Just two years ago, Thailand was one of the most visited countries in the world, welcoming nearly 40 million travelers in 2019. Of course, when COVID lockdowns were put into place, that all came to a screeching halt. For more than a year, the country remained completely closed to outside visitors.
The sudden lack of tourism provided both a blessing and a curse for the country, allowing natural environments a much-needed break from trampling feet, snapping cameras and littering. As one might imagine, tourism is a huge moneymaker for the country though, contributing about 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product — double the global average.
This sudden drop in tourism heavily impacted more than 7 million workers, from tour guides, restaurant owners and taxi drivers to hotel and spa staff. Many business owners let out sighs of relief when it was announced that Phuket, a once-popular island destination south of the mainland, was reopening imminently for tourism.
Huge COVID precautions are still necessary there, though, as the daily average of new cases continues to climb. As of the run date of this story, 11,589 Thais have died of COVID-19.
Prior to my arrival in Phuket, I already had preconceived notions of the destination. As someone who doesn’t typically gravitate toward places known for their nightlife, Phuket hadn’t been on the top of my must-go list. That’s not to say that I don’t like to go out; it’s just that when I travel, I’m looking for cultural experiences, wildlife excursions and top-quality food and drink — not packed beach bars and clubs.
Phuket had just reopened to the public on July 1, though, and heading there a mere week later meant that the crowds would be severely thinned, leaving mainly locals and extremely motivated international travelers.
I’ll also say that for any international traveling that takes as long as it does to get from New York to Thailand — 14 hours in total — the way you fly is pretty important when it comes to starting your trip on a positive trajectory. Our group flew via Qatar Airways in their supremely luxurious Q-suites, which supplied us with private quarters (including a sliding privacy door), lay-flat suites and an a la carte menu that we were able to take advantage of any time we wanted. As a result, we landed in Phuket after a layover in Doha feeling much better physically and mentally than if we had sucked it up and flown economy.
Upon arrival, we were greeted at the Phuket Airport by rows upon rows of white plastic chairs. There we were herded to sit while every traveler’s paperwork and mobile applications for entrance were thoroughly checked. After that fairly quick and painless process, we grabbed our bags and took a quick COVID test from a mobile station outside of the airport.
We soon arrived at our SHA-approved hotel, Rosewood Phuket, conveniently located in Patong Town close to the action of Patong Beach. Despite its location, the hotel felt like its own world — which I suppose is perfect for a group of travelers about to quarantine. The rooms and suites, designed by the Australian BAR Studio, are luxurious and modern with hints of Thai flavor. Private outdoor spaces offer guests a chance to dip in their own pools overlooking the ocean before hopping onto a cabana, and some of the pricier family suites even offer direct access to the stretch of beach upon which the hotel is situated.
Within 24 hours we were given our negative results, meaning that we were free to explore the island and didn’t have to relocate to a different quarantine hotel. From then on, the trip felt more like a typical vacation. We kayaked through mangroves near a Muslim village where the community has been rehabilitating a local crab species, ate dim sum at a hole-in-the-wall on the side of the road and learned to shake up cocktails with locally produced gin and rum at Chalong Bay distillery.
A highlight that I would recommend to any visitor heading to Phuket is to spend time with the elephants at Phuket’s first ethical sanctuary. Hosting around a dozen female elephants, the sanctuary mainly takes in elderly pachyderms that were mistreated by unethical tourism practices, injured, blind or had once been involved in grueling agricultural labor, which is now outlawed in Thailand. There, you can observe the elephants with minimal interaction, watching them majestically stomp around the grounds from the country’s longest canopy walkway, or feed the more outgoing ones a basket of fruit.
Travelers to Phuket are required to remain at the same hotel for one week before they’re able to switch spots, so we also spent ample time at Rosewood. Kind buggie drivers were always on call to zip us around the grounds as we made our way between our rooms and the grand lobby’s enormous modern lotus pond, or to visit the head chefs of Rosewood’s Ta Khai restaurant in their garden. An elderly married couple, Uncle Nun and Auntie Yai, lead Thai cooking classes when they’re not worrying about dinner service. The pair led us through their herb garden, plucking up fresh Thai basil and mini eggplants, before instructing us on how to prepare traditional dishes like refreshing green papaya salad, fragrant curry and warming Tom Yum seafood soup.
The close of our time at Rosewood was marked with another COVID test, for which we headed to the parking lot of a nearby mall. The testing experience was markedly less glamorous than our final destination of Trisara, located around half an hour’s drive up north in the Thalang District. Our drive led us through jungle forest and by gorgeous beaches that are worth a stop if you have the time.
Trisara is possibly one of the grandest hotels I’ve stayed at, and the more traditional Thai design of both the structures and decor made my Thai-American heart happy to see. Rooms were appointed with outdoor showers and private infinity pools, a hammock swayed gently in the breeze next to the hotel’s private stretch of beach, and the island’s first and only Michelin- and Green-starred restaurant, PRU, awaited us.
Also impressive was the restaurant’s farm experience, available to book through Trisara for both guests and non-guests alike, which brings you to the PRU Jampa Farm to pick fresh chicken eggs from the coop and blue-purple butterfly pea flowers (doubtless you’ve seen a cocktail recently that utilizes the ingredient) before handing your new basket of treasures to the chef to begin a multi-course lunch journey utilizing locally sourced and organic ingredients.
What Surprised Me
During my time in Phuket, I was blown away by how different the destination was from what I had expected. This was no one-note party town (though I’m sure once things are safe again, that aspect will resume). It was a thriving, unique cultural hub in the midst of an exciting transition.
The guide for our trip, Daniel Fraser of Smiling Albino, explained that while businesses lost money over the past year due to the pandemic, the downturn has also allowed for more local diamonds in the rough to finally surface in the eyes of travelers as tourism picks back up again.
“The smaller, lesser-known businesses and areas that may have been overlooked by big tourism over the years are getting noticed,” says Fraser. “Small community-based tourism initiatives like Bang Rong, as well as charming places like the old town of Phuket, have managed to survive and even thrive as they cater mostly to locals and expats.”
Old Town Phuket was a highlight for our group, and an underrated facet of Phuket that Fraser predicts will gain the attention it deserves as area tourism evolves. Once an international hub for tin trading, Old Town is now a charming place to wander and explore, dotted with local shops, surprisingly hip coffee shops supplying beans from Northern Thailand, hidden temples and some pretty incredible ice cream.
When Fraser first came to Phuket in 1995, he remembers it being naturally stunning, with long beautiful beaches, an already well-developed reputation and international brand name hotels. As the years have gone by, especially the one that is thankfully now behind us, Phuket has begun to welcome a new kind of traveler: those with more discerning tastes who want a hotel with a true sense of place and culturally authentic experiences to match.
As more travelers begin to re-enter Phuket, Fraser believes that people, and businesses “will focus more on quality versus quantity.” At least that’s what he hopes for: fewer people, deeper and more valuable experiences, and a focus on a longterm reward versus short-term gain. “I also hope this shines more light on great local community initiatives, locally-made products and environmental conservation,” says Fraser.
And it just might, as high-end travelers from Bangkok begin to make their way onto the bar stools of Old Town’s cocktail bars, international travelers practice ethical tourism by visiting Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, and upscale hotels and restaurants devote themselves to working exclusively with organic farms — something that is now possible thanks to an initiative by the Thai Organic Consumer Association.
But, what I realized in the end is that the beauty of Phuket is that you don’t have to pick and choose between upscale experiences and raucous evenings — you can have both. You can slurp roadside noodles after an ultra-luxury spa experience on the same day as a round of golf, a private yacht charter, a $1 fresh coconut on the beach or a walk down a 200-year-old, multi-cultural street.
Considerations When Entering Thailand
Traveling pretty much anywhere out of the country during this time is going to provide you with some paperwork hoops to jump through, and Thailand is certainly no exception. As of July 1, vaccinated travelers are fortunately able to arrive and skip the 14-day quarantine that is mandated for those entering the country sans vaccine. U.S. passport holders are also among those not required to obtain a visa when entering Thailand for tourism, as long as you plan to stay for less than 45 days.
What you are required to show is a Certificate of Entry, proof of an insurance policy that covers treatment for COVID-19 up to the cost of $100,000, and a recent negative PCR test. Make sure to download the ThailandPlus mobile application before you head over there, too, and register yourself on the app. Once you arrive, you’ll have that app scanned by the Thai authorities.
Since my trip, tourism has been reopened for the island of Koh Samui, which only fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to fly to, and on August 16 Thailand launched a program they’re calling the “Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension,” which allows eligible international travelers to travel outside of Phuket after a week. They’re then able to spend the next seven days in certain areas of Krabi, Phang-Nga or Surat Thani. Thailand is planning for a full reopening of the country on October 14.
For more information, check out this resource page by the Thai Embassy.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.