures, it started with a cramped minibus journey, complete with a boy who insisted on taking off his manky trainers, stinking up the whole vehicle. We were dropped off in the one-street town, which is bisected by a snaking river and surrounded by tangled forest. Our £12 per night hotel, the Royal Bamboo Lodge, was a classic bug-ridden wooden hut with a rock-hard bed – it took me right back to our glorious backpacking days.
The next day we were picked up by Noom, our tour guide from the much swankier Our Jungle Camp down the road who took us into the heart of the park, our final destination a floating raft house in the middle of the lake. The longtail boat ride from the pier was reminiscent of our trip to Batang Ai in Borneo; a watery wonderland of karsts and forest-covered islets whizzed by until we reached our strip of floating huts, furnished only with a simple mattress on the floor.
We spent the next 24 hours plunging into the cool lake water, kayaking and paddle boarding while soaking up this slice of pristine wilderness. In the afternoon, Noom took us on a death-defying trek through the forest, up steep leech-lined trails to a viewpoint of jagged rocks so unsafe you had to crouch-crawl your way along so as not to plunge off the edge. The two Danish girls in our group unwittingly disturbed a wasp nest, getting stung multiple times and causing a general panic. We were all shaking with relief when we got back to the boat, where Noom handed out rose apples and we sailed the waterways, looking out for wildlife that inhabit the park – bison, birds, monkeys and some of Thailand’s last wild elephants.
After a communal dinner with our tour group of rice, veg and pineapple and sharing travel stories and plans, we attempted to fall asleep in our sticky raft hut, the sounds of frogs and bugs filling the air. Andrew gate-crashed the make-shift kitchen the next morning to make vegan banana pancakes before we sailed back to the mainland, our boat engine cutting out halfway through the journey – it wouldn’t be Thailand without at least one break-down, right?
A return to Chiang Mai
I would have cheerfully stayed down south, but my heart was pulling me north to our former home: Chiang Mai. Living here in 2017 was one of the most peaceful, content periods of my life – the yoga classes, fellow travellers passing through, the lantern festival and Songkran, cinema trips to Maya Mall and our luxe apartment at Trio Condo where we spent long hours building up our remote income, then swimming in our pool set in the shadow of Doi Suthep.
Returning was always going to be a little strange – the friends we used to have there have moved on and we stayed in a different apartment. Yet our old neighbourhood, Nimman, felt the same, buzzing with student life, rooftop bars and artisan markets. What had changed though was Chiang Mai Old Town. Much like Bangkok, the moat-encircled ancient city was almost devoid of tourists. Many restaurants and hotels had closed down and tuk tuk drivers endlessly circled, desperate for work. The vegan restaurant scene was on fire though and the Sunday Night Market had started up again.
The extreme heat of peak season, combined with the city’s mask mandate, was starting to get to us in Chiang Mai, so we hired a private driver on Grab, Nikki, to take us up into the cool of Doi Inthanon National Park. Home to Thailand’s highest peak at 2,565 metres, the park is a paradise of hiking trails, waterfalls, flower gardens and the purple-hued King and Queen monument, the most unique temple we’ve seen in Thailand.
Chiang Mai was our final stop in Thailand before flying on to Bali and a fitting end to our 2022 trip. My lasting memory is of heading up to Doi Suthep at sunset, the golden stupas and buddha statues bathed in warm rays of sunshine as Thai people circled with smoking sticks of incense. As a gong sounded, the monks emerged, kneeling in their orange robes, their rhythmic, ancient chants floating off into the cloud-cloaked hills above the city.