Different Spokes Chiang Mai Report!

Longtime Spoker Roy Schachter (now former member) retired and moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand at the end of 2018 mentioned here. Roy sends us a report on life in Thailand during the coronavirus epidemic. Here is the first part.

I chose to come to Prachuap Khiri Khan for about a two-month stay due to the terrible air quality for 3-4 months each year in my chosen retirement location of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. In fact last year was worse than many prior years and this year is turning out to me even worse than that in part due to large forest fires close to the city. Last year I had hoped to be able to stay in Chiang Mai throughout the year. But after getting sick for a couple of weeks and having continued albeit less severe symptoms for much longer, I decided to take a five-week trip, leaving on March 29 to Bali with an extended stop in Malaysia on my return, getting back to Chiang Mai on May 2, 2019. This year I left on March 5 intending to return about end of April, until I began a long-planned, one month trip back to California for June. Alas, I almost surely will not be traveling back to the U.S. anytime soon because if I left Thailand now, I could not get back in. That might change by early July when I would have been returning, but who knows? Even if I could travel, I could be subject to self-quarantine at either end of that journey. And if things are still out of whack, I am probably better off staying in Thailand for the time being as this is home to me – and more practical and economical and probably also more enjoyable. Additionally, any kind of travel via plane, bus or train, with hotel or AirBnB lodging would carry far higher risks this year, particularly for me since I am in the higher risk groups of age and underlying health conditions. I know I should limit my travel this year, although I might still go to California in fall 2020 if things improve significantly.

My situation here in Thailand is still rather quite good despite the many changing and increasing restrictions. I am not experiencing the severe hardships faced by so many and I am still able to get out on my bicycle a couple of hours each day. I try to keep up with local and international news and I know many people are experiencing hardships during this time, with unemployment or loved ones sick or even dying or the imposed restrictions being very problematic. I feel for all who are suffering, all around the world – the income interruption alone will be an extremely difficult challenge for so many who just get by and have few resources for an extended economic shutdown. For me, even with the dramatic drops in the financial markets, and my investments, fortunately I am still reasonable financially secure and stable. So, with the pandemic and its health challenges to each of us and our families and friends and others in our communities and also the stark economic difficulties faced by many, I am one of the luckier persons. As a contrast, a friend in Spain is facing the loss of loved ones, and his life is a daily challenge to maintain hope for a better tomorrow.

It feels like I am living in a parallel universe. The health crisis seems to be nonexistent here in Prachuap Khiri Khan, even though it most certainly is affecting the country and in many key areas, many things have been closed. The most beautiful and peaceful beach is at the edge of town and within a Royal Thai Air Force base, which is open to the public after taking a minute to sign in and get a temperature check (which has given incorrect readings of about 34.5 C for me on two consecutive days, a full two degrees below what my own digital thermometer indicates.) Once through the entry gate checkpoint, it is two km on my bicycle to the beach, crossing the landing strip and military housing and other buildings. Lounge chairs are available for daily use at the beach for twenty baht. Tasty, inexpensive Thai food is available for delivery to your chair or across the street at the food court. I saw a guy riding a motorbike a short distance, balancing a tray with the traditional tom yum soup serving ring which usually has a flame at the center, managing to drive and keep the soup from splashing over the rim of the serving dish – quite a sight! This beach, called Ao Manao, is even better than I imagined. The land forms a bay with beautiful outcroppings at each end and an island in the middle. The water is shallow all the way to the buoys delineating the swimming area, about 100 to 130m from the beach – where the water there was at waist level. Maybe only once before, somewhere, have I felt so buoyant. I can lie in the water on my back or front, without movement and my body floats including my legs, which usually sink. I know there are other places in the world like this, where the salt content makes you so buoyant. But it’s new to me and so nice to be able to lie just on top of the water.

My parallel universe quickly converged with much of the rest of the world. Fortunately the actual situation of CV infections and fatalities in Thailand is still relatively low and there are no cases in town. In contrast Chiang Mai has had 40 cases and fortunately no new cases for the past five days. Thailand’s CV cases, which had remained under 50 for weeks, suddenly started multiplying and is was over 2,000 last week. That resulted in a series of increasing and substantial restrictions which has dramatically shut down most travel as well as tourist businesses, hotels, restaurants (take-out only), parks, some beaches, and much more. Fortunately after a period of 100+ new daily cases nationwide, much of the past week has seen daily increases of less than 50. The nearby Royal Thai Air Force Base closed to visitors just recently. My plan to spend several hours at the wonderful Ao Manao beach several days each week is now just a dream. I get most of my info about the COVID-19 situation here on Facebook and am careful to discern which sources are reliable. Last week I gasped when I saw a notice requiring all foreigners who arrived in Prachuap Khiri Khan province (where I am now) after March 15 to report to the local hospital. I arrived on March 14, so the order does not apply to me. But I was worried – what if my hotel or the police think I should report to the hospital? I talked to the hotel mgt and they told me not to worry. And nothing has come of it since.

Then the next day I saw an order for all hotels in the province to close – except if there were any remaining guests, who would be allowed to continue to stay. But if my hotel chose to close, I could not get into any other hotel here – and it would be very difficult or impossible for me to return to Chiang Mai at this time. I talked to the hotel owners and they told me not to worry, I could stay. The next day, I saw someone else in town say his hotel would not extend his stay, so he had to leave within one day. I gulped again, talked to my hotel’s owners and they assured me I could stay beyond my current paid month. That was a big relief and actually an emotional moment for me, as I felt threatened with eviction with no good or easy options. And so I learn in a very personal way how some others face this kind of difficulty in their lives, not just due to the current health crisis. Of course, I am fortunate in many respects and even though I could be subject to some big challenges, I know I will be okay – unless I get the novel coronavirus. But it’s still kind of scary and upsetting.

The very next day all of a sudden I am the only remaining guest at my 24-room motel-style hotel. What a strange feeling! They turned off many of the lights, drastically reduced their staffing and only have the front desk staffed from about 8 pm to 6 am, for security reasons. Much of the day I am the only one around. I stay most of the day in my second floor room or on the comfortable first floor patio-corridor. I had reserved a hotel room for my first week here at another hotel in front of the beach, but I wanted a room better for a longer stay. I found an ad for a nice little furnished house, but they would not consider a short-term rental of 1 to 2 months. Unfortunate, and I imagine that house is still not occupied, but many places are only available for a minimum of 6 months or a year. I checked out many hotels as well as an apt-room which does rent monthly and found some viable options, but then I found out about the emergency decree which would come into effect in a couple of days. With that in mind, I quickly choose my current hotel room, at double the cost of some of the other options, since I knew if I might have to spend most of the day in my hotel, so I felt I would be more comfortable here. Included in my consideration was my very good first impression of the woman owner and her son – and I was right about that. She gives me food treats some days such as sliced watermelon, fresh corn salad with basil leaves, and Pa-Tan-Go, a Chinese style fried dough. Every culture seems to have a fried dough food. Fortunately this one was not very sweet. I would have felt more isolated at the other lodging options, with little help available and no one to talk to. The U.S. gov’t relief “check” which I will soon get will offset some or all of these higher costs. With all the U.S. taxes I still pay, I have no qualms about accepting this payment, which also allows me help out some local friends a bit.

I shipped my travel Bike Friday bicycle, which collapses and can be packed in a hard-shell suitcase, to my hotel here from Chiang Mai, which only cost about US $13 – similar shipping in the U.S would probably cost $50-$75. This has allowed me to have a comfortable bicycle for my extended stay – and I use it every day. I buy most of my food at a long open-air covered fresh market along the rail line, one km, less than five minutes by bicycle from my hotel. Everyone, including me, wears a mask. I eat nearly all of this low cost and tasty prepared food in my hotel room or on the patio. One exception is the tasty pizza I’ve been getting a couple of times each week, available for take-out only – cost about US $7. I’ve hidden behind the stone beach wall, looking at the waves, to avoid being noticed, but always alert to any approaching authority that might chase me away or cite me. I feel like a criminal and now I think even that is getting more risky. Less appealing but safer will be to take the pizza back to my room less than 10 minutes away by bicycle.