Rows of empty shops, shuttered garage doors and deserted streets. Thailand is eerily quiet right now … which means it’s the perfect time to go.
The odd small food cart, usually without customers. Street dogs snuffling in gutters, sometimes outnumbering people.
The Koh Samui of 2022 is Thailand like you’ve never seen it before.
The tiny island off the east coast of the mainland, around a 90-minute flight from Bangkok, has been hit hard by Covid shutdowns and border closures.
In a normal year, Thailand welcomes around 40 million tourists, making up 11 per cent of its GDP. The country is a big favourite with Australians, with around 800,000 of us visiting each year, pre-pandemic.
And for islands like Koh Samui, usually buzzing with music, cheap and delicious food and beer, nightclubs and hostels, the effect of tourism shutting down has taken a huge toll.
“Many people simply couldn’t stay in the cities; they returned to their family farms and lived very simply,” one local told me. “It’s been absolutely devastating.”
Thailand, like so many places in South East Asia are only just beginning to recover from the effects of the last two years.
But borders are now open to Australians – you need to be vaccinated, apply for the Thailand pass and have a Covid test on arrival and isolate until you get a result (in my case, under 12 hours which is standard) but otherwise there’s no quarantine.
And that’s exactly why you should consider travelling to Thailand right now.
It’s the only chance any of us will ever get to see and experience this beautiful country without its usual crowds.
And it’s a way to do your part to support the Thai people – who are always so welcoming to people from all over the world – to get back on their feet.
Mohamad Hawass, a software developer from Germany, and his girlfriend Nadine, a psychologist, moved to Thailand in December 2021.
They’re currently living Koh Samui in Crystal Bay Beach, near the popular tourist town of Lamai. Mohamad says the Koh Samui of today is very different to the one he remembers from previous trips before the virus hit.
“If you compare it to the time I came in 2018, I would say it’s about 30 per cent full,” he says. “Back then you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing other tourists.
“Now there are hardly any tourists or expats at all. It’s very noticeable. So many restaurants are closed or abandoned – I even saw one place that had fallen down. It’s a real pity.”
My trip took me along the island’s east coast, through towns like Lamai and Cheweng. I’m told that other parts of the island are a little more vibrant. “Most people stay on the north coast – Bang Rak and Bang Por for now,” one resident told me.
While the empty streets are a sign of great loss, there’s also a tranquil beauty to Thailand today. Never again will we see Koh Samui like this.
The absence of shouting, littering, drunk tourists shows a different side to Koh Samui, perhaps similar to what it may have looked like many decades ago.
“It’s a great time to be here,” Mohamad says. “Lots of people prefer not to be around crowds. It’s all very easygoing and laid back right now. It feels very peaceful.”
That peace may not last long. “Lamai feels like the buzz is on its way back,” says Nualyai Theppitak, who runs Destination Detox Wellness Centre in Lamai Beach. “Many businesses closed but many (are) under construction.”
As I wrote in an earlier piece, many flights from Australia to Thailand are running at low capacity right now, meaning you can stretch out and have whole rows or even sections to yourself. And while you need to do a bit of form-filling to get the Thailand Pass for entry, once that’s done, and you make sure you carry all your paperwork with you on your journey, the Thai authorities could not be more helpful with assisting you to arrive safely and securely.
Thailand and the Thai people are excited to begin welcoming back tourists and both your accommodation and airport staff will do whatever they can to make your trip to this tropical paradise as smooth as possible.
Mohamed and Nadine make sure they spend money every day with local vendors to do their part to support residents who have been through so much.
“We walk 2km each day to the local market to get our coffee and breakfast,” Mohamed says. “We are trying to support and engage with the community as much as we can.”
And he, and other Koh Samui residents, urge Australians to start coming back to do the same.
Australians are naturally generous; we rallied together to support businesses after our own 2019-2020 bushfires and Covid lockdowns, and this is the time to show the same kindness to our Thai neighbours.
“If you come here, stay and eat locally to help local businesses stay afloat,” says Helen Taylor from Ban Tai River Gardens on the island’s north coast.
It’s time. Thailand is waiting for you.