Covid-19: what's a backpacker to do? A view from Thailand.


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Asia » Thailand
March 17th 2020
Published: March 18th 2020
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Lower limbs are currently the bane of our lives. The last entry detailed how a new (third party) knee and Ali’s dodgy Achilles had resulted in a month’s stasis and forced the jettisoning of Nepali trekking plans. But, not content, the gods of fate conspired to make it a trio of woes.



Wandering one steamy Bangkok night we discovered a street-side water ATM. It appeared that a litre was only 8 baht, a decent reduction from 7 Eleven’s own brand for 13B (sadly water re-fills have been slow to catch on in Bangkok even though they provide way more profit for the vendor, a vastly cheaper price to the consumer and a massive reduction in plastic waste). With the instructions solely in Thai Ali announced that she’d confirm the price with the adjacent store. Of course I already had an empty water bottle in position and proceeded regardless. I’d just added my fourth baht when Ali emerged at speed. “It’s only one baht” she cried as she slipped on the polished stone paving and careered off the high curb. Her ankle soon swelled, although the bruising was solely down the lateral margin of her foot, across the base of the toes and, peculiarly, in the centre of the sole of her foot. Still, we presumed it to be a sprain. Alas, ten days on, having experienced the like before, there is little doubt she had also broken her 5th metatarsal; either that or, potentially far worse, sustained a Linsfranc fracture. Did we get it x-rayed? We did not.



Anyway, our plan had always been to scoot through Thailand: numerous previous visits had progressively slid from a once doting awe to disgruntled indifference. And yet, immediately upon arrival, somehow Bangkok conveyed a fresh (well… hot and sticky) vibrance. Our memories of jaded money-grabbing locals from the last visit seemed totally misplaced. Every interaction we had with a Thai was delightful: they were helpful, polite and even our negotiations with guesthouse owners (largely unsuccessful) were totally cordial. Yes, even with the Covid-19 scare rife, there were tourists everywhere. But for some reason this bothered us not; it was actually quite pleasant to see some white and black faces. Maybe the reason is our direction this time: having arrived on the back of four months in India/Nepal (not to mention five years in the US, eleven months in Central/South America and six weeks in the UK) Thailand was our first call in SE Asia for a very long time; whilst previously we’ve visited after months in other – more gentle, less touristy - ASEAN countries. Regardless, we felt a renewed warmth for the place.



There’s a new bus (the S1) – totally targeted towards tourists – that provides a cheap and direct conduit to Bangkok’s Banglamphu district from Suvarnabhumi airport. Excellent. Although on arrival there was then the grim task of finding reasonably priced accommodation and we feared it would be both tough and stressful. Our initial enquiries confirmed those suspicions, prices were high and negotiations fruitless. And then having checked out a potential in The New Central Guesthouse (all cheap rooms full) I passed a sign for Central Guesthouse, a sign with the caveat “The original”. It is tucked away behind a shrine and as I entered its narrow courtyard I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu. I remembered those concrete tables and benches; then a flashing image of being sat with bottle of Mekong to hand as television footage showed newfangled laser-guided bombs obliterating bunkers during the first Gulf war… in 1990. This was the first guesthouse we’d stayed in, ever, anywhere in Asia and, beaming, I duly informed the man in charge as much.



He was not that original proprietor, indeed he was only the night staff; and he wasn’t bargaining. But he didn’t need to as the price was already markedly lower than elsewhere; and he was charming. OK, so the guesthouse really hasn’t changed in thirty years: the wooden floors are merely more warped and worn and all is fatigued in the extreme. But it is clean and an outdoor seating area is an uncommon boon for a cut-price Bangkok doss. It always was my mind’s image for the guesthouse described in “The Beach”, now only more so. I returned to Ali minding the packs some alleys away and related my find. Within the hour we were back on our old perches sipping on chilled Satosiams. This, the beverage, it being a cheap rice wine, was not intentional. Singha is no longer the only beer in town and 7 Eleven (annoyingly the cheapest outlet for alcohol and, even more annoyingly, prohibited from selling it between the hours of 2 and 5pm) displayed an array of different beers in its fridges. Alongside Singha and the now most popular Chang there were also (in further descending price order) Leo, M, Cheers, Archa and, seemingly, Satosiam. The latter, though not unpleasant, it being more akin to a flat 7 percent cider/wine, is evidently not a beer.



But that does raise the spectre of 7 Elevens of which Bangkok (and presumably the country as a whole) is seriously well endowed. Thus, as the Satosiams soothed our travel weary bodies, we reflected on the institution. What country has the most? Surely America? Ah, but per capita….? I said Thailand, whilst Ali insisted Japan would win on both counts. It so turns out, much to Ali’s delight and tub-thumping, that Japan does indeed have the most, with a whopping 30 percent of all stores; whilst Norway, with a mere 153 outlets, has the most per capita. Trivia advancement is never neglected on the road. Oh, and the UK and Germany have…. none.



We’d never been to Pai. Thirty years ago it had yet to register on any Western radar although now (and for at least a decade or so) it is very much on every visitor’s list. If you’re in the Khao San (Banglamphu) area please take the local bus number 3 to Mo Chit bus station (8B) rather than a taxi (sitting at the bus stop with total nonchalance – disinterest - cruising cab drivers dropped their offers from 300 to 200B) and then, once there, catch the government bus for the eleven hour overnight ride to Chiang Mai (412B rather than 529B+ for private companies). Yes, there is no food provided (eat your dinner before boarding) and neither is there a loo, but even Ali’s post-menopausal bladder was happy with the number of rest stops. The bus itself is almost identical to its supposed superiors. From Chiang Mai it’s 150B in a minivan to Pai, more if you book on-line or through a guesthouse…



The latter journey is steep and tortuous; it ascends and winds… and then climbs and winds some more, apparently 762 times in total. Looking down on other rolling hills Pai is rather nice. The main drag is a gently bland tourist thoroughfare of western orientated eateries, memorabilia shops, scooter rentals, expensive bars… And at night it is only marginally improved with the addition of numerous street vendors who are mostly overpriced and unexciting. Nevertheless there are a few eatery gems hidden among the dross. Accommodation wise, if you cross over the currently parched river on one of the rickety bamboo bridges there are some very chilled and cheap options, not least Sleepy Hut. Here $6.50 will see you with a spacious hut (shared but immaculate loos/showers) with gratis toilet paper, towels, drinking water and… breakfast.





Of course Covid-19 dominates all at the moment, not that anyone here in Thailand (mid-February) is remotely perturbed: it’s simply business as usual, just without the Chinese hoards. That said such an unexpected global turn of events has huge ramifications for many. At Central Guesthouse in Bangkok Johnny (Italian) was unsure how things stood for his return to his English teaching job in Chengdu, China; indeed his flight had already been postponed, until April at the earliest. In Pai we met Polish Jedrek, his wife Elisa and their young daughter Luna who own a food van (rather sexy sounding fusion tacos, including a gravlax variant) in Northern Italy. They were due to fly back on the 6th of March, but what awaited them on their return? Also at Sleepy hut were a charming young South American couple, Sebastian (Colombian) and Alex (Argentinian) who pillioned us around the sites on their scooters (Ali’s foot was extremely grateful), during which, much to their barely contained excitement (it’s all a bit cloak-and-dagger), we hunted down a Geocache – yes, we’d no idea what one was either. Then the following morning they taught us the rudiments of how to ride a scooter ourselves. Ali – it has to be said – was woeful, although all who witnessed her snail paced attempts were amazed that she could keep it upright with almost zero forward propulsion. Anyway, the guys are relying on Ibiza’s summer scene (virus-free as I type) to finance further travel, but who knows how the evolving crisis in Western Europe will affect things there?





Ali’s foot obviously required some serious R&R and thus a beach called. Although finding an idyllic example on our budget necessitates some serious examination. Phuket and Pattaya were already beyond consideration thirty years ago, similarly Koh Phi Phi whose popularity soared on the back of Scaramanga’s third nipple. Krabi, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan we were lucky enough to catch in their prime (long past); whilst Koh Phayam, supposedly a “new discovery” revealed to and visited by us eight years ago, we found to already be suffering at the hands of profligate crusties. So, where? Kohs Tao and Chang were once backpacker friendly and maybe they still harbor the odd oasis? Sadly the myriad of tiny satellite islets such as Koh Muk, Koh Wai, Koh Chang Noi, etc… appear to have leap-frogged basic hut development (somewhat like Phayam had) and initiated with mid-range, out-of-our-range, resorts.



Strategically somewhat more convenient, Koh Chang won out.



To get there required backtracking to Bangkok and then a bus to the Gulf of Thailand coastal town of Trat. A French girl, Esmerelda, whom we’d met previously in Bangkok had reported back that Trat, though unremarkable, was actually worthy of a few days in its own right. And how right she was. Trat offers nothing in the way of sights, but with minimal tourists (few pause here), gentle, welcoming locals, excellent street and night markets, and a lazy little river running through it that mirrors the general pace of life, we were immediately rather enamoured.



We readily found a decent guesthouse (Tattoo) with kitchen access and outdoor seating that interestingly abuts an open-sided Thai boxing establishment with full-sized ring. And then, to its rear, on wandering the riverside boardwalk we discovered Tattoo’s deserted sister hostel (Riverside) that literally hangs over the water facing only jungle on the not so distant bank. It has to be said that neither establishment seems overly fussed whether they have guests or not and we simply slotted into life alongside the not insubstantial extended family. Neither property ever locks up for the night, a fact that either evidences the safe peaceful nature of the town itself or that the owners run a Thai boxing academy, are no doubt proficient exponents of its art, and hence you’d be very foolish to attempt a burglary.



Sat on our – essentially personal – canopied veranda projecting into the narrow river was bliss, be it for early morning coffees above its sleepy shimmering surface, lounging with chilled afternoon beers or, in particular, post-dark serenaded by crickets, frogs and geckos whose calls abruptly die when a long-tail boat’s two-stroke cuts through the night closely followed by its yawing head-torch lit approach and a great arc of spume as it rounds the bend and passes but feet in front of you. And then as the engine fades into the black the night chorus reciprocally cranks up afresh.



The streets are studded with food stalls, the day market fringed by them and the night market… well, that’s its purpose. What is peculiar – to us – about the night market is that most food stalls are for take-away only and it surprised us that so many locals do: take-away. Yes, the food is freshly prepared, but convenience food shopping is just so not Asian.



On the walk from Riverside to the night market you have to run the gauntlet of the roosting starlings, tens of thousands of them perched along the crazy “birds’ nests” of wiring. The wise spot the white streaks of guano on the pavements and do not tread that line.



Our favourite eatery haunts were a pre-cooked (rows and rows of trays over heat maintaining coals) establishment for the lady proprietor’s chicken massaman or super spicy fish/pork red curries. However, you need to get there early as she sells out within an hour of opening. Also excellent were the Tom Yum soups with/without noodles prepared by a rather individual chef: the large muscular gentleman sporting blue eye shadow, violent scarlet lipstick and, commonly, a dashing leopard print shirt. Plus, he had no qualms about us bringing our own beers to his tables.



On the 13th of January Thailand was the first country to identify a Covid-19 case, outside of China. In early February it ranked maybe sixth in the undesirable league table of afflicted countries with about 30 infected individuals (mostly visiting Chinese) but, by March 13th, with the situation escalating in Western Europe and elsewhere outside of Asia, it had plummeted to 29th in the world with a (mere) 70 cases. We’ve been unaware of any major interventions/strategies so quite why there has been no great growth phase in infections is a – pleasant – mystery (and hopefully not a gross underestimate).



As I write this Ali points out that whilst there were no restrictions placed on Chinese visitors (certainly over the – one would think critical – months of January and February) the Chinese themselves largely, responsibly, chose not to travel; meanwhile the Thai government was quick to roll-out road-side information stations, temperature monitoring points and a multitude of hand sanitization dispensers in places of congregation such as major bus stations. And, for what they’re worth, the Thai’s – no stranger to such articles in polluted Bangkok and dusty rural towns – were quick to don face masks.



You arrive in Koh Chang on its northern tip. The old backpackers’ locale was Lonely Beach some 8km south, although this is now overdeveloped. A further four kilometres takes you to Bang Bao that does, still, have some basic huts and reasonable small stretches of soft sand; yet, access to the sea at this most southern point is seriously restricted: at a waist depth the sea is then a mass of jagged unforgiving rocks for 50 metres.



Hippy Hut (a serious misnomer) has rooms from 200B and nicer, though not great, huts for 400B. None have decent associated seating. It does have a wonderful wooden and bamboo structured communal area comprising elevated enclaves with hammocks and micro seating areas, but this is – officially – “the bar”. No, you cannot utilize this expansive space if you want to consume your own alcohol, or soft drinks for that matter. The whole facility (attached to a guesthouse with at least a dozen rooms/huts) was constantly empty, beverage prices being prohibitive to even the most flippant tourist. Plus, 100 metres up the road sits Reggae whose bar boasts a fine sea view; they also have a shop selling take-out beer for less than 7 Eleven: great business, they certainly got ours. The Japanese lady owner of Hippy Hut is the most miserable grouch imaginable. An unfriendly Japanese in a service industry? I was incredulous. On hearing the rumours of her nationality I felt compelled to question her directly: “Sumimasen, anato wa Nihon jin desu ka?” With her confirmation I could only reply “Honto?” (“Really”?). Anyway, she insisted on silence after 10pm and all was then dark and deserted: we took to sneaking up to the hammocks to enjoy the sea breeze with clandestine rum and cokes.



Why didn’t we move up the road to Reggae (lovely staff, rooms for 150B and very nice estuary facing huts for 300B)? Well… Harpy Hut does have the cheapest breakfast eggs on toast and does… sighhh… have a boiling water dispenser (that contrary to so many places world-wide is not free, but at 5B a go - we have our own coffee and drink plenty of it – is a big money saver); whilst, derrrr, we didn’t use their tiny provided cups but instead utilized 1 litre freebies from… 7 Eleven… Hence, economically, it made sense.



Indeed, Chang isn’t heaven so why did we stay there for a week? One word: Poo. On our first night we’d walked down to Bang Bao’s strip that leads to a 500m long pier adorned with eateries, shops, ya-de-ya… It was all a little depressing. There were some very appealing sea food restaurants that if you’d bet on the appearance of another coronavirus decimating the world’s economy you might just afford. But, for us, they were just a visual and olfactory torture. We ate some disappointing fare and trudged homewards. Then at the junction with the island’s coast-hugging ring road we spotted a cute little place that was, maybe, an eatery? The lady said that they’d open for their first day of business tomorrow and that prices would be “local”. We said we’d return.



Seriously, there is nothing better in travelling than discovering a raw diamond, and we had. Poo is an amazing chef. Her English, relatively recent (three years), boyfriend Tony (they are both middle-aged) is busy overseeing the development of her little plot and it is rapidly becoming orchid central (hence my suggestion for her as yet unnamed restaurant). It is going to be delightful. On our first visit we ordered off the, minimal (that’s good), menu and then subsequently (already totally sold) simply stated our budget (170B, less than $6) and said “whatever you think”. Over five days we ate magnificently. On our third night I requested an (unprecedented) 500B feast for the following evening, our 27th wedding anniversary: who says I’m a miserable tight git. Wow, she did us proud. If you do come to the south of Chang… and I’d not overly recommend it… then seek out Poo’s place (yeah, I also suggested that name) because she provided us with the best Thai food we’ve had since… hell, maybe 1990. She is seriously good and, currently, seriously cheap.



After a brief return to Trat and with Ali’s foot somewhat recovered we decided to head towards Laos, now one of the few countries in the world purportedly still without any infections. Bordering China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia this is without doubt not the case. Being one of the poorest countries in the world it is not well equipped for screening or the dissemination of information. Nevertheless, people are not dropping like flies.



Our long-term plans had then been to advance up into China, but that is certainly not imminently possible. China itself is recovering well and new infections are almost exclusively actually now imported rather than by transmission among themselves. Thus with a great flip of circumstance they are not overly keen on welcoming tourists, either recommending or insisting on a period of quarantine. Of course this is sensible prudent practice.



This brings up the moral footnote…



Of course we are not oblivious to the fact that flitting from one country to another at this time is far from totally responsible behavior. However, visa duration limitations and the penalties for overstaying force hundreds of thousands of backpackers worldwide to keep moving. So, unable (or financially/time unwilling) to remain static the backpacker is currently, without doubt, a massive liability to containment programs. The only true solution is for everyone to return to their home countries and not move until the virus has finally burnt itself out. For the UK that would see (and here I pluck a conservative estimate out of the air based on 1:10,000 of the population backpacking at any one time) some 7,000 individuals return home to self-isolate. Personally, we would have to shack up with my parents (both over 80, one a chronic asthmatic on steroids) or with Ali’s mum (even older and hypertensive) – that’s simply not going to happen. Across Europe a simultaneous return of all backpackers would see one hell of an influx and even as I type airlines are already slashing flights and cranking prices. Equally, where does this leave the tourism industry in countries – like Laos – who are so, so, reliant on it. The 2018 troubles in Nicaragua saw tourist visits cease and thousands of associated businesses went to the wall. The result? Failed business owners, their employees and dependents were forced to leave their families and seek employment in other cities (movement) and, in no small number, in nearby countries (movement). Or starve. Yes, stasis hurts all businesses, but in the West there may well (surely will) be financial support, tax breaks, bridging loans available; in the developing world such buffers do not exist.



It may not be deemed necessary, certainly here in Asia where the tide appears to have turned in China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore (although, worryingly, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia are seeing some up-ticks in recent days), but a world-wide country lock-down needs be met with a sensible withdrawal of visa limitations for the entrapped. These individuals need to be encouraged to do the right thing and just sit tight, spending their money in the immediate vicinity and helping dependent businesses survive. Hopefully the locale populace will be well enough informed to know that an (eg.) European individual is of no greater risk to them than their compatriates if those foreigners have been in that country for greater than two weeks.



And so a full circle. It was a strange time to be travelling during the first Gulf war, but this, for anyone born post-1945, is simply unprecedented.



Please keep washing those hands, minimizing journeys and drinking alcohol (OK, so the latter is, sadly, almost certainly, complete misinformation – for once not coming from tee-total Trump - but, hell, any excuse….).


Additional photos below
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18th March 2020

Covid 19
Your moral footnote touches on many issues the but the real point is this may not end until those problems identified are solved. This is spreading rapidly. A week ago I thought there was an over reaction to the situation. Now. Well. We don't know where or when this will end. Asia is likely to set rules later than other countries. Hopefully, not too late to assist in the containment.
20th March 2020

A great blog about adapting to COVID-19 restrictions while on the road...
I hope to governments are lenient with visa restrictions, and that Ali's foot fully recovers. Thanks for all the stories, both good and bad. Yes, destinations change over 30 years, and I'm pleased that you found some unaffected jewels. I was lucky to be able to travel extensively before the rest of the world decided to do so.
29th March 2020
Wat Arun

Wow
That's an amazing photo. Thanks for writing about Thailand. We were there a few years ago and we enjoyed most of our visit there. Well, we loved it all with one exception, and that kinda spoilt it a bit. Well your blog brings back good memories. /Ake

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