“Sawadee ka, sir. Your test result is out, the virus is not detected. You may leave your room now,” the hotel receptionist said over the phone.
With that health declaration, my first post-pandemic trip abroad to Thailand officially began.
But I wouldn’t have minded being cooped up longer in my super luxe room at the Sindhorn Kempinski in the heart of Bangkok. If anything, accommodations play an important role while travelling under the new norm.
As part of Thailand’s Test & Go scheme, international visitors are required to stay in isolation at an approved SHA+ hotel while awaiting results of the RT-PCR Covid-19 test that was taken upon arrival. So yes, you might want to consider being stuck in a comfortable room.
Prior to arrival, visitors would need to apply for a Thailand Pass online and have a negative RT-PCR test result within 72 hours before travelling.
(The aforementioned quarantine-free initiative, however, has been temporarily suspended due to the increasing number of Omicron cases involving travellers entering Thailand from overseas.)
I was in Bangkok as part of a media familiarisation trip organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and AirAsia.
The trip marked my first time out of the country in almost two years. Actually, it was the first time any one on the StarLifestyle desk had gone abroad since March last year. Needless to say, the travel landscape has changed dramatically.
Thailand, a country that is heavily reliant on tourism, received about 106,117 foreign tourists in the first 10 months of 2021. Before the pandemic, the Land of Smiles received about 40 million visitors annually.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Bangkok was deserted when we visited in mid-December. Far from it, the city was still a hub of activity – as evidenced from its notorious traffic.
“This is actually good traffic. During normal times, we would have been stuck on the road longer,” a fellow photographer told me when our van was in the middle of a traffic crawl.
The aftermath of global lockdown can be seen at many tourist hotspots in the capital. We were the only tourist group around at many popular attractions, such as the Rama I Road shopping district.
“In the past, there will be bus-loads of tourists dragging their luggage around to buy instant noodles and other snacks here,” a travel agent in our entourage said when we were at a famous supermarket, which was relatively empty.
For a first-time visitor like myself (I’ve only ever transited at the city airport!), this is indeed the best time to visit Bangkok.
New spots in Bangkok
At the famous Erawan Shrine, I was able to offer my prayers to Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu deity Brahma (known to some as the Four-Faced Buddha), without braving a crowd.
Returning visitors will find that several novel attractions have cropped up during the pandemic. Two particular highlights are the Klong Ong Ang Walking Street and Jodd Fairs.
Located along both sides of the Ong Ang canal in the bustling Chinatown district, the walking street features street art of various styles. Visitors will find also find several small shops along the 350m-long walkway from Damrong Sathit Bridge to Saphan Han.
We visited in the daytime on a weekday, so it was rather quiet – I’m told that the venue truly comes alive on weekends, where plays and exhibitions are held.
You don’t have to wait until the weekend to visit Jodd Fairs, though. The night market is actually the popular Ratchada Train Night Market, reincarnated (Ratchada 2.0?).
The former venue was one of the casualties of the pandemic. Fortunately, the market returned under the new banner of Jodd Fairs in a new location. Many of its original vendors have also relocated to the new venue.
The spacious area features open-air bars, scrumptious street food and vintage stores. The crowd here is relatively younger in demographic and you will see many local youths parading the latest fashion.
Other notable attractions to visit in Bangkok include Wat Traimit (which houses a 5,500kg Buddha statue) and Asiatique (a riverfront venue with many dining and shopping options).
All the attractions in Bangkok adhere to strict health and hygiene measures. At the restaurants we frequented, utensils are usually packed in plastic bags. Hand sanitisers are placed in abundance and masks are a norm.
In fact, during a morning run in the city, I observed that people were even masking up while exercising.
A world away
If you’re wary of crowds, consider making a detour to Ayutthaya. A two-hour drive from Bangkok will bring you to the old capital city which has a more languorous pace.
We started our daytrip early at the Bang Pa-In Palace, a summer retreat that is still used by the kingdom’s monarch.
With well-manicured lawns and serene lakes, the palace is a nice place to check out, if only just to soak in the morning views.
An eccentric vibe runs through the place thanks to an assortment of ornate buildings that dot across the sprawling gardens. The architectural style here runs from European to Thai and even Chinese.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my stroll at the palace, it was the visit to the Ayutthaya Historical Park that sealed my love for the ancient city. Cryptic ruins of palaces and mighty stupas can be found at the site.
The Unesco World Heritage Site is a must-visit for anyone who is enamoured by Ayutthaya’s history as one the world’s most resplendent cities in the past.
Ayutthaya’s modern-day success is testament that it’s possible to rise again from the ashes. And in the case of Thailand’s tourism landscape, perhaps time is all it takes to bring it back to its former glory.