A few weeks earlier, I dreamed of going somewhere, anywhere, far away. I wanted to feel lost in an unknown city, to soak up its sounds, its smells, its energy. This led to casually browsing for plane tickets to Southeast Asia, when a reasonably priced ticket to Bangkok appeared. Later that month, I flew with a friend who had booked her trip a few days after mine.
While traveling the world on a whim admittedly made me feel pretty cocky, it turns out I’m part of a larger trend.
According to data from online travel company Skyscanner, demand focused on the Asia-Pacific region – and Thailand, in particular – has taken off since coronavirus restrictions began to ease in April. In May and June, for example, it was the third most popular long-haul destination from France, where I live.
Looking beyond the rise in travel to the region, Matt Bradford, who analyzes trends and insights for Skyscanner, identified short booking horizons – a window of 30 days or less between booking and take-off – as a new behaviour. He explained by telephone that in France, in May and June, 39% of bookings made on the site were for departures within a month. (In the United States, that figure was 35 percent.)
Everything you need to know to travel to Thailand
When the gates open at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, it hits you: sweltering, humid heat. Within a minute, my skin was covered in a smooth film of wetness and sweat, dripping down my neck as we jumped into a cab. We passed roadside dumplings, skyscrapers and a seemingly endless string of stalls selling sex toy souvenirs.
The next afternoon, after a delicious lunch at the Rung Reung Pork Noodle – a stripped plastic stool, a haven for pork meatballs, noodles and broth – we head to Wat Arun, a temple built in Ayutthaya times on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. His “prang” soars over 200 feet above his head, intricately decorated with porcelain pieces and walkways that wind around him. As we were walking through the park, a lady approached us to offer a boat ride around a nearby floating market.
Our boat driver quickly ushered us through Thonburi’s network of klongs, or canals, lined with worn wooden houses, many leaning on stilts that hold them above the water. A woman wearing a straw hat with bows hanging from the band slowly approached us on her long-tail boat, offering bracelets, keychains and flowery hair clips. After we politely declined, she reached into her cooler and came out with a smile. “Beer?” While that wouldn’t normally send me any excitement, Bangkok had banned alcohol sales for 24 hours when it was elected, and a cold Chang sounded pretty good in this heat. I bought one for myself and our driver, and we continued to drift through the canals.
I’m no floating market expert, but let’s just say this one was slightly disappointing; after a quick snack of fried quail eggs with soy sauce and sugar, we headed back to Bangkok and spent the evening on a rooftop paying for drinks with crypto, the bar’s only payment option.
The next two days would see endless piles of sausages splattered in hot oil on street food carts, 3 a.m. massages on Khaosan Road and strolls down the side streets of Sukhumvit. Then, having been seduced by travelers and rabid locals from the south — they usually urged us to avoid Phuket, the notorious destination for tourists looking to get lost in the black hole of its nightlife — we hopped on a plane.
After the intense urban electric power of Bangkok, Krabi, a province in the southern Andaman Sea of Thailand, was a true breath of fresh air. We hopped on a shuttle that made various drop-offs in towns in the area. The driver played American country music as we drove past lush vegetation on winding roads, past a shooting range on the way to Ao Nang. A tourist, probably in her twenties, was talking to the woman next to her. “We don’t really have a plan,” she said.
They weren’t the only ones.
In Krabi, we depart by long-tail boat to explore Ko Poda, Ko Thap and Ko Khai (or “Chicken”) islands off the coast in Phi Phi Islands National Park. To say our first stop looked like a postcard would be a gross understatement. If you’ve ever imagined yourself on a desert island, gazing out over crystal-clear waters under the shade of a mangrove tree on a white-sand beach, this was it.
There was no one else in sight as we plunged into the calm water, wading happily with silly smiles on our faces. I quickly started noticing tingling on my upper arm. Thinking I was a hypochondriac, I ignored it. A few minutes later, back on shore, my friend mentioned that her arm was itchy, but felt it was probably from the combination of salt water and sunburn.
When we finally connected the dots about our ailments, we returned to inspect the water. Turns out the deserted white sand beach wasn’t deserted at all, but rather full of huge, translucent jellyfish, in the water and washed ashore, a small detail we didn’t register during our walk from the boat. Our driver didn’t seem too worried, though. When asked if the bites were dangerous, he laughed, shook his head and said, “No death, no death”, still laughing as he walked back to the stern.
Marijuana is now legal in Thailand. What does this mean for tourists?
On our last night, we returned to Railay Beach via a longtail boat, angled dramatically against the waves, with water splashing around the open sides of the boat. After wading through the water to reach the shore, we dropped off our things and went to the beach bar. “Hotel California” played in the background as the sun disappeared over the horizon, revealing the surrounding stars and vast cliffs that shone in the moonlight.
Then the power was cut off.
After a few minutes, the bartender created a makeshift glowing lantern by placing his phone’s flashlight under a bottle of Curacao. Candles were lit. We asked for another round. “Why not?” he has answered.
A stroll through the black town revealed shadows of massage ladies, chatting quietly while huddled together, watching in the way. The bartenders were hanging out, just their silhouettes visible in the dark. In a bar, candles cast a glowing light onto a pool table beyond open windowsills, an acoustic guitarist singing behind. We spent a few hours in this bar as the rains flooded the road outside.
Behind us, the bartender kept laughing to himself, repeating, “Why not? – apparently the unofficial town slogan – every two minutes. We couldn’t make out the faces of the people in front of us, just their shadows. Reality merged with a kind of dream world – in a good way.
Suddenly the lights came on. Almost immediately, the place that couldn’t have felt further from home made me think of the bars on Rue de Lappe, the notoriously rowdy street in my Paris neighborhood characterized by neon lights and fiery gunshots. Acoustic music quickly faded behind the 40 Top 40 songs playing on the stereo, and string lights flashed aggressively on the walls. It was time to go. The next morning I left Krabi, already feeling nostalgic as that night slipped from reality to memory on the journey back to Paris.
I’m not advocating always traveling without a plan. We missed a lot. The one thing we really wanted to do – traveling by train from north to south – was not possible without booking in advance. Our floating market experience could have benefited from better research. We could have seen more sights. But if someone had asked me, “Would you like to take a rickety long-tail boat in heavy swells to that remote beach town that will lose power, where you’ll be essentially stuck until morning?”
I would say, “Why not?”
Radziemski is a Paris-based writer. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @lilyradz.
10/3 Soi Sukhumvit 26, Khlong Tan, Khlong Toei, Bangkok
Pork, bone broth and noodles are king here. It’s hot, crowded and delicious. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dishes from around $2.
Thai home cooking and seafood
143 6 Ao Nang, Mueang Krabi District, Krabi
This is a no frills restaurant serving delicious fresh classic dishes and seafood. I still crave the tom yum soup and fresh passion fruit juice. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Hands from around $3.
Ao Nang Night Market
Ao Nang, Mueang Krabi District, Krabi
The stalls in this night market offer many options, such as dried squid skins, classic noodle dishes and freshly grilled squid. You can then eat at an open table. Open Monday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday until 10:30 p.m. Main course from approximately $2.50.
2RQ8+H64 Muang Mueang Krabi District, Ao Nang
This bar has a large terrace that opens onto the beach. Watch long-tail boats come and go and paddle boarders row as the sun sets. There is an extensive menu and the food is fresh and delicious. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Bottle of beer from around $1.50.
2WD9+HH5, Ao Nang, Mueang Krabi District
Delicious cafe with an outdoor terrace overlooking the water. It’s more expensive than most cafes in the area, but the fresh coconut coffee is worth it. Open every day. Coconut coffee from around $5.
A seaside town with a laid-back vibe and stunning beach scenery. It also attracts people for its rock climbing. Although it is not an island, the beach is only accessible by long-tail boat. if you are carrying luggage, you will need to carry it through shallow water to access the boats. Long tail boat ticket about $3.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.