Thailand is justifiably known as the Land of Smiles, yet now the 70 million friendly faces of this picturesque nation are constantly hidden due to its strict face mask laws.
This popular Asian destination has endured a stop-start reopening to tourists. Having relaxed its hotel quarantine from 14 nights down to just one, its borders were closed again following the emergence of omicron. But now its Test & Go regime is back, with vaccinated overseas travellers once again welcome – so long as they return negative results on days 1 and 5.
So Thailand is back on holiday menus. But prospective visitors should be aware that mask use has become something of an obsession. People cover their faces while swimming, toddlers must wear them at certain times, and failure to mask up – even on an empty beach or in isolated forest – can incur a £440 fine. Even the country’s Prime Minister was financially penalised for not covering his face during a meeting last year.
It has been this way since April last year, when the Thai Government announced it was compulsory for every adult to wear a mask in public, including outdoors, except while eating or drinking.
And, as I’ve found since recently returning to Thailand for the first time during the pandemic, after dozens of visits in the past 20 years, the severe rules are creating both odd (on a recent trip to Pattaya, swimmers wore masks in our resort pool) and distressing situations.
I would not describe myself as anti-mask, but even I was flummoxed when my two-year-old boy was left in tears after being rejected from a Bangkok indoor play centre because he wouldn’t, and realistically couldn’t, wear a mask. As my son stared at the slides and rides, jumping in anticipation, staff told me he would have to cover his face during his entire visit or he’d be evicted.
Like many rambunctious boys his age, he refuses to keep a hat on his head, annoyed by its presence, so the chances of him wearing a mask for an hour straight hover near zero.
While thankfully two other Bangkok play centres allow our boy in without covering his face, he is one of the very few toddlers at these facilities who doesn’t wear a mask.
The mandate that masks must be worn everywhere in public is also causing tension between locals and foreign tourists.
In Pattaya I regularly encountered Western tourists without masks. Many of them were oblivious to the angry looks they were earning from locals, who are very rarely seen breaking this rule.
In Bangkok’s biggest park, Lumpini, one Thai person finally lost their cool. In that sprawling green haven I saw more than a dozen Western tourists without masks, including a couple that argued with a Thai man who confronted them as they sat under a tree.
The rule breakers are not usually young backpackers, but mostly parents with children and couples in the 30-to-50-year-old age bracket. It seems many foreigners are arriving in Thailand either unaware of how it’s changed due to the pandemic, or unwilling to adapt.
One of the things that’s long attracted Western tourists to Thailand is the perception it has less rules than their home country. Right now, however, Thailand is far more sedate and sanitised than previously.
In some ways Thailand is now easier for travel, and in others it has become less appealing. On the plus side, everywhere is far less crowded, particularly the tourist zones within Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Pattaya.
In regards to the pandemic, Thailand also feels safer than the many countries I visited in Europe this year due to the extreme measures being taken to combat the spread of Covid-19. This may have helped drive their relatively low rate of infections and deaths.
The downside is that wearing a mask at all times in public is unpleasant. As we’ve all experienced, breathing through a mask is uncomfortable even in cool climates, let alone in the volcanic heat and stifling humidity of Thailand.
It also detracts from the serene activity of wandering along a pristine beach or trekking through majestic rainforest, two of the key experiences of visiting Thailand.
So before they fly to Thailand, tourists need to weigh up whether they can accept these inconveniences in exchange for enjoying this country’s remarkable scenery, engrossing culture and delicious food. Because once you arrive in Thailand there is no excuse for disobeying its pandemic-related rules, no matter how excessive they may seem.