Thailand: the Land of Smiles, a welcoming country renowned for its beaches, its nightlife, its food, its Buddhist culture, a treasured holiday destination for Europeans escaping northern winters.
These days, though, the Thai smile is concealed by face masks.
Bangkok now reports the highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the country – at least 1349 cases in a city of eight million inhabitants, in a country with almost exactly the same population as the UK (68 million and 66.65 million respectively). Thankfully Thailand hasn’t been hit as badly by the virus as the likes of Italy Spain and the UK, but their lockdown is no less strict.
As recently as the middle of March, this was a vibrant city packed with tourists, professionals, street vendors, bars and motorbike drivers. But since then the government has tried to control the spread by, from 22nd March, shutting down malls, restaurants, entertainment venues and schools. This was followed by an emergency decree banning foreigners from entering Thailand, a curfew from 10pm to 4am – and even a 10-day alcohol ban. Although these restrictions are only meant to last until 30th April, the city feels empty and eerie, as if time is standing still.
As a 17-year-old student, the seriousness of the situation struck home when my school closed. Classes now continue through remote learning and dull dull dull Zoom calls. Six hours a day doing online lessons is tough.
But what really hit me was the Thai government’s decision to postpone Songkran, the annual festival that brings thousands onto the streets to party and celebrate by throwing buckets of water over one another. Since moving to Thailand from Hong Kong eight months ago, I loved hearing my friends’ stories about this traditional Thai new year celebration.
So I was counting down the days to my very first fest. But I guess I’ll have to wait another year to wear my colorful Hawaiian shirt, a Songkran fashion must-have, and load up my water-gun, another Songkran necessity.
When I leave home with my face mask and hand sanitiser – things I now consider as essential as my phone and wallet – I see nothing but boarded up windows. There are empty pavements outside the so-called “massage parlours” and the bars that are typically bouncing with tourists and aging expats drinking beer (after beer). Even the legendary Soi Cowboy, with its dancing girls and flashing lights, is deserted. Old confetti, scattered on the floor from a night out that already feels like ancient history, is a depressing reminder of what life was like before lockdown.
The only people I see now, whether Thai or foreigner, are masked. The sweltering, subtropical temperature, reaching close to 40 degrees celsius, doesn’t make wearing a mask any easier. I feel like I’m breathing through an old, sweaty sock. It’s so bad that sometimes I’d rather stay home, no matter how claustrophobic that is.
Although a few defiant street vendors are still frying up pad thai, business has clearly fallen dramatically – usually, there are deep queues for the most famous Thai food.
The same goes for the motorbike-taxis, who are now parked in long lines patiently waiting for anyone needing a ride. Seeing the drivers, normally frantically buzzing through the crowded streets, sitting idle, I realised the impact of the virus on these local and small businesses that are the heartbeat of Bangkok. These drivers and vendors, who already struggle to make ends meet, are not only highly exposed to the virus. Now they have no customers and income.
Although quiet, we’re still able to venture outside during the day, and the fact that people still go to work shows that Thailand hasn’t had as dramatic a lockdown as other Asian countries. Thankfully, having lower numbers of infection and death than our neighbours – to date there are only 46 confirmed deaths nationwide – makes life in Thailand seem a tiny bit more normal.
But since the curfew was imposed, as soon as it hits 10pm a slow silence descends on this noisiest of cities. From my apartment balcony I can actually feel a strange calmness outside, with only a spluttering tuk tuk racing to get home occasionally puncturing the quiet.
What next? There’s been talk of a 24-hour lockdown, but for now it’s just another rumour, something almost as contagious as the virus itself.
For the time being, my friends and I are making our own efforts to keep the Thai smile going. Social media, video calls and Netflix parties (yes, Tiger King is a hit here, too) make it easy for us to check up on each other. The other day we even attempted a surprise birthday party through Zoom. It’s perhaps no surprise that it was a little disastrous.
But as numbers of cases start to fall, my friends and I have a greater sense of hope that life will get back to something like normal… sometime… just in time for our final year of high school. Even that would make us smile.