Patong in the pandemic: Marooned in a Thai paradise

This morning I awoke to a message from my friend Max Williams who you know as a regular travel writer for YourLifeChoices. As world travel began to grind to a halt last month, with the onset of covid-19, Max and Jenny decided to err on the side of caution and cancel their trip to Phuket.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it was a wise decision. However, rather than disappoint readers on missing his coverage of Phuket, who better to conscript as a surrogate foreign correspondent (a Thai resident for six years) than Pete! Make it light-hearted and topical, he said. What a brief during a global pandemic! Oh, my Buddha!

So, here I sit on my condominium balcony in Patong, Notebook on my lap, listening to the sound of sizzling emanating from the kitchenette. My Thai partner, Tean, has found solace in cooking during this period of isolation. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know the inherent love of food Thais possess. It is ingrained within their culture. Her Thai culinary skills are exemplary, but she’s keen to diversify and is attempting lasagne for the first time after viewing a YouTube video. Thais are versatile and I have no doubt it will be a success.

Beyond my balcony, the panoramic view appears unchanged and gives no indication of the current crisis, unless you listen. The motorbike traffic noise has diminished, as has the constant drone of air-conditioners and din of construction sites. A myriad of sounds has now changed the aural landscape. Nearby, swifts twitter as they dart about, children giggle, distance conversations, squirrels and a symphony of cicadas join other wildlife calls from the adjacent jungle. Either the local fauna is moving closer or the new ‘quiet’ has made it more noticeable. Bang! Now an electricity outage as a local transformer blows a fuse. Complete and eerie silence.

bangla rd

bangla rd during pandemic

Patong is a tourist and resort town, and the gateway to the islands of Phang Nga Bay. Located on the south-west coast of Phuket and facing the Andaman Sea, it is nestled between two headlands that form a wineglass-shaped bay. The surrounding hills are covered with lush, verdant rainforest and the town is edged with a 3km white sandy beach. The colours here are vivid and the climate wraps itself around you like a welcoming shroud. It’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph here.

patong beach closure

April is traditionally a time of celebration with Songkran, the Thai new year and water festival, falling midway through the month. The place is usually packed with tourists and Thais enjoying their summer holiday break, but sadly this year celebrations have been officially cancelled. Alas, Phuket is in lockdown with the closure of Sarasin Bridge that connects to the mainland. Patong is now a ghost town, locked down within the lockdown, with all access points roadblocked, having been declared a covid-19 hotspot. Bangla Road, the main entertainment precinct, and most businesses were closed a few weeks ago as was the beach. Ironically, it’s never looked better and seems to be reverting to a pristine paradise of bygone days.

patong beach

Decrees under the state of emergency are implemented very quickly here as a friend and fellow Patong resident recently discovered. He was staying on Koh Lipe, a remote and somewhat deserted island near the Malaysian border, when the ferry company posted a ‘See You In August’ sign. Just imagine! Luckily, he made it off the island by speedboat and travelled to Ao Nang in Krabi, only to find out at 9pm that Phuket’s bridge would close at midnight. After an anxiety racked two-hour drive he made it back in time. In the opposite direction, there was a 5km column of traffic backed up waiting to exit the island.

For those of us marooned in paradise, the only entertainment left is to visit the supermarket; even that’s not so popular. With fully stocked shelves and no sign of panic buying, yesterday’s shopping saw me wandering alone down an aisle packed with toilet rolls, boxes of tissues, paper towels, wipes and hand sanitisers. I momentarily pondered being the envy of the Western world. Toilets here are equipped with handheld bidets. If only this concept was embraced in toilet paper dependent countries, the phenomenon of hoarding wouldn’t occur. In contrast, a friend makes his visits to the supermarket far more engaging than mine. The wearing of a face mask and temperature checks by security guards armed with handheld infrared monitors are compulsory before entry. My recalcitrant friend has taken to freezing his bandana and wears it for two minutes prior to the check, just to see the look on the guards’ faces. Last time his body temperature reading was 25°C degrees. He must have been a handful as a child!

temperature check at thai shopping centre

My same friend, who is a Korean resident but spends six months of the year in Patong, hasn’t been coping very well with the concept of staying put. He’s been busting to return to Seoul since ‘the curve has flattened’ there. Getting to the Phuket International Airport has proved almost impossible as no taxis are allowed in or out. Trying to appease his frustration, I suggested he walk to the roadblock and organise a friend to pick him up. There’s a huge risk, even if he made it to the airport, as the probability of being stranded in Bangkok is highly likely, given he’s booked to travel on the last day before all airport closures. Further investigation has revealed that upon arrival in Korea he will be fitted with a tracking device, which has since dampened his enthusiasm to return. Sometimes the reason for seemingly insurmountable delays in life are realised given time.

patong beach empty

With the focus of the media on the pandemic, most other news items pale into insignificance excepting two reports in Thailand last week. There were two rare occurrences relating to wildlife encounters in separate national parks that caught my attention. In Chiang Mai province, a group of firefighters on patrol were forced to scale a tree to escape a small herd of wild elephants and, in central Thailand, a man searching for plants and herbs in a forest experienced the return of an Indo-Chinese tiger to the park after an absence of 20 years. It was a bittersweet encounter with the endangered species as, unfortunately, it devoured him. What better incentive than to remain in isolation.

Thankfully, I’m well equipped with digital technology accoutrements to endure this hiatus, with Notebook, Netflix, camera gear and some hefty unread analogue books as back-up. However, I’m yearning to resume my morning beach walks and swims, and look forward to the prospect of boogie boarding again as surf starts this month with the monsoon season approaching. My BMW motorbike also awaits me.

Let’s hope, when all this is over, that COVID-19 hasn’t shrunk my clothes. 

What’s life like for you right now? Do you have any friends overseas who are sharing their stories with you? Why not share them with us, in the comments below?

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Written by Peter Barry

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