I’m writing this with this view splayed before me. It’s 7.00 am on Koh Samui, I’m tucking into (another) exceptional breakfast - and the temperature is 27 degrees. And I know how fortunate I am to be here. I also know my view of travel has changed, if not forever, then certainly for the foreseeable future. I’m sure I’m not alone.
Maybe by the time you read this you’ll be feeling a little less wary of the world and more comfortable at the prospect of planning - and enjoying - new adventures. For the moment, we have a few more things to consider and obstacles to negotiate.
If you’re reading this then you clearly know the Selective Asia brand and have, more than likely, travelled with us back in those distant days when PCR, rapid antigen, travel QRs and passenger locater data might have sounded like impenetrable code from The Matrix.
Because you know us and we (hopefully) know you, you have a head start. Let me tell you why – based on my experience of this trip so far - I believe this to be true.
I’ve been coming to South-East Asia for three decades. I’ve been blessed to have visited (and been captivated by) other countries, other continents, but there is something about this part of the world that “got me” as a young traveller and has steadfastly refused to release its magical grip in the intervening years.
However, preparing for this trip was one I’ll admit to being full of apprehension (I even had a “is this really worth all the bloody hassle” moment) rather than bursting with the anticipation I normally experience when I hear South-East Asia calling.
What about all the Thai bureaucracy)? What about testing (twice) on arrival and what - and here was the thing that really gave me sleepless nights - if one of those tests threw-up the wrong result 6000 miles from home?
I hope by the time you read this travel restrictions may have further eased around the world. As I write, it seems a distinct possibility. For Thailand, there is a sense of optimism in a country that has hung on to some of the toughest measures imposed on inbound tourists - and at huge expense to the economy and to livelihoods. Tourism accounts for 22% of Thailand’s GDP. The hit is seismic.
So, what have I found? I’ll start with Bangkok - a city I know well both as a visitor and, professionally, pounding scorched pavements editing guidebooks (not fun!).
I hesitate to say this given the devastation of the past two years. but I had one of my favourite stays ever in the Thai capital (still one of the world’s most exciting and constantly surprising). Things are quiet (well by Bangkok standards) so what can be the gridlocked nightmare from airport to hotel took a mere 25 minutes; the city’s chic bars and fine dining are as usual, and the main tourist attractions are largely devoid of visitors.
That’s not to say a visit isn’t without its niggles. Service, while still largely exceptional, is not quite as swift and seamless as the norm (like everywhere else, a shifting workforce has presented challenges); masks are firmly expected everywhere (not ideal in temperatures pushing 90), and the usual scammers are about, perhaps thinking asides of “Grand Palace closed today” will sound freshly plausible in these still uncertain times.
But, if ever there was a time to enjoy Bangkok at a less frenetic space, this is it.
Arriving in Samui a few days later was an all-together different experience. This is very much a tale of two islands - an island I first visited in 1991. I’ve been coming back ever since and have many friends here (as well as indulging my passion in - if not my skills at - Muay Thai).
Chaweng is Samui’s main resort and is usually bursting with life; too much life for some. Selective Asia doesn’t feature it, so I reference it here purely by way of example. It’s been decimated and, even though friends had warned me, I was shocked going out on the first evening to explore. Not that there was much to explore.
There are signs Chaweng is stirring from its enforced hibernation. How long might it take? Who knows? The Thais can be speedily efficient when it comes to rebuilding but, to my untrained eyes, the job of work here looks enormous.
On a more personal note, many of the staff I’ve come to know in my hotel over numerous visits have gone (not much by way of furlough here in Thailand), returning to the mainland to work on family farms and the like. It’s this I’ve found especially tough - and my heart goes out to all those smiling faces I always expected to see here.
On a more positive note, Bophut at the northern end of Samui (which Selective Asia does offer) couldn’t be more different. It’s a delightful spot favoured by Thais and expats and, being far smaller than Chaweng, has been less impacted. In fact, from what I can see (and it’s an area I know well), it looks pretty much like business as usual. There are some wonderful restaurants here by the way - and I was thrilled to see two of my favourites still in business.
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling I know nothing about anything after the past two years (and counting) but I do know a fair bit about travelling - and about Thailand - so here, for what it’s worth, are a few of my thoughts.
Do your research and make use of experts. Things are different and are likely to remain so in the immediate future. It’s important to be well briefed and fully prepared.
Set your expectations at realistic levels, especially if revisiting a favourite place. The tourism industry has been decimated but it’s doing its best. If the little things aren’t quite perfect, just take another sip of that G&T and go with it. Sabai Sabai, as they say here.
Engage with local people. I found, even more so than usual, they were keen to talk. Many countries have not had the support offered in other parts of the world. That waiter, that pool attendant, that guide may have had to send a partner and young child to family hundreds of miles away whilst they try and rebuild a livelihood.
Maybe, should the notion take you, think about a little “giving back” during your time away. I’m pleased that in my own small way I can support the gym I have been going to for more than a decade and the trainers who’ve spent two years with largely no income. And, having experience in the charity sector, I’m going to meet a small set-up run by a group of expats who operate food banks, environmental clear-up programmes and the like.
This is a time when the “early adopter”, complete with the traveller’s curiosity and sense of wonder, rather than the tourist’s exacting expectations of old, will be the one reaping the rewards.
And maybe this is the time for “mindful” travel. I know my senses and empathy have been set at maximum this trip.
I’ve always considered myself a responsible traveller: “be the best guest in their country and the finest ambassador for one’s own” is a motto I’ve always strived to attain. I don’t think I’ve ever taken experiences for granted but I guess I’ve previously hopped on that plane or sat down in that restaurant with little real thought behind it.
I know how lucky I am to be here. I also know the world is now a vastly different place.
Humans will always want to travel; to explore, understand our world a little more, meet new people, savour new cultures. We have, all being well, renewed opportunities to resume that. And maybe we now have a collective responsibly to do it in new, imaginative and more considered ways.