This essay was partly written in August 2020 before a likely relocation to Switzerland and was intended to be an account of my previous 6 months in Thailand as the world faced the challenges of a global pandemic.
As it happened I remained in Pattaya a further two months where I was largely distracted by some work challenges in the UK, and in Thailand until mid December although much of my last seven weeks was spent on three road trips visiting different parts of ‘the Land of Smiles.’
So it was January 2020 in the UK when I resumed and completed this (rather long) essay which I have extended to include an account of why Thailand was so spectacularly successful in handling the Covid pandemic in comparison with virtually every other country on the planet.
And as this is the longest essay by far that I have written for my website I thought a Table of Contents might be helpful
3 Life as normal…………almost! January – March 2020
4 Thailand’s Lockdown. March – June 2020
5 Pattaya: Living at Mayfair Mews
6 Pattaya: Walking through the Lockdown
7 Pattaya in Lockdown. March to May 2020
8 Thailand: Easing of Restrictions. May – June 2020
9 Pattaya: On my Own and the Working Girls of Pattaya. June to August 2020
10 Pattaya: Back to normal. August to October 2020
11 Thailand: On the Road Again! Elephants and Ancient Cities. October to December 2020
12 Covid-19 – How did Thailand do? A contrasting approach to Europe
13 Covid-19 and our divisive world
14 Covid 19 ‘The New Normal’ – what will our future look like?
15 Covid-19 and me
16 And Finally
Whilst the digital revolution of the last 30 years has probably introduced more rapid and profound changes in our way of life than any other event since the Industrial Revolution, it has been the Covid-19 Pandemic that has turned the world on its head, and in a way that none of us could ever have anticipated, has had a dramatic impact on our lives.
And at a time when we were perhaps finally beginning to realise the implications that man- made climate change will have on the lives of future generations, Covid-19 has come from nowhere (or rather Wuhan) to remind us just how vulnerable we are as a species.
And in many ways the Pandemic has brought out both the best and worst of us, our societies and our leaders. The way the virus has impacted on each of us personally has varied greatly, and we will all have vivid memories of how our lives were upended and constrained, some of us more than others.
For 95% of the time since March 2020, my 97 year old mother in law has been restricted to her room in a retirement home in Canada and I know countless single mothers in the Philippines struggling to feed their sons and daughters and pay the rent for their single rooms, when they have no income and the local government free food distribution does not reach them. When I first started the first draft of this essay my friend Finlay had just been confined to his apartment in Melbourne for 23 hours a day for the following 6 weeks.
So I will remain forever grateful that I could not have found a better place to spend most of 2020 than at my home in Pattaya, Thailand, in a country that took the Covid-19 threat seriously from Day 1 and which has aimed at elimination rather than suppression of the virus ever since.
And no one can dispute that Thailand has been successful.
With a similar population to my home country the UK, by mid August Thailand, which had the first case of Coronavirus outside of China back on January 13, had just 58 deaths in comparison with 41,397 in the UK. There had been no new case in Thailand for 12 weeks whilst the UK was currently averaging between 800 and 1200 new cases a day.
Today in January 2021 as nations around the world battle the second wave of the pandemic Britain’s total deaths stand in excess of 106,000 and often as many as 55,000 new cases per day. Thailand’s death rate is just 76 and new cases are around 400-500 per day.
I first wrote about Pattaya some 8 years ago here when I pointed out the city had long outgrown its once deserved reputation as the sex tourism capital of the world.
It is now Asia’s premier international resort destination, attracting package tour groups from China, Japan and Korea as well as individual tourists from all over Asia, Russia and Europe and, whilst there are still plenty of single guys attracted by cheap sex and beer, today there are almost as many golf tourists as single men looking for women.
Maybe they combine both interests? I would not know as I do not play golf!
Russian family groups have been increasingly drawn to Thailand in general and Pattaya in particular over the last 15 years as well as a very strong domestic market of affluent and middle class Thais from Bangkok, who have second homes in Pattaya or who visit for a weekend costal break away from hot and humid Bangkok.
I have spent between 2 and 5 months here for each of the last 9 years and bought a home here in 2013 and I feel a little guilty to write that I never appreciated living in Pattaya as much as I did during 2020.
3 Life as normal…………almost! January – March 2020
After spending Christmas in Vancouver BC with my family, I arrived back in Pattaya on January 18 after an eventful week in Manila en route! Of course I was aware of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan China without being overly aware of any potential to impact on other countries or on myself personally.
In early February my friend Ampai, her best friend Suwanna and myself flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand to hire a car and spend 10 days on a road trip exploring the famed Golden Triangle (you can see a photo essay here). I have known Ampai and Suwanna for over 15 and 14 years respectively and when they both donned a face mask at the airport it was a first for me to see them in masks and of course I was sceptical, as I pointed out the risk was negligible and face masks useless. Little was I to realise that two months later I would be wearing a mask whenever I left the house!
Score one for the cautious Thais over the ignorant foreigner!
In mid February I returned to the UK to attend a Board Meeting of Knoops Holdings Ltd, who operate gourmet Hot Chocolate cafes. Covid-19 was not discussed nor mentioned in the minutes of the meeting but six weeks later both our stores were closed!
After a both stressful and memorable week in Vietnam on my return from the UK, which you can read about here, I returned to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on March 3 and transferred to Don Muang Airport for a domestic flight to Ubon Ratachathani, the nearest airport to Ampai’s village and both Bangkok airports were virtually deserted. I had never seen anything like it.
Four days later we were back in Pattaya and, although we were planning a visit to the USA in April, the virus was accelerating at such a pace throughout Europe that it soon seemed likely that travelling in the USA (or indeed anywhere) might not be wise in April. I also realized that as my Thai tourist visa only allowed me to spend a month in Thailand, it might be wise to convert it to a visa that permitted a longer stay.
And so on March 18 I joined the crowds at the Jomtien immigration office and decided to invest the best part of £1600/US$2200 in applying for a fast track Retirement Visa via a Visa Agency which would allow me to stay in Thailand for a year, making multiple re-entries. The Agency took me to a local bank, put $25,000 in an account they opened for me, took a photo of the bank account with $25,000 in my pass book to support the visa application and then withdrew the cash! Three weeks later I had my visa allowing me to stay for a year and then be renewed and travel to the USA or anywhere was very definitely not an option!
As it happened, the Thais declared a moratorium on fines and penalties for tourists overstaying their visas once the borders were closed but after 15 years of Tourist Visas I was quite content to upgrade to a Retirement Visa which will give me more flexibility and allow longer stays than a month at a time in the future.
I was now set for an extended stay in Thailand without fear of overstaying and had a visa that could be renewed on an annual basis.
4 Thailand’s Lockdown. March – June 2020
As the situation rapidly declined in Europe with Italy, Spain and France particularly badly hit with hundreds of deaths daily in each country, Thailand was increasingly concerned about its handful of new cases a day. I purchased masks and hand sanitizer and the Thai government announced a State of Emergency from March 26.
At that time the rate of new infections was around 100 per day with just four accumulated deaths. By contrast the UK, a country with a similar sized population went into lockdown on March 23 when the daily death rate reached 67, so Thailand was a lot more proactive, which a year later has resulted in one of the lowest rates of infection anywhere in the world.
Within a day it was announced that the nation’s borders would be closed to foreign visitors (and largely remained so for the balance of the year despite protests from the tourism industry), social gatherings were to be banned, domestic travel restricted and all but essential shops shut until the end of April.
Unlike other parts of the world, there was never an official lockdown as such in Thailand, but people were ‘asked’ to stay at home unless there was an essential reason to do otherwise, like buying food or exercising. All shops other than food outlets were closed, internal travel between Provinces was banned and on April 3 a nightly curfew from 10pm until 5am was introduced. The wearing of masks and social distancing was mandatory once you left your home. Although domestic bus services were curtailed, bus people could apply for police permission to drive to their home town or village. All commercial international flights were suspended from April 4 and Thailand hunkered down, in effect isolated from the rest of the world.
Everyone followed the rules and in truth none of these were particularly onerous restrictions as far as I was concerned.
The annual mayhem of Songkran celebrating the Thai New Year and Thailand’s biggest celebration of the year was cancelled nationwide to prevent people interacting and gathering in crowds, which was a contrast to the government in the UK’s action nine months later, leaning over backwards to allow some Christmas gatherings and interaction. Although this benefitted me personally, it reflected the fact that the UK government was afraid of the consequences of cancelling Christmas.
By early April Bangkok and other towns had turned into a ghost town but I cannot report about the centre of Pattaya because, although only two miles away, I stayed in my own area. Nearly everyone wore masks in public and you could not enter a convenience store without one or a temperature check. Indeed, free hand sanitizer and temperature checks were widely available and when out walking I never saw a single individual failing to comply with these measures.
The stringently enforced curfew kept everyone indoors all night and with no opportunity for groups to gather. Schools were closed and a 20-day nationwide ban on alcohol sales drove home the point that gatherings were unacceptable.
One of the big factors in the Thai success story in keeping Covid-19 in check was a million-strong army of public health volunteers monitoring anyone displaying symptoms in their communities and teams of contact tracers tracking down everybody who had been around anyone known to have the virus. A single case was enough to seal off entire residential complexes and villages.
Though overall testing numbers were low compared to other countries, anyone with symptoms was encouraged to get tested. At first, some hospitals charged high prices for testing but within weeks the government decreed that hospitals could not charge anyone who came in for a test if showing symptoms.
And Thailand’s impressive and extensive healthcare system enabled even the poorest citizens to seek care if they thought they might be infected.
Thailand got a lot of things right from the very beginning and the degree of its success was only fully appreciated when death rates in other parts of the world hit astronomical levels.
5 Pattaya: Living at Mayfair Mews
My town house is one of 8 situated in the beautifully landscaped grounds of a low rise 37 unit condominium complex in Pratumnak; the centre of Pattaya with its incomparable nightlife is two miles to the north and more family orientated Jomtien is a mile and a half to the south. For some reason, the Thai Holding company set up for each of the 8 Town Houses, was given a London based name by the Irish builder and my house has had the rather celebrious title of Mayfair Mews ever since!
As the complex is located adjacent to a pitch and putt golf course and only a few hundred metres from the summer home of the current king’s first wife, it is very quiet and Pattaya’s most beautiful beach is less than a kilometer away, which is an 8 minute walk or 90 seconds on my motor bike. Because of the proximity to the former royal wife’s occasionally used summer home, security is high throughout the year, with a permanently manned police post at the end of our road, no high rise developments are allowed that can overlook the royal property (love and respect for the Royal family is inculcated into the psyche of every Thai from an early age) and there are no noisy or raucous bars in the area. However Pratumnak Sois (Street) 4 and 5 are just 200 meters to the north and south respectively, replete with 24 hour convenience stores and restaurants to suit every ethnic taste.
In my opinion it is quite literally just about the best area to reside anywhere in the Pattaya area and it was no accident that I focused on this particular area when I bought my house in 2013. Two years later my friend and former colleague Tony followed suit and purchased an apartment just a few blocks away when he too decided to live at least part of each year in Thailand so that he could play golf year round if he so desired.
When I first met and interviewed Tony in Bournemouth in 1984 and appointed him as our second employee and sales manager neither of us could have possibly imagined that almost 40 years later we would be two old codgers living with younger friends in Thailand and almost neighbours!
I soon appreciated that travelling to the USA was a non-runner, and returning to the UK or Europe was nonsensical where it appeared the Virus was rampant, governments poorly prepared, measures to curb the virus’s impact delayed and then poorly organised when finally implemented.
I had only once spent more than 4 continuous weeks in Pattaya in the previous 7 years as, every time my tourist visa expired, I would use that an excuse to head off and explore a different part of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam or Malaysia, but it was clear on this occasion that I was facing an extended stay in Pattaya and I was determined to make the most of it by catching up on as many outstanding tasks and projects as possible.
I am a great believer in lists and indeed life is for me a never ending list of tasks to be completed so I compiled a list of things I wanted to achieve and prioritised them. Every Monday I wrote a list of tasks to achieve the following week on a desktop notepad and invariably every successive Monday I moaned when I saw how few tasks I had crossed off my list during the previous 7 days and how many got transferred to the new list for the following week!
But the reality was whilst as always, I was over ambitious and over optimistic about what I could achieve, the discipline of making a new list for every week gave me targets and a structure for achieving at least some of the tasks to hand.
Starting with Week 1 March 23 -29 and where I was when I wrote the first draft of this essay in Week 22 Aug 17 -23, I set myself many targets and at least managed to complete some tasks which is more than nothing!
The reality is because I am a ‘glass third empty rather than two thirds full’ person, I am never going to be satisfied but I do subscribe to the philosophy that any plan is better than no plan for getting things done!
By April 2020 my life was settling into a predictable daily routine pretty much based around four key components:
– Sitting around the usually deserted swimming pool (which 95% of the time I had to myself) and reading.
– Watching Netflix on the new 82 inch TV I had purchased in January (I certainly got value out of that purchase!)
– Answering emails and writing in my office.
– Whenever possible going for a 5 mile walk along one of the beach promenades.
And so it remained for the following 6 months, but disappointingly writing much less than I anticipated for my website and other projects. However I really have no one to blame other than myself in that regard, because I spend far too long writing verbose emails, but on the other hand I edited a lot of images, walked 5 miles most days, read over 40 books and watched all 134 episodes of ‘Suits’ on Netflix, as well as a host of other series including a history of the Vietnam War, ‘The Last Dance’ (Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls), ‘Crash Landing on You’ (an outstanding Korean Romantic Drama partly set in Switzerland), ‘Line of Duty’, ‘Ozark’ and many, many others.
I have been an enthusiastic cinema goer all my life but to select whatever I want to watch in the comfort of my own lounge means I have long since become a Netlix devotee in recent years! (Thanks for the Christmas gift subscription Sarah!)
My townhouse is one of eight in the grounds of a low rise (6 floors) condominium block and the complex is distinguished by the nicest grounds and gardens of any condominium block that I have seen in Pattaya.
Being situated about 50 metres from the main building and attached to just one other townhouse I have the benefit of both privacy and 24 hour security. Best of all is that I have a servitude/right of way to use the gardens and swimming pool. All 37 condo owners and 8 householders paid around £5000/$7000 when the land was transferred from the developer to the condo building, but as the lawn and landscaped garden surrounds both sides of my house I probably get the maximum benefit of all the 45 house and condo owners.
The corner of the communal pool is just 10 metres from my front door and you can be assured I spent a lot of time reading around the pool in 2020 and indeed by Dec 31 I had read 63 books through the year!
I bought a couple of mattresses to leave on the two poolside loungers closest to my house and the biggest decision every morning after I got up was whether to sit by the pool and read or have some breakfast and watch another episode of whatever Netflix series I was currently watching! If I headed for the pool, the biggest challenge thereafter was when to tear myself away from the pool and head for my office or whether to stay and avoid the flowers falling on me from the tree above as I relaxed on the Sun Lounger and at what time I should order a takeaway Strawberry Shake to be delivered from a nearby Coffee Bar!
Most of the condo and townhouse owners have bought their units as holiday homes although perhaps 25% are owned by permanent residents, people either retired to or working in Thailand. There were three couples and four guys using the pool regularly (Brits, Swiss, Russian, German) to either exercise or sunbathe and some other residents, mainly Scandinavian that use it less frequently. A friendly Thai girl used the pool every evening and always politely greeted me ‘Good Evening’ if I was still around.
As time progressed some people had to return to Europe and the low numbers got even fewer! There was many a day when I spent between 4 and 6 hours either reading on a lounger or in the water and had the pool entirely to myself. Rest assured, I felt eternally grateful to be ‘marooned’ in such a beautiful location and guilty that I was not in my office getting on with some work and/or writing.
Over the last five years more than ever before with the ready availability of free video calls from wherever we are with Whats App, Viber, Line, Facetime and a variety of social media apps, instant contact with friends and family is readily available and the world is truly and accurately ‘a global village’. It is certainly easier today to stay in touch with family half way around the world than it was 30 years ago with those living less than an hour’s drivetime away.
And the rapid and widespread use of the Zoom video application meant that I could have regular meet ups with my family in the UK and Canada and attend Knoop’s Board Meetings which, like most meetings, were now conducted by Zoom with everyone at home.
And life could not have been easier with several 24/7 convenience stores less than two minutes away on my motorbike, as well as an excellent restaurant facing the pool and my house run by a lovely Thai guy, who is the partner of the Norwegian Sales Manager of the company who built and who now manages the condo block.
To prevent the spread of Covid in Thailand all swimming pools were closed from mid March to mid-May but our Condo Committee were slow to action, perhaps considering it was too small and/or with so few users to be considered communal and the committee only ‘closed’ (but did not drain!) the pool for the last 5 days before they were allowed to reopen on May 17.
Not for a moment did I take it for granted or fail to appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to maintain such a comfortable lifestyle when so many others were suffering big time or at least had their lives seriously constrained in 2020.
In fact I was so comfortable with the location and setting that I bought a large two bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of the Condo block overlooking the gardens, pool and my town house in November.
Good question as I do not plan to move!
I will incorporate an office/3rd bedroom into the enormous Reception room and when one day I am too old to haul myself up to my top floor office in my town house, will move across to the condo! Meanwhile my family can stay there when they visit and/or I will rent it out.
And meanwhile to ensure I remained fit during the lockdown I walked, and walked and indeed kept walking!
6 Pattaya: Walking through the Lockdown
When I started trying to walk 5 miles a day during the lockdown, which is something I have done on and off for 20 years, I realised the longest consecutive streak I had previously maintained was for either 17 or 23 days. I could not remember exactly as my records were in the UK so I thought 25, then 30, then 40 and 50 consecutive days was a good target to aim for. If nothing else I am both obsessive and competitive, so I continued aiming for 60, 75 and eventually got to 100 days.
My run, or rather consecutive days walking, finally came to an end, as I went out at 2355 on October 3 for what would have been my 148th consecutive day’s 5 mile walk because, as I parked my bike by the beach promenade entrance, the mother of all tropical rainstorms began and whilst I had completed previous walks in the rain, this was something else. I sheltered for 40 minutes by which time rubbish and trash was floating down the road which was already several inches deep in running water. Walking was not an option and indeed I was barely able to ride my motor bike home against the flowing current.
But 147 was not too shabby and something I am never likely to repeat as I get older and not least because it is very unlikely I will stay in one place long enough to get into such a routine let alone with such an enticing climate. Shorts, a vest and sandals is easy but in an English winter, as I finish these notes, it is not quite so attractive to dress up in a long sleeved T shirt, fleece, windbreaker along alternatively mud caked or icy country lanes that are sometimes flooded. I am somehow averaging three cold and damp walks a week whilst I am back in the UK!
In Pattaya I tended to walk 5 or 6 times a week along beautiful Dongtang Beach to Jomtien Beach, always considered the more family orientated part of Pattaya. And once or twice a week I would take my motorbike and walk along Pattaya Beach and of course I had a few variant routes for when I was bored and wanted a change of scenery.
I lost track of the number of spectacular sunsets I witnessed whilst walking.
I always enjoyed walking towards Jomtien as I would pass beach volleyball courts, curiously a game that attracts a high number of excitable ladyboys both as players and spectators and it was always worth going back after the walk to soak up the atmosphere. I would also pass an evening Zumba class and a variety of family, student and work colleague groups picnicking at all hours on the beach sidewalk every evening.
It was a reflection of the impact of the pandemic that Thai tourists were still coming to family orientated Jomtien whilst Pattaya Beach had more establishments closed because of the lack of international tourists. But whilst Pattaya was never as busy as Jomtien, both beaches always had a number of working girls sitting or standing patiently and making eye contact with any male passing by.
7 Pattaya in Lockdown. March to May 2020
From late March to mid May life for me was pretty much 24/7 confined around my house because with a swimming pool, big screen Netflix and an office, what more did I need in life? On most days I went out for a 5 mile/8k walk usually along the promenade towards Jomtien and on those days when I had been too lazy to walk during the day, I would set off for a mid evening walk and I always picked up my pace to ensure I got home by 2159!
Everyone wore masks as they walked and when passing other walkers we all kept 2m apart. My friend Tony was unable to play golf in April and May and was also walking daily with his girlfriend Wee but I was so focussed on listening to various podcasts and in keeping up a good pace that it was often only after I had passed him and realised someone had called me that I gathered it was Tony, who I have known for 36 years! Clearly I am not so good at recognising people in masks!
And every day as I walked along the newly built and pedestrianised promenade along Dongtan beach, I fully appreciated this beautiful beach, protected by palm trees and towering pines, has to be one of the finest urban beaches in the world and how lucky I was to have it less than 5 minutes from my front door and even more to have it as an exercise option.
At a time when most of the world was constrained to their homes I could enjoy beautiful panoramas with the coastline ahead sweeping towards Sattahip and Rayong, a host of off shore islands and more often than not some glorious sunsets. When I walked at night the sea’s horizon was festooned with the lights of illuminated fishing boats using their lights to attract fish to their nets. When I reached Jomtien I would continue along the usually busy but now deserted beach for another mile before turning and heading home to complete a 5 mile beach walk.
Supermarkets and convenience stores and pharmacies were the only stores open and required masks and temperature checks. On April 8 I drove to the Immigration office to collect my new 12 month retirement visa and on April 26, which was Ampai’s 42nd birthday, we went to the ‘Big Buddha’ temple atop Pratumnak Hill with its far ranging views over Pattaya and Jomtien. I had been there several times previously and always take visitors to see the ornate and gold gilded statuary and far ranging views but this time……………………we were the only people there. We had the entire complex to ourselves!
We continued into Pattaya itself for my first visit to the centre (only 2 miles from my house) in 6 weeks, to see if I could buy a usb cable and some gold to celebrate Ampai’s birthday and a few shops were open but the traffic on the road was non-existent. It was unbelievable and at times akin to driving through a deserted movie set.
During April the beaches were opened in some parts of Thailand as the decisions to be open or closed was the responsibility of local government but subject to restrictions of Social Distancing which the police would try and enforce. Conversely in May, as some restrictions were being slowly eased elsewhere, the governor of Chonburi where Pattaya is located formally closed all beaches.
The police enforcement varied between strict and very strict! For a few days it appeared as if one of our local beach promenades was blocked from one direction only (so I could walk out but not back!). In Pattaya the beach was off limits, the beach promenade was fine until 8pm but between 8pm and 10pm one had to use the pavement the inland side of the road rather than the beachside promenade![/caption]
In Thailand “ Don’t use the beach” means “Don’t use the beach” and the penalty for disobeying was a fine of up to £2500/$3300 or a year in jail. Sure enough it was only drunk foreigners stupid enough to go on the beach.
But I had to laugh when I saw the images of crowds flocking to UK beaches (and in particular Durdle Door and Bournemouth in Dorset, both destinations with which I am intimately familiar) with no regard to Social Distancing, because in Thailand they erected temporary Police Posts under canvas awnings at every main entry point to the beach areas and/or every kilometre or so. The police were friendly and good natured and the occasional policeman was armed with a self repeating rifle and…………..no one went on the beach!
8 Thailand: Easing of Restrictions. May – June 2020
By mid May locally transmitted rates of infection had fallen to near zero and restrictions were slowly being relaxed. Swimming pools and fitness centres were allowed to open but not for group sessions but cinemas, bowling alleys and all bars and night-time entertainment venues remained closed. Traditional Thai massage parlours also remained closed, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Thais make their living from massage and were desperate to resume work.
Ampai’s brother and sister-in-law had a restaurant stall in the Chonburi Market but when the market closed in late March, they returned to the family compound, but before they could enter their village had to self-isolate in a hut in the fields outside the village for 14 days!
In mid May when they discovered they still had to pay rent although the market was not open, they got a permit to travel to Chonburi to formally vacate their stall and collect their belongings and also dropped off Ampai’s adopted daughter Shampoo who stayed with us for 6 weeks and enjoyed the pool.
It was also in mid May when the government started easing restrictions and allowed Malls and certain shops to open. There was still very little traffic on the Pattaya roads and last week I could not help but think that was quite a contrast to my experience at Yeovil, Somerset in the UK last week as I finished the final draft of this article. The UK is meant to be under a full national lockdown and there was a traffic jam!
Given that for me one of the worst aspects of living in Pattaya/Thailand/Asia is the traffic, I thought Pattaya without the traffic was an absolute delight but one of the less beneficial results was that I found I was driving my motor bike faster than normal. I have tended to be an aggressive driver most of my life but have slowed up significantly in recent years and especially in Pattaya where driving standards can be poor, anything can happen and often does in a country which has some of the highest road fatality practices in the world. I will be sure to reduce my speed when the traffic returns!
The reopening of that quintessential Asian public venue, the shopping mall, was linked with the launch of an app named ‘Thai Chana’ or ‘Thailand Wins’ as every customer had to scan a QR code to enter both the mall and shops therein as well as all 24/7 stores and restaurants through most of Thailand.
That way if anyone tested positive the web site could immediately identify anyone else in the location at the same time. If you did not have a smart phone you were required to write your name and address. I cannot help but compare the widespread use of this app in Thailand with the UK government’s faltering steps to introduce ‘the best track and tracing system in the world’. 10 months on the Brits are still waiting and the Americans have even not attempted the same!
All the schools in Thailand remained closed but the Thai government issued exercise books for kids to study at home and broadcast lessons for every age group on TV and the internet. Ampai who left school at 12 (!) to earn money to support her family diligently spent 4 hours every day home schooling her daughter before she allowed her to swim in the pool.
I was very impressed with Ampai’s discipline but less impressed that she let her 7 year old daughter stay up to midnight watching TV although they always offered to vacate the TV if I wanted to watch something in English, but I tended to stay in my office. Thais and Asians in general tend to indulge their kids far more than we hard-nosed westerners! The government gradually eased restrictions through May and June although Social Distancing was enforced strictly. One night when Ampai, Shampoo and myself went out to dinner the restaurant said even if we were one household only two people could sit at one table so I was seated at a socially distanced table 4 metres away.
On Monday June 15 the 72 day nationwide curfew ended as part of the 4th phase of easing restrictions and at the same time schools, day care centres, playgrounds, theatres, amusement parks, massage parlours and sports stadiums without spectators were allowed to reopen. Alcohol could be served in restaurants but bars and nightclubs would have to wait. The reader can imagine the howls of protest from the expatriate community!
There seemed to have been general support for the restrictions and it was usually expatriates quick to point out any contradiction or idiosyncrasies in the rules and usually bemoaning the fact that bars were not allowed to reopen whilst alcohol was allowed to be sold at restaurants with a meal. However I fail to see how any objective observer could criticise the ‘overkill’ approach of the government when figures for both infections and fatalities were minimal in comparison with Europe, Britain, North and South America.
In June football restarted again in the UK which meant I could revert to staying up all night to watch and gamble. The football season ended up very profitable for me as my home town team Bournemouth (where I was born and lived until I was 18 and went to university) were indeed relegated from the Premiership. I had indeed bet on Bournemouth to be relegated and Liverpool to win the Premiership and I was right on both so had a profitable season and was grateful it was completed and not abandoned!
9 Pattaya: On my Own and the Working Girls of Pattaya. June to August 2020
In mid June Ampai took Shampoo back to her village so Shampoo could attend the reopening of the school and stayed there for almost seven weeks, which meant I had an extended period in Pattaya on my own for the first time since I had bought my house.
Once or twice a week I would take my motor bike and drive the 10 minutes to Pattaya Beach and walk up and down along the beachfront promenade. It was here in particular that one noticed most dramatically the impact of Covid-19 and the absence of tourists on Pattaya.
About a mile and a half in length Beach Road Pattaya normally has thousands of pedestrians strolling along the promenade walking to or from Walking Street or taking a break from the dozens of loud music bars on the inland side of the road. It is normally a riot of people and sound, often with backed up traffic and also malls and hotels facing the sea. There would normally be an army of working girls and ladyboys looking for clients and once a fortnight the police would have a ‘surpise’ raid from one end of the road to the other. The girls would diligently and good naturedly cross the street and chat to each other until the police had passed and then resume their positions!
However, even with the curfew lifted by 8pm, the usually vibrant Beach Road was like a ghost town or should I say a war zone. Instead of the usual busy bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and bustling crowds of all nationalities there was ……………………….nothing (!) except a handful of locals exercising like myself and maybe 30 or 40 working girls forlornly waiting for customers that no longer existed. Pattaya exists for tourists and there were none! Walking Street, the very manifestation of excess and noise and replete with Go Go bars was 80% closed and shuttered up.
Those bars that were open had a few tired girls sitting and waiting and very few customers.
Indeed Pattaya was hit more than anywhere in Thailand, as the city exists on a continual and year round flow of primarily international and also domestic tourists. Many hotels, restaurants and markets decided to close at least temporarily rather than try and exist and carry staffing costs when they had barely 10% of their normal clientele. And of course this flowed down to affect many others – construction workers, motor bike taxi drivers, restaurant staff, hotel cleaners and Pattaya’s famous working girls et al.
One of the immense strengths of Thai culture is the importance of family and of the community where one belongs. And in that sense this very much helped Thailand through the Covid-19 crisis with free food distribution centres and support programs. The natural instinct of anyone who lost their job or income was to return to their village where family, friends and life around the temple would ensure no one went without.
But that’s not to gloss over the fact that things were tough in Pattaya with people (usually migrant construction workers who had lost their jobs) sleeping on the beach promenade and people openly begging, usually nothing like as prevalent in Thailand as elsewhere in Asia.
When one walks 147 consecutive days it is inevitable I was soon a familiar face to the working girls patiently waiting for customers that generally no longer existed girls and vice versa and every time I walked by some would laugh and imitated my walking motion and call out
‘I go with you?’
and I would reply
‘Have to exercise – No power!’
which usually drew the riposte
‘No problem I make power for you.’
Pattaya was originally built (quite literally) on the back of working girls from the rural north eastern region of Isaan, who came to Pattaya to service the American soldiers on R and R from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and certainly, until the early years of the 21st century, was considered the sex tourism capital of the world and has always attracted a fair number of single men looking for female company.
Most of the sex workers in Pattaya are not professionals but young women and/or single mothers who come for three, six or maybe twelve months to earn money to support aging parents and children left in their village. Others may come for three or six months a year and some stay for several years. Some work and are tied to a specific bar which provides accommodation and a guaranteed monthly wage whereas are others are freelance and look for customers in Malls or more likely along the beach in the evening.
Sometimes I would stop and chat with a familiar face or maybe a new face but the story was always the same. The girl would be renting a room for maybe £50 or $70 a month, had left her son or daughter(s) with her parents or sister in her village and business was no good because
‘No tourists come Pattaya now. Please I go with you?’
Sometimes as I walked up and down twice to make my five miles I would pass a girl four times and I would see her in the same place talking to no one, staring into space, looking at her phone or trying to make eye contact with anyone as there was no one around and I would ask
‘No business tonight?’
to be told
‘I not have man for five days. Me hungry.’
Supansa was typical of many and always a cheery face to walk past, so one day I told her if she wanted a break I would do a morning walk and she could come for a swim in the afternoon and dinner as she was unlikely to get any customers. It turned out she was a youthful looking 33 and once had a good job with the local government for several years but fell out with her supervisor, lost her job and could not get another one and meanwhile had a 5 year old son, a sister going to college and her mother had a stroke and all depended on her. She had come to Pattaya 18 months previously and made enough money to support her family. But now every night she would religiously dress in an understated manner with a denim jacket and glasses and stand at the same spot for hours waiting for clients who of course never came. She missed her son, her mother was back in hospital and I told her she should go back to her home village and look after her mother as there was nothing for her in Pattaya.
I told her I would buy her a bus ticket and give her some cash to support herself whilst she got sorted out, but a friend of hers told her there was a Karaoke Bar in southern Thailand near the Malaysian border that was looking for girls to serve drinks and the Bar would provide a flight from Bangkok and accommodation. I told Supansa that there were not going to be any tourists in Hat Yai either but off she went and there were not any tourists and it took her six weeks earning tips from selling drinks for her to save enough to get a ticket for the 24 hour bus ride to Pattaya.
This time she gratefully accepted my offer and I saw her off at the bus station much to Ampai’s chagrin (Ampai had now returned to Pattaya) as Thai females are the most jealous creatures on the planet. I still get a text message or two every week from Supansa who initially found work in a Thai Karaoke bar in the town of Ubon Ratchathani in Isaan near Laos and the closest big town to her village, which enables her to be closer to her mother.
She also trained as a barista for a coffee shop where her sister was working part-time and now she is working as a barista and her dream is to save up so she can open a coffee shop of her own one day.
Viparn was another girl I got to know on the beach. Pre Covid-19 she had been the assistant manager of a Russian owned hotel in Jomtien and earned a good salary of about £1000/$1300 a month but after the hotel had been closed 5 months her savings were depleted and I would sometimes see her sitting on the beach.
I was never sure if she was looking to earn money or just happy to have some some company but she was an exercise freak so like Supansa sometimes joined me for my daily 5 mile walk and a swim. She had visited Finland twice with a Finnish boyfriend, had a 15 year old daughter in Bangkok and drove an impressive looking motor bike that testified she had once earnt a good salary. She is still in Pattaya waiting for her hotel to reopen.
Amy on the other hand was a face I had seen regularly for 5 years and always greeted me with a big smile and a laugh and lamenting business was so bad and slow she could no longer afford her 3000 Baht (£75/$100) a month room and had to downsize to a room half the price due to lack of customers. She would religiously stand on the same spot from 7pm to 1 or 2am. Pre Covid-19, as she was a fun character, extrovert and with a friendly disposition, she may have gotten two or even three customers on a good night each paying 800 – 1000 Baht £20 – £25/$27 – $35) for a ‘short time’ but now the rate had dropped to 500 – 800 Baht with maybe one customer every few days.
One evening when Ampai was away, I invited Amy back to my place for dinner and a swim and we stopped at a roadside food vendor to buy some food. She was almost in tears when I said she could buy what she wanted which amounted to less than $5. She told me that the food vendor was grateful we had stopped as her daily sales had dropped from 2000 Baht to around 400 Baht. However badly off Thais are they never forget about others and Amy asked me if she could give a 50p/70 cent tip to the vendor.
When I next saw Amy (who was a natural worrier) she had heard there were vacancies at a brothel at Sattahip where the clients were Thais and mainly from the nearby military base. Most Thai Working Ladies are apprehensive about going with Thai men in case they drink and get violent and prefer ‘farangs’ (foreigners) but in the end she went for a couple of weeks.
She said it was not too bad and she earnt enough in a fortnight to pay her rent in Pattaya for a few more months, but eventually realised there just was not enough business in Pattaya to justify staying, so went home to Rayong to live with her mother and sister and found regular work on a rubber plantation.
Coincidentally she messaged me this evening whilst I was writing this section to say there was no more latex in the rubber trees so for the next 3 months so she was heading back to Pattaya until there was more work with the rubber trees.
I guess one way or the other she was working with rubbers!
Ammara was another familiar face, aged 40 but looked 10 years younger, and had been in Pattaya for several years but knew business was so bad she stayed in her room most of the time and came out for maybe three days a week.
Porn was 27 and often appeared looking brash on the beach but was friendly when one talked to her. During the pandemic both messaged me to ask if I could lend them money (£20/$27) as Ammara had no customers and had to pay the rent. Porn’s son was in hospital and she had to send her mother money for his food. I am not renowned for falling for sob stories but I knew and trusted both girls and several weeks later both girls contacted me to say they could pay me back.
All these girls had two things in common. They were all examples of how the impact of Covid was trickling down and affecting everyone. I always get irritated when people refer to sex workers as ‘prostitutes’ in a demeaning or dismissive manner. Firstly it takes two to tango and my experience is they usually have sounder moral principles than most of the males they accompany. And secondly they were all regular people just like you and me trying to do the best for their families however they could.
And the life of a single woman in Asia is far from easy.
In recent years I have made many visits to the Philippines, home of some of the friendliest people I have ever met but a country much poorer than Thailand. It is a country with a good educational system and Filipino nurses and health care workers are in demand throughout the world and highly regarded. The country was and is ill prepared to cope with Covid and Manila entered one of the strictest and longest lockdowns with some restrictions lasting until the time of writing.
Many businesses closed or stopped trading and their female employees were restricted to their rooms in hostels for 23 hours of every day for a month and a second month and then a third month. Filipinas are the world’s most enthusiastic texters and it was both sad and a reflection of how bad things were that many single women in Manila who normally had regular jobs like office workers or waitresses resorted to messaging all their male Facebook and Whats App contacts, offering to pose naked or engage in video sex for a nominal sum, which would help them buy some rice and basic food supplies.
And although I was financially secure and based in what I still consider was just about the best, most comfortable and safest location to see out the pandemic, I was far from immune to its impact.
In February 2020 I was a Director of three companies. I was a 15% shareholder of Knoops, a newly launched chain of gourmet Hot Chocolate shops, the Chairman and majority shareholder of Kipling Tours, an educational tour operator with contracts in place to ensure 2020 – 21 would generate record breaking profits, and I was a Director and CEO of our family property company Five Bees Ltd that I had established ten years ago after selling Casterbridge Tours.
Six months later it was obvious that having passed through one lockdown and with two more to come, there could not have been a worse time to launch any enterprise on the British High Streets and it was obvious my time at Knoops would soon be coming to an end. Kipling Tours had no clients travel after March 2020 and in my opinion it is extremely unlikely that they will have any prior to 2022 at the earliest and most of the employees have been furloughed and Five Bees was fighting on multiple fronts to ensure many of our commercial tenants (many household names and all public companies) paid their rents as due.
10 Pattaya: Back to normal. August to October 2020
By July and August life was pretty much getting back to normal with many restaurants reopened and no social distancing although you could still not enter most stores without a mandatory temperature check and mask. It was now second nature for me to have a mask in my bum bags and a spare one in my motor bike storage area and it was hard to comprehend the divisive outrage in the USA over such a simple request as to wear a face mask out of courtesy to protect others.
Ampai returned to Pattaya and it was possible to resume going out for dinner with Tony who, despite living nearby, I had hardly seen since March save passing when we went out for walks at the same time.
When I say getting back to normal there are inevitable caveats. There were entire streets and eating areas virtually deserted at night due to the lack of tourists.
We would sometime go to eat at ‘Yes Vegan’, a fantastic vegan food outlet on Thappraya Soi 12, normally a busy street maybe 500 metres long full of excellent restaurants, massage parlours, travel agents, clothing and souvenir shops, convenience stores and market stalls and particularly popular with Russians with signage and menus in Russian, Thai and English. There would be maybe 150 outlets and the street full of pedestrians usually chatting in Russian until the early hours. Now there would be barely 3 restaurants and ten outlets open and everything was dark and closed by 9pm. I could drive along the road without seeing another car or person and it was a little eerie.
Although many of the amenities and all the beaches were open, the crowds were minimal except at weekends, which meant that Pattaya without the crowds and tourists was quite simply a delightful place to live for expatriates like myself who did not have to work for an income. Traffic was minimal and it was a sheer delight to move around. However one only had to look around and realise the impact on the locals without tourists was colossal.
So a lovely place to live but for sure the locals were hurting.
I had also used my extended time in Pattaya to have an extensive course of dental treatment (ten extractions, 7 implants and two bridges!) and rekindled my friendship with my Thai dentist, Preecha. Seven years ago I had initially been unsure if he was one of the best or worst dentists I had met but quickly and rightfully concluded it was the former. We have common interests in the outdoors, tennis, the stock markets and my teeth and have extended this into regular dinners with him and his charming girlfriend Saibua.
However in August I had a decision to make.
I have spent at least part of every year since 1990 hiking in the Swiss Alps near Murren, where we have owned an apartment since 1997. It is my favourite part of the world and where I would like my ashes to be scattered and I am half way through writing the definitive and comprehensive hiking guidebook to the 57 trails I have identified around Murren and in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
I had initially hoped to relocate to Murren in June and then mid August and felt I needed to undertake and write up at least half of the outstanding 26 hikes for my book this year. The days in Switzerland are getting shorter by the end of September and I had made provisional plans to meet our son David and his wife Amber together with daughter Lisa in Murren in the first week of September. Accordingly I booked my flight but the number of new Covid-19 infections started to rise in Europe and particularly in Switzerland.
A family zoom conference decided it was not wise for 7 months pregnant Lisa to drive to Switzerland on her own (her dates did not exactly coincide with David and Amber) and quarantines and restrictions were being put in place and no one was keen to see seven month pregnant Lisa ‘stuck’ in Switzerland.
I was desperately keen to meet David, Amber and Lisa and also not wanting to go a year without visiting Switzerland or being able to work on my book, but in the end I reluctantly decided to stay in Thailand. If I left Thailand I would not (at the time) be able to return and with a history of both asthma and a sometimes idiosyncratic heart the family all seemed to agree on balance it was best for me to remain safe in Thailand. In retrospect that was without a shadow of doubt the correct decision and I cancelled my flight although I was sad not to be able to see Lisa during the pregnancy of what would be our first grandchild.
So Ampai and I stayed in Pattaya through September and October and life was very much back to normal for the ‘locals’ with no new Covid-19 infections in Thailand for several months which was an amazing achievement. I say back to normal except for no tourists and a preponderance of shut and shuttered stores in areas that predominantly catered for tourists!
The hospitality industry was begging the government to open the borders and allow some tourists back because the Thai tourist industry was decimated and of course expatriate residents of Thailand who were overseas when the border was closed in March or had needed to return to Europe or wherever in the interim, were pleading to be allowed to return.
However I think the government was to be commended for really making an effort to promote domestic tourism, by funding discounts at hotels and reimbursing some travel expenditure for Thais travelling domestically. Furthermore a number of heavily promoted festivals (Music, Food and particularly Fireworks) and some additional public holidays saw a few weekends when Pattaya was very busy again and even reminded people of its long distant glory days.
Things were very much not back to normal in another way because as well as resisting calls to open up the country to some form of tourism, the government was facing a massive wave of public protest in Bangkok on a daily basis and led by university students using social media to keep the government wrong footed in where the daily protests were to be held.
The protesters were making three demands.
Firstly the resignation of the unpopular Prime Minister and former army general Prayut Chanocha who had led the 2014 coup.
Secondly a new constitution, replacing the one drafted under the army’s direction before allowing free elections in 2019. These were only deemed democratic after leading opposition candidates were disqualified after the election (!)
And thirdly and perhaps most radical of all in a nation where the monarchy is worshipped (See here), a reduction of the role of the Monarchy, which is partly a reflection of the unpopularity of the new King who has transferred much of the sovereign’s wealth from trustee control to his personal control and who spends most of his time at a luxurious hotel in Bavaria together with his wife, royal consort and many female companions!
The government has responded by arresting as many leaders as possible and charging them with lese-majeste, insulting the Monarchy which the former and very popular King wished to see decriminalised.
By mid October I had spent six continuous months in Pattaya and furthermore six months sleeping in the same bed for maybe the first time in maybe 30 years. With the exception of summers in Murren (when I am also sleeping in mountain huts and hotels in different parts of the Alps) it is very unusual for me to stay in one place for more than four or five weeks and I lost track of how many people asked me if I was getting ‘cabin fever’ and how was I coping with staying in one place for so long and whether I felt restricted.
In fact I do not think that in that period I travelled more than 10km from my house in any direction but strangely enough I did not feel restricted or constrained as I planned as best I could and with various levels of success to use the time productively and kept my mind occupied as much as I could. I am normally only content if I am working at something or other!
However by mid October I realised this was also an excellent time to explore Thailand as prices were cheap and there would be an absence of crowds.
11 Thailand: On the Road Again! Elephants and Ancient Cities. October to December 2020
Firstly Ampai and I joined Tony and Weena for a 4 day 3 night visit to Chanthanaburi about 3 hours south of Pattaya and the location for an ancient Chinese riverside community and Thailand’s only cathedral.
I have driven past the town on the bypass at least 25 times in the past 15 years but made my first visit at the beginning of this year after returning to Thailand from my Christmas visit to Canada and the Philippines so now we were going twice in 9 months, as I was sure Tony and Weena would enjoy visiting the area with us.
And after returning to Pattaya I hired a two year old Mitsubishi for just £7/$9 a day (I said prices were cheap!) and Ampai and I set off on a road trip visiting several ancient cities and magnificent historic temple complexes in central and northern Thailand at Lopburi, Kamphaeng Phet, Sukothai, Si Satchanalai and Phimai. (See here for a pictorial essay.)
Our visit to the ancient city of Sukothai coincided with Thailand’s most spectacular celebration of the Loi Krathong Festival which was televised live throughout the nation. We stopped in Surin for an extensive review of the furniture outlets before buying furniture for the two room extension to Ampai’s home before continuing to her village of Ban Non Waeng (See here and here.)
After 8 days of full on sightseeing and driving 100 – 150 miles I was exhausted and wished I had planned a bit more time for the trip but I wanted to get back to Pattaya in time to watch the American election and the much hoped demise of President Trump, which was thankfully granted and the biggest bet of my 50 year gambling career was successful.
Whilst I was back in Pattaya Lisa’s baby and our first grandchild (Finley) was born and I was of course sad that I could not be in the UK to share in the event, a feeling shared by our other daughter Sarah in Canada. As it was, it made sense to have remained in Thailand because the UK was in its second lockdown and it would not have been possible to visit Lisa and the hope was we could all reunite for Christmas in the UK.
After a couple of weeks in Pattaya we were off again, this time to visit the famous and spectacular Elephant Round Up and festival in Surin (See here) and again we were able to meet up with Tony and Weena who comes from Surin, as they also wanted to visit the festival. After a week in Ampai’s village we drove south to the island of Ko Chang where we spent 4 nights at two of the top hotels on the island. The average hotel occupancy rates were about 15%, prices were discounted to half the normal price and we met up with our neighbour Marko from Pattaya for one night for dinner. We used to visit Ko Chang fairly regularly but it had been six years since my previous visit as our island visits in the interim had been focussed on Koh Wai and Koh Kuud. I had forgotten just how attractive Koh Chang was and we were lucky to be treated to a series of spectacular sunsets.
Sadly for the locals there were just a minimal number of visitors, mainly expatriates living in Thailand and at the weekend Thais from Bangkok. I left thinking it would surely not be long before we returned again to explore more of what is Thailand’s 4th largest island.
By December I had spent 9 consecutive months in Thailand and most of them in Pattaya, a place I have often defended against its long outlived seedy reputation. And during the lockdown and the year of Covid-19 I really appreciated it more than ever and found it a great place to live and even more so without its usual high volume of visitors, busloads of Chinese (I do not resent the Chinese, just the massive buses blocking the roads!) and especially raucous Brexit loving Brits! As a resident of Pattaya it was a charming place to be without them!
However as someone who has spent a lifetime in the travel industry I do not for a millisecond resent the right of people to travel in groups and am well aware of the harm being caused to many Pattaya residents by the absence of tourists and consequently hope to see end of the pandemic and the return of the tourist, lifeblood of Pattaya indeed.
By December the state of Emergency had now been renewed monthly for ten months. Forces opposed to the government say this enables the military influenced government to make decisions without referral to parliament for the purpose of taking action against the burgeoning street protests in Bangkok. The government counters that it is necessary to take quick decisions when there are outbreaks of Covid.
The truth is probably a mixture of both arguments.
By mid December I was set to return to the UK when our family hoped to be all reunited for Christmas. This would be the 37th consecutive year we would all come together and we have to date managed it in the UK, Canada, Switzerland, Australia and the USA. Fortunately the Thais had relaxed re-entry requirements to let a limited number of people return to Thailand and I would qualify on two counts as a property owner and the holder of a retirement visa.
12 Covid-19 – How did Thailand do? A contrasting approach to Europe
That’s an easy one – brilliantly!
As I have repeatedly said I was forever aware I was fortunate to have seen out 2020 in Thailand.
As I write these words in late January 2021 a comparison between Thailand (population 69.6m) and the United Kingdom (66.6m), the nation where I was born and where I am currently situated, reveals the following:
Positive Covid Cases Deaths
The UK (66.6m) 3,817,176 106,158
Thailand (69.6m) 18,782 77
Granted the extent of testing will account for a small proportion in the differential between the number of identified cases and a tropical climate has also helped but the difference in deaths of over 135,000% tells its own story.
The countries that locked down early, maintained disciplined lockdowns longer, restricted domestic travel and halted international travel are those that have come closest to eliminating the virus (Thailand had no new domestic infections for 5 months until the illegal return of some Thai sex workers from Myanmar who evaded testing and quarantine and, in so doing, reintroduced the virus to Thailand in late November).
In recent weeks in the UK Covid fatalities have regularly been between 1200 and 1600 per day and new infections approaching 55,000 per day, hospitals are at bursting point and in many parts of the UK operations other than life saving are on long term hold.
And yet there is still a vocal and not insignificant minority calling for the current lockdown to be shortened and advocating that the government is behaving like a police state curtailing people’s freedoms, that the dangers of Covid have been overexaggerated and no restrictions and ‘herd’ immunity would offer better long term protection and less short term damage!
Personally, I find such logic difficult to comprehend. The King and Prime Minister of Sweden have already apologised to the Swedish people for being the only nation in Europe that opted for light handed restrictions and aimed for herd immunity from the beginning. The policy was not successful and led to a higher number of infections and deaths than in their neighbouring Scandinavian countries.
10 months after Thailand the UK government has in effect finally closed its borders to some travellers, forbidden its own inhabitants to travel overseas unless necessary almost a year after Asian countries and Australasia made the same decision and compulsory quarantine in hotels is being introduced for visitors from certain countries.
Poll after poll shows the majority of Britains support tighter restrictions but the government’s position has vacillated so much that people have lost touch of what regulations are in place and when. Boris Johnson likes to think of himself as a natural libertarian (except when parliament disagrees with him and then his natural instinct is to close parliament down!) and patently does not like to take difficult and unpopular decisions. Consequently he has at every stage put off tighter restrictions only to cave in and introduce them anyway later when they are less effective! And Boris Johnson, never an effective manager and rarely able to be decisive, has also to keep the extreme right of his party happy less they destabilise his leadership. And they like President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil are against restrictions and clearly believe the virus will go away!
It is interesting that the most zealous politicians pushing for a reduction in restrictions are those same old, tired faces on the extreme right of the ruling Conservative Party who were at best economical with the truth when pressurising successive governments for 30 years to leave the European Union. Now they have a new hobby horse!
Personally I am a great believer that both economies and individuals are far more resilient than doomsayers believe and as a CEO I have twice been in charge of companies that have unexpectedly lost 70% of their turnover due to external events beyond our control. Yes there were a lot of tough decisions to make, but with careful management we recovered.
Nations have recovered from World Wars and nuclear devastation and I am sure that both global economies and individuals themselves will recover from the impact of Covid. Of course there will be individuals who suffer and will need the help and support of the state but in truth the last three generations have had it easy and are not used to true global crises like the two world wars in the last century.
Irrespective of my personal beliefs I do find it difficult to either understand or have much sympathy for these people advocating the end of lockdowns because firstly, having lived fairly normally in Thailand for most of the last year, I can see what collective responsibility and sensible management can achieve (77 deaths against 106,158 is not rocket science guys!) and secondly without restrictions the virus would be rampant, hospitals unable to function and no one would be going to school or work anyway!
When the success of Asian counties like Thailand, Australia and New Zealand is pointed out I am sometimes advised that is because culturally Asians are far more respectful of government and authority. Whilst that is true for Asia, it cannot be said for Australia and New Zealand where the governments moved fast and early with tough restrictions as and when required.
And I am not sure it is that governments have more effective tools of control in Asia. Mass street protests in Hong Kong and Thailand in recent years have been more frequent than in the UK or Europe but people are for sure more respectful of authority whether it is the local water board official, a monk, the school teacher, a government official or a policeman.
But one must remember the Thai lockdown was never a statutory legal enforcement as in the UK but rather people in general did what they were asked.
By contrast curfews, the closure of schools and the halt of domestic travel were legally enforced.
However I think this stressing of discipline perhaps also understates the fact that there were more than a million public health volunteers aggressively screening and contact tracing for Covid-19. The Thais have a wonderful self support system so very few fell through the cracks. And a combination of being respectful of authority, caring for each other and a proactive policy has resulted in Thailand along with New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea being referenced by both the World Health Organisation and Lowy Institute as the countries which have best managed Covid-19.
Part of the difference between the dramatic variation between infection and death rates between Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand on one hand and Europe on the other is because of a fundamental contrast between their approach and aims.
At every stage Thailand and Australia have aimed for the elimination of Covid and nothing less. The UK and Europe have aimed for containment and suppression until their populations can be vaccinated and have fallen between the stools. Personally, I think it was crazy to allow people to travel back and forth on vacation within Europe last summer and that undoubtedly contributed to the early onset of the second wave of infections in Europe this winter.
By contrast Thais were not allowed to depart from Thailand period. Non-Thais were permitted to depart when flights were available but they would not be permitted to return until exceptions were allowed from late summer for the spouses of Thai nationals and holders of work permits. That has since been relaxed to allow the owners of properties in Thailand and long term visa holders to return so I qualify on two counts but this is conditional on my taking out $100,000 Thai Covid insurance cover, having a negative Covid test and obtaining a fit to fly certificate in the 72 hours before my departure and then being subject to a 16 day/15 night quarantine in an approved hotel upon arrival. As I will be restricted to my room for 16 days I have booked a suite!
When the second wave of Covid was well established in the UK many health experts proposed a short term national lockdown in September to stop the rapid transmission of the virus.
The government responded by a never likely to succeed system of regional restrictions that were being ever adjusted. Eventually a national lockdown was proposed for November and then relaxed for a five day Christmas ‘holiday’ for three households to meet (unfortunately the virus did not understand and did not take a holiday) which, with ever increasing infection levels, was then reduced to one day for two households to meet and then with surging infections that almost reached 60,000 a day a full national lockdown was announced and likely to last many months. If a second lockdown had been introduced in September I suspect the UK would not be where it is now!
By contrast when an outbreak amongst migrant workers (Thais like to blame migrant workers from Myanmar for all crimes and problems in Thailand!) at a fish processing plant near Bangkok led to a second wave with several hundred new infections a day, the government immediately closed all malls, schools, restaurants, bars and entertainment complexes, shops, except for pharmacies and essential foodstuffs and imposed domestic travel restrictions. Extensive testing was immediately introduced in the affected areas. Thailand is far more proactive and people do not complain.
By contrast the UK is only now, six months or more after many Asian and Australasian countries introduced such schemes, proposing hotel quarantine for visitors from certain countries and a start date for the program has yet to be announced!
So Yes Asian people are much more disciplined but that is not the entire answer as the governments have been far more proactive but people are more willing to help each other.
In Thailand, like most Asian counties Family is everything and valued above all else. It is not a large step to extend that to caring for your local community and others.
Many foreigners who live in Thailand were critical of the Thai authorities’ unwillingness to relax restrictions. Many complained about the expense and restrictions involved in returning to Thailand from their home countries and many would complain that Thailand would never recover economically if it did not allow its tourism industry to reopen.
Irrespective of the fact that no nation with half a brain is going to allow the unrestricted entry of individuals and tourists before widespread global vaccination and/or before it is mandatory for travellers to be carrying proof of vaccination (and for the vaccination being proven to be effective!) I think most of these comments were from foreigners who fail to understand the Thai and Buddhist mentality.
In 2019 international and domestic tourism accounted for just under 18% of the Thai GDP with just under 40m international visitors. Indeed Thailand has long been the most popular long haul ‘sun and sand’ destination for the UK. International visitors declined by over 80% to under 7m in 2020. Almost all of these arrived before March and from March to August the country was closed but approximately 11,000 tourists were allowed to visit between September and December under the most stringent conditions and with an expensive government approved strict two week quarantine costing at least £750/$1000 at each traveller’s own expense. Clearly this is not a scheme set up for mass tourism but only for long term visitors or returning residents.
However, whilst the travel, hotel and catering industries were lobbying the government to relax controls and reduce quarantine periods many Thais were raising objections to any tourists and foreigners coming in. After achieving the virtual elimination of Covid-19 most Thais did not want to risk it in a similar manner to the residents of Melbourne who, after achieving the elimination of Covid-19, objected to tennis players competing at the Australian Open being granted a 5 hour daily exemption from their two week quarantine to practice.
So there are many Thais who do not want tourism to recommence or for foreigners to visit their country because staying safe and healthy is their preferred priority.
Life in Thailand was pretty much back to normal prior to the recent 6 week second wave which means that 82% of the economy was functioning well and if tourism had to be sacrificed for 5 or 10 years many Thais who are Buddhist will accept this and say so be it.
People can be retrained or looked after by their families and I think many people and the government have decided that if the choice is between health and economics then health is more important and who are we non-Thais to disagree.
And this is a question and dilemma all governments are going to have to face in the years ahead. What is more important? Safeguarding their people’s health or resurrecting a small portion of their economy?
13 Covid-19 and our divisive world
There is unfortunately another contrast that has to be commented upon between the management and approach to Covid-19 between Thailand and other south east Asian nations on one hand and Britain, Europe and North America, or at least the USA on the other.
Sadly the emergence of populism in many western nations in recent years which has been most manifest by the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA in 2016 and the UK electorate’s decision to vote for Brexit also in 2016 has resulted in balanced debate being replaced by increasing divisiveness which has been intentionally fanned for their own benefit by individuals like Trump himself, Nigel Farage in the UK, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
In turn the rise of Populism has been inflamed and reinforced by an ever expanding number of extreme websites spreading the most ridiculous and fanciful fake news and conspiracy theories, which it appears at least 48% of the American electorate are dumb enough to believe. (If any reader who has got this far actually voted for Trump in 2020 I have nothing but disdain for you – you may have been naïve and misled in 2016 but if your brain is connected you had no excuses in 2020)
Division and antagonism have replaced debate and as a result rather than coming together to defeat Covid-19 the virus has itself become the subject and source of widespread conspiracy theories in regard to its source, existence and treatment.
In the UK people argue about lockdown or no lockdown. In the USA people resist wearing a mask as a restriction of their personal liberty without any care of the risk they may infect others.
And as long as there is a significant minority in countries refusing to be vaccinated and refusing to wear a mask there will continue to be significant outbreaks of Covid-19 from time to time.
In Thailand the population think it is common sense to wear a mask when advised for everyone’s wellbeing, end of story. By August 2020 there were no new infections and mask wearing was minimal but once there is a risk of infections everyone masks up.
And when looking at the varying global responses to the pandemic one cannot help but notice that many of the countries who have been most or relatively successful in handling the pandemic have been led by women. Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand (5 deaths per million), Sanna Marin in Finland (121 deaths per million), Erna Solberg in Norway (121 deaths per million) and Angela Merkel’s Germany was the most successful of the major nations of Europe (686 deaths per million).
By contrast those nations led by extrovert populist leaders and with little proven record of management expertise have fared disastrously. Boris Johnson’s UK averaged 1,559 deaths per million, Donald Trump’s USA had 1,357 deaths per million and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has 1,050 deaths per million. At various times all three leaders disparaged mask wearing and encouraged hand shaking and all three were elected on the back of rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims and with no management experience that would pass muster.
Boris Johnson was a successful Mayor of London who encouraged a feel good factor but was also renowned as a poor and vacillating decision maker with negligible attention to detail. In Johnson’s defence, once he realised the seriousness of the pandemic, he continually encouraged social distancing and proper preventative practices but was still weak in decisive decision making.
And all three of these leaders practised such poor preventative action that each contracted Covid-19, and in Johnson’s case it almost had a fatal impact.
I will leave this section with two final figures. For those readers who believe in letting the virus run rampant to build up a herd immunity Sweden, who experimented with a more relaxed approach to build up resistance, had a death rate of 1,144 per million whilst neighbours Norway and Finland had rates of 121 and 104 respectively.
And why do I believe I spent most of the year in just about the safest location on the planet?
Well Thailand averaged just 1 death per million at the time of writing!
14 Covid 19 ‘The New Normal’ – what will our future look like?
No one knows what the new post Covid-19 world will be like except it will not be post Covid-19 (!) because in one form or another Covid-19 is here to stay and it is how we manage it that will define how we live from here on.
We are all hoping that vaccinations will be the panacea that if not eradicates Covid-19 will at least help us to manage it.
I think it is possible some vaccinations may be more effective than others but I am not a scientist and who knows? It may be that some strains of Covid-19 will perhaps be more resistant to vaccination than others but again who knows?
What we do know is that some things will inevitably change forever whilst others will return to as before.
Many companies have found out they can be as productive with employees working from home and as a result will require less office space. Our son David has now worked from home for 12 months and is now one of the senior management team of seven in a company with 140 employees. They no longer need to look for larger offices as they are switching to home working permanently with teams coming into the office for meetings as and when required.
So there is likely to be less footfall in certain areas.
The High Streets will likely never recover their former trading levels. With people forced to do 95% of their shopping online over the past year I suspect they will continue to do so. Why go to a supermarket when you can order from home and have it delivered? Those trends already occurring over the previous five to ten years have accelerated rapidly and will likely be part of the new normal.
I think many cinemas will close permanently. I have enjoyed going to the cinema all my life often to see two or even three films back to back in a cineplex from time to time.
But Netflix makes it so easy! They offer an excellent range of product and films, on demand in the comfort of your own home and for me the benefits are without driving through Pattaya’s traffic to the Mall or 25 minutes along dark unlit country lanes when in the UK.
My family would be saddened if cinemas were not an option and there will always be some but I suspect Netflix and other streaming services will be the way most of us are watching movies in 20 years time.
Cock fighting was common entertainment 200 years ago as was bare knuckle boxing but social tastes change and there is no reason cinemas should survive in the next 100 years just because they have for the last 100. Especially if there are more pandemics to come in the future!
Having worked all my life in travel, currently the Chairman of Kipling Tours and as an insatiable traveller as well as dividing my time between the UK, Switzerland, Canada and Thailand I am of course interested in how and when we will be able to travel again as are my colleagues at Kipling Tours who are chomping at the bit to resume selling group tours to schools and special interest groups.
Obviously individual travel will commence before group travel as it is easier for an individual to decide to travel without the time it takes to organise a group tour where participants must agree mutually acceptable dates and an itinerary and arrange payments. That is always more complicated when there is more than one person involved.
It is my opinion, and only my opinion, that unrestricted and unregulated travel in the way we have known it for the past 50 years has gone for the foreseeable future.
I believe that the resumption of travel will not be down to the wishes of individual travellers or the airlines or tour operators.
It will be decided by the decisions and actions of governments.
I cannot for one moment conceive that after fighting Covid-19 successfully internally any country is going to willingly allow visitors in and risk starting new waves of infections in their country.
Vaccinations in themselves are not going to allow you to travel where and whenever you want. Vaccines will almost certainly not prevent everyone from catching Covid-19 nor subsequently transmitting it to others but it will hopefully mitigate the most serious effects and protect us from significant harm.
I suspect once governments are comfortable that vaccines are effective they will permit individual travellers to visit, maybe with a short quarantine to ensure a negative test can be carried out before you are released to travel. Multi country tours will be increasingly difficult unless neighbouring counties that have eliminated Covid-19 form a common bubble.
When I was a teenager it was always necessary to travel with a vaccination ‘book’ showing you had current immunisation against Smallpox, Typhoid and Yellow Fever. I suspect it will mandatory to carry proof of vaccination before travelling both as a requirement for airlines and the country that you are visiting.
And it will probably be easier to maintain your vaccination record in a digital app on your smartphone. I suggest if you do not have a smartphone get one! Anyone who can afford an air ticket can almost certainly afford a basic smartphone.
It would make sense for there to be a standardised smartphone app with worldwide acceptance and then it will be just a question of scanning your phone upon arrival at a destination.
But that will be at least a year or two away and meanwhile do not expect travel to boom as a result of pent up demand. Pent up demand to go to France or Spain will count for nothing if the governments of those countries insist on limiting arrivals or quarantines.
And because we are all so closely interlinked the recovery of the travel industry will proceed at the speed of the weakest link. If a country has 25% of its inhabitants unvaccinated it is not going to be letting people in and risk infecting its people without having some restrictions in place. And similarly travellers who are arriving from a country known to still have Covid-19 will likely not be allowed in many countries without quarantine.
And poorer countries that cannot afford vaccination programs will need to be helped because if their borders are open it will be an opportunity for more infections to spread.
I cannot see any groups travelling in significant numbers in 2022, maybe a few in 2023 and I suspect it will be 2024 and 2025 before travelling with tour groups is possible again.
Individual travel will be earlier but not like we knew it before and if it turns out we will need to have two vaccinations on an annual basis there are clearly going to be massive logistical challenges each year and possibly year round vaccination centres?
And annual vaccinations will mean it will be essential to have constant updating of vaccination records which is why I think it will likely be recorded on your smartphone.
15 Covid-19 and me
Much has been written by health experts on the long term impact of Covid-19 and being restricted to lockdown for extended periods.
And I will readily admit there is zero comparison between my lounging around a pool and walking along the beach promenade in Thailand for much of the lockdown with
– a couple confined to a small apartment with young children and home-schooling their kids whilst working from home.
– an elderly widow confined to a room in a retirement home.
– a single mother in Manila unable to work and without the means to earn the rental payments for the room she shares with her daughter.
However I do believe as a race we are resilient and previous generations have had sizable challenges as well that have threatened the foundations of their societies.
For myself the year was very different.
For someone whose default lifestyle is to move from one country to another it was a unique experience to stay in one country for pretty much 10 months of the year and nine months continuously.
People assumed I was fretting at the bit to move on but far from it.
My business cards list the contact details for my homes in Thailand, Switzerland, Canada and the UK with the maxim
‘I would like to stay in one place but there always seems a good reason to move on’ Leonard Cohen
Well Michael, be careful what you ask for in case you get it!
And a little like hostages who suffer the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and develop a relationship and affection for their captors, I found the longer I stayed in Pattaya the more I enjoyed and appreciated the benefits.
I was particularly appreciative of the new costal promenade linking Pratumnak Soi (street) 5 with Jomtien and wonder if there is any other urban promenade which follows such a beautiful beach and I found myself pausing on innumerable occasions to take yet another picture of a glorious sunset.
Of course I felt bad I could not see our three children and in particular our daughter Lisa who was pregnant with our first grandchild and I was not able to see the change of her body shape except on Zoom and Facetime calls.
I felt bad that, whilst I was relaxing in warm Thailand, my wife Sharron was alone in our big house back in the UK, but unlike me she enjoys living in the UK and like me she is very comfortable with her own company and appreciated the fact she was not packing to go on a trip with me or going back and forth to Canada. Not for a moment was she interested in visiting me in Thailand which she considers uncomfortably hot and humid and it was not for the want of my asking.
So each of us can only comment on how Covid-19 affected us according to our own circumstances.
As I have already stated I read more books in a year (63) than ever previously or ever likely in the future. However I have to admit in the final two or three months perhaps there was an element of reading for its own sake which is counter productive as I set myself a year end target of 60 and then 65 books.
Again, having a obsessive personality, I could not be content with going out for exercise walks several days a week but made it into a competition with myself and ended up walking 5 miles for 147 consecutive days. That was something productive that I was pleased to achieve and will not likely be able to do again.
The first two months when I was walking mask wearing was compulsory outdoors so I was walking a brisk 5 miles in temperatures between 30 and 33 degrees Celsius and wearing a mask. Was it my preference? Of course not! Was it the end of the world? Of course not. One wears a mask for the benefit of others.
I have a stupid friend in America – I know he is stupid because he voted for Trump and he tells me he has the freedom to not wear a mask. As far as I am concerned that is totally irresponsible and selfish bullshit and I have told him so and that I am disgusted at his selfish attitude. He does not have the right to infect others.
I was very sad and disappointed not to go to Switzerland in the summer because it ended a 30 year streak of going to Murren and the Bernese Oberland and I desperately wanted to complete some of the outstanding 26 hikes to complete the guidebook I am writing. This year I will be a year older at 72, possibly less fit and it will doubtless be more challenging to undertake the walks including three ascents of the Schilthorn by different routes.
However I am equally convinced that I did make the correct decision to stay in Thailand all year as travelling through Europe by train or plane back to the UK in November or December would not have been so wise with the rapid spread of new Covid-19 strains.
In retrospect I should have used more of the time from August onwards to explore different parts of Thailand at leisure rather than cramming three separate road trips into 7 weeks from mid October. I was really impressed with the ancient temples we explored at Lopburi, Kampaeng Phet, Sukothai, Si Satchanalai and Phimai. The Historical Parks were impeccably maintained and signposted and a delight to explore with few other visitors. I would go back to any of them in a heartbeat and probably will over the next 12 – 18 months.
I have made numerous trips with Ampai over the last 16 years and I think we make great travelling companions. March – June and August – October were long periods to be together without going anywhere or doing anything but we tended to do different things in different parts of the house and there were periods when her daughter stayed with us I hardly saw her. When Ampai returned to her village with her daughter Shampoo, who is growing up so fast, she told me to make the most of my time alone and when I did she then complained, which was a bit of a challenge for both of us!
On a more serious note it was in many way perhaps a seminal year in that it showed me the benefits of travelling less and more sensibly and that it was perhaps time to ease up on incessant travel and enjoy staying in one place and indeed exploring more of Thailand.
Having said that a 36 hours period in February when I flew from London to Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and to Manila in the Philippines and three hours later back to Ho Chi Minh City was perhaps the most stressful day’s travelling of the last 25 years and which I hope to write about here.
So I guess saying is one thing and doing is quite another!
16 And Finally
2020 was a year we will all remember and how it affected us, what we did and how it changed our attitudes and ways of life. I suspect we will all have made changes, some voluntary and some forced upon us.
The decision I had to make (or which was made for me) was to convert my tourist visa to a retirement visa with the right to reside in Thailand and as a result I spent most of 2020 including nine continuous months in Thailand and that was the right decision for me and could not have turned out any better.
There was hardly anywhere in the world that was safer let alone with great dining options and a wonderful beach promenade walk on my doorstep. I was even able to travel and discover and explore some magnificent historic attractions.
By the time we got to December, whilst looking forward to meeting our first grandchild, I had been so lucky throughout the year that I had some trepidation about relocating to Europe and the UK.
I realized that after almost ten years of living there for part of the year I had developed an affection for Pattaya and was both comfortable with my life style and grateful for being allowed to be based in a country with just one death per million.
I have been a gambler all my life and those were odds I was certainly comfortable to accept.
Thank you Thailand.
And Thank you Pattaya.
© Michael Bromfield
I was indeed fortunate to be able to walk along either Dongtang and Jomtien Beaches or Pattaya Beach most days during my 9 months in Pattaya during 2020.
I was very much aware how fortunate I was in comparison with most people and even more so because on many occasions I was accompanied by some magnificent sunsets and associated cloud patterns.
Here are just a selection of the many wonderful panoramas that unfolded before me as I walked.