About three hours south of Bangkok, after navigating the trudge normally associated with highways 35 and 4, most cars exit the junction near Cha-Am Beach and head to Hua-Hin. Overhyped in Thailand but fairly low on the must-do list for international tourists, the late King turned this once sleepy town into a cluster of high rises and beachfront properties now cluttered with entitled Bangkokians every weekend and holiday. Unbeknownst to many, including us when we first needed a place to escape the Annual Northern Thailand Burning Festival, if you drive south for about another hour you’ll reach one of the last remaining uncrowded and beautiful beachfront regions in Thailand. Visited mostly by a devoted group of kiteboarders drawn to the large sandy beach and seasonal afternoon winds, Sam Roi Yat qualifies as one of Thailand’s only remaining hidden gems.
Thankfully, we’d discovered it a few years before The Great Hunker Down year entirely by chance. Having spent the previous “burning season” further south in a very deserted beach town called Bang Saphan, we didn’t yet feel like returning back home so we found an AirBnb in Khao-Tao, just south of the main Hua Hin tourist drag. Rented out seasonally, the house was in a moo-baan (gated community) known as Manora Village and was literally built in a field next to shanty-looking dwellings where you’d almost feel uncomfortable walking if you didn’t live in Thailand. Wishing to avoid Hua-Hin, we ventured south down some local roads and discovered a few developments too expensive for most Thai people, a strangely well-developed mangrove forest park with boardwalks and English signage, a country club (probably for the expats in the new developments), and the mostly unknown Khao Sam Roi Yat National Park.
Following the strangely accurate directions on Google Maps, we doubled back to the main highway, passed through a typically inglorious Thai city known as Pranburi, and happened upon the small village of Pak-Nam Pran. Highlighted by The Sheraton Hua-Hin, (a geographically incorrect name), and a rather upscale-looking paved boardwalk, we found an unpretentious beach town dotted with low-key restaurants, small bars, and a long stretch of white sand beach. Vowing to spend some time there the following year, we searched AirBnb and found a large pool villa literally in the middle of nowhere. Priced a bit high for Thailand given its proximity to nothing and need for your own transportation, it’s situated in a nice little community of modern bungalows and the fully furnished amenities make up for the price tag. Possibly the only downside, electricity is charged separately. Often standard practice at Airbnb establishments in Thailand, it’s because foreigners usually leave the aircon blasting all day while outside of the house. Generally stated clearly in the property description, many travelers don’t read carefully and get caught short of cash at the end of their stay.
Located about five minutes from a scenic cliffside beach called Khao Kalok, the pool villa is just far enough from anything resembling major tourism that you’d want to spend your time relaxing, drinking at small beachside establishments, and walking on the clean beach. Normally packed with locals gathering in the shady part of the sand, Khao Kalok is quintessentially Thai with vendors renting umbrellas, food stalls selling spicy food, and stray animals roaming all over. Hosted by a low-key but friendly European named Denzil, the pool villa is part of Mountain Beach Villas, a small community of about 30 modern bungalows. Managing four rental properties, Denzil lives there year-round and we enjoyed our ten days so much in 2019, we asked the owners to block out 30 days in 2020. Obviously unaware of what was to come, that’s how we coincidentally wound up trapped for 55 days in a small Thai beach town during the height of a global health crisis.
As referenced in my last post, we had just returned from Australia (narrowly) and felt a need to escape Bangkok’s surreal new Covid world where everyone seemed tense. Arriving three days earlier than planned, it was just before the pandemonium and national restrictions. Welcomed by Denzil, we thanked him for letting us check in early and walked down the street to Won’s Bar. Best described as the village social club for a small group of European expats that enjoy drinking copious amounts of alcohol and bullshitting, we’d normally not hang out with this crowd. But given how community announcements were made over loudspeakers in Thai, we figured they might help should the situation escalate. While hardly noticeable in populous areas like Chiang Mai, the archaic loudspeaker announcement system still serves as a daily information source for locals despite the fact that everyone in Thailand owns a smartphone. Monitoring the situation, Denzil also signed us up to a local social media group run by foreigners living in the area to keep us appraised of ongoing developments.
Temporarily free to go anywhere, we set out exploring and discovered the local fresh market. Setting up twice a week, it’s more rustic than Chiang Mai’s version but mangoes are amazing anywhere in Thailand. Allowed to operate even after the restrictions, it’s the primary shopping place for the local community and it became our destination for take-away dinner every Wednesday and Sunday. Uniquely different depending on what region of Thailand you’re in, fresh markets always mark the center of small communities and this one sold delicious marinated pork and roasted chicken. After patronizing many of them over five years in Southeast Asia, we’re proud to have supported the local economy and urge you to do the same if you visit. Never understanding why so many white people live in Asia but only buy processed frozen shit from big-box supermarkets and specialty stores selling food from their homeland, eating locally is an essential and enjoyable part of the overseas experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Interestingly, right when we thought we’d found the most pristine and undiscovered Thai beach town, Denzil told us about an even quieter stretch of beach a few miles south. Known by locals as Dolphin Bay, it takes a few turns down some local roads to reach a two-lane beachfront street dotted with small resorts and restaurants. Described as “ideal for families looking for a quiet beach destination not too far from Bangkok” don’t expect white sand or turquoise water. Even though the beach scenery is pretty, the sand is brownish and the sea color isn’t pristine. Probably quite relaxing during normal times, Dolphin Bay Resort is the area’s namesake hotel. Surrounded by limestone mountains at both ends of the beach, the hotel’s marquee attraction is apparently being one of Thailand’s most child-friendly resorts. Translating that to a more realistic description, “excessive noise and screaming babies” sounds more accurate to me. Not for us.
Wondering how Dolphin Bay supports enough tourism even in normal times, the area was mostly shuttered by the time we went exploring in late March. Thankfully, we found two great places that stayed open (for takeout only) during our 55-day captivity. Once the restrictions started, our routine included twice-weekly drives south where we walked the beautifully remote stretch of beach and took home Thai seafood in the late afternoon for dinner. Sheltered from the winds and too shallow and calm for swimming, we imagine there’s not much to do anyway besides walk, read and meditate so that’s what we did. Other than the occasional foreigner in a boat (violating emergency restrictions), it was usually just us. Without much work and with no tourists, there was no reason for locals to be out. Ending on an isolated area accessible only during low tide and identified as Secret Beach on Google Maps, this four-mile stretch is one of Prachuap Khiri Khan‘s best. Don’t miss it.
Regarding the food scene in Dolphin Bay, we found two establishments that stayed open after they announced restrictions and we highly recommend Jim Dang Restaurant. Remembering them from the year before, they didn’t have half the items on the menu thanks to limited deliveries and no demand, but they always had Tamarind sauce Shrimp, spicy but flavorful Tom Yum Seafood soup, the world’s best Stir-Fried Clams with basil, and hefty portions of Kho Pad Poo (crab fried rice). Reasonably priced for seafood, dinner was always less than fifteen bucks. Usually, an old Granny cooks at family-run businesses while the wealthier sons live somewhere more prosperous and collect the profits. Once the province stopped allowing new visitors, tourism died, locals couldn’t afford seafood anymore and with only a smattering of year-round expats, the elderly cook and her one helper smiled and welcomed us every time we arrived.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the name of the other Thai restaurant in Dolphin Bay that stayed open because it didn’t have an identifiable English name. Situated near the end of the quiet street, they had shaded tables and hammocks on the beach that we enjoyed one time before it was considered “dining in” and thus prohibited. Trying to avoid problems from local officials, we limited our trips away from the pool villa but a lack of vehicular traffic, police officers, and other humans rendered that a non-issue. But we also didn’t want to live on unhealthy crap from 7Eleven or frozen dinners from Thailand’s family-owned conglomerates so we established a network of takeaway dinners. Incorporating a post-walk afternoon “dinner run” into our daily schedule, we alternated between the two Dolphin Bay places, three or four local establishments in Pak Nam Pran, and any available street food opposite Khao Kalok Beach. Closed due to its National Park status, part of the beach was off-limits, and grumpy Thai park staff “patroled” the beach. (mostly they slept or waved a finger at anyone approaching too closely).
Coinciding with Thailand’s most famous and boisterously annoying national holiday, the burning season’s highlight is Songkran. Avoiding urban areas during this week-long noise fest, we normally hideout somewhere quiet. Technically commemorating the Thai Lunar New Year, it used to be celebrated with quiet ceremonies in temples but morphed into an idiot affair of water soaking and excessive alcohol consumption. Splashing anyone coming in their path, throngs of mostly young Thai children and post millennial foreigners douse cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, and each other until everyone is thoroughly drenched. Using water cannons, hoses, and balloons, they ensure no business gets conducted other than getting wet. Often dangerous to unsuspecting motorbike drivers, the already hideous road death rate jumps so high during the holiday week, they give it a name (The Seven Deadly Days).
Unlike Bangkok and Chiang Mai where everything closes for a week, smaller and less prosperous rural regions can’t afford a week off work so the local authorities designate specific “celebration days” for each village in the area. Familiar with this concept from our 2019 vacation, we remembered hearing excessive noise from local house parties when it was party time for residents living near the community. Thankfully, the noise only lasted a day or two. Although Songkran was weeks away, about three days after we arrived, we heard extremely loud Thai music coming from the community speakers one afternoon that lasted 45 minutes. Following the serenade, an unusually long announcement transpired and it sounded alarmingly important by Thai standards. Usually very monotone and often given by local monks to announce upcoming social engagements, the voice was loud, commanding, and stern.
Feeling like something was up, we texted Denzil and later he knocked on the door and told us it was an emergency announcement detailing new Covid19 restrictions. Speaking as much Thai as most white men with Thai wives (little to none), Denzil couldn’t translate but learned that the province was going into lockdown. Initially, this meant an end to in-person dining, no new arrivals at any lodging establishment, prohibition of water sports, closing tourist activities, advising people against going out, an end to public gatherings, and shopping for essential goods only. Unclear what this meant for us, they hadn’t actually closed the beach but threatening-looking Thai signage implied an emergency situation. Now in uncharted waters even for Thailand, local authorities told Denzil they’d be coming to every house in the community checking on foreigners and giving Covid tests to everyone. Obviously ridiculous for a rural district, the Thai love to say stupid shit to keep their citizens in line, and it mostly works. Meanwhile, Denzil emailed cancellation notices to all upcoming reservation holders and for the time being, we’d be the only non-residents in the community.
Noticeably subliminal, in Thailand they precede community loudspeaker announcements with soothing music, and every day thereafter, we heard the local authorities giving updates and announcements we didn’t understand. Through the social media group, we learned that a curfew was in effect from 10 PM until 4 AM for all but essential travelers and we noticed unattended checkpoints on every road in and out of the area. Mimicking Australia’s protocol that we witnessed a few weeks earlier, the government set up a national daily Covid19 briefing on TV in both Thai and English. From that broadcast, we learned that they banned inter-provincial travel indefinitely so we couldn’t go home to Chiang Mai if we wanted to. Changing daily and applying the rules differently in all 73 provinces, domestic travel restrictions cut traffic volumes in half, and shortly thereafter, the government imposed 14-day quarantines for anyone entering the most populated provinces by road (ours was included). Being Thailand, nobody knew how enforcement might work, if at all.
Following developments on Twitter and the social media group for local foreigners, we noticed the provincial governor seemed happy with the public’s response and manageably low infection rates. Although Denzil suggested always being within a few minute’s drive should the police come knocking, relaxed enforcement meant nobody ever came and we began settling into a daily routine of morning exercise and swimming followed by afternoon walks on the two nearby beaches. Unlike the major tourist draws in Southern Thailand including nearby Hua Hin, the beaches of Sam Roi Yat district weren’t closed. Alternating directions and beaches to keep it fresh, we began spending time with two stray dogs that followed our every move. Normally well fed and comfortably happy, the beach dogs of Sam Roi Yat clearly didn’t understand what happened to all the humans. Masking was now required everywhere including outside but with nobody around, we often removed them among the seclusion of our personal deserted beach and began bringing treats to our new best friends.
Reflecting back, what happened next in late March in 2020 was hilariously Thai. Allowing each provincial governor leeway with their own rules, we learned that in lieu of house to house checks, the provincial Governor declared that every foreigner who arrived from Bangkok after March 17th needed to “register with the authorities“. Naturally, the announcement was ambiguous and according to Thai wives who translated it literally for the local group, it only addressed foreigners in the Hua Hin district. Seemingly designed to ensure no new tourism from Bangkok, the province is huge but scantily visited other than Hua Hin and a stopover for transiting to Koh Samui. Choosing the stupidest possible option, the government chose local hospitals in the middle of a health crisis as the place to “register”. Probably the last place any healthy person should visit during a pandemic, we decided the rules didn’t apply to us since we were in Sam Roi Yat district and we asked Denzil to let us know if he heard any more details.
Approaching the “reporting deadline”, we finally received some information from the local expat group that the place for reporting foreigners in Amphoe Pranburi (our geographic location) was 45 minutes away by car at the district government building . Although unconfirmed, Denzil told us he’d heard that some other locals might be heading there so we trudged all the way to the main arterial highway and headed south. Arriving at an unceremonious building, we found several security guards and a few locals that spoke limited English but eventually understood the purpose of our visit. Immediately waving us far away from all the locals as if we had the Plague, they sent us to a large auditorium. Set squarely in the middle of the otherwise empty room was a table with three young Thai government workers, a bunch of lists, and some official-looking ziplock envelopes with Covid19 written on the seals.
Utilizing the entire workforce, Thailand assigned scores of uninformed workers to perform mundane tasks during the pandemic with little or no training. Obviously clueless, the three twenty-somethings nervously approached the table when we walked in. Using Google translate, we eventually communicated our purpose. Sure enough, the blank spaces on the registration sheet indicated we’d be the first and ONLY foreigners in the district that “registered” and this was ten days after the order. Always polite to foreigners, they spent 15 awkward minutes exchanging glances with us. Clearly unsure how to complete their task, Thai people rarely question authority and they had to figure something out so when we showed them an app designed for Covid reporting at airports, they seemed relieved. Muddling through a series of mundane questions about nationality, arrival date, visa information, and our local address, the hastily developed app finally indicated acceptance of our responses. Satisfied, the Thai workers smiled and sent us on our way. And to this day, I’m confident there were “officially” two foreigners in the entire district of Pranburi during the peak of the pandemic as far as Thai government records are concerned.
As March turned to April, the Songkran holiday period approached. Constantly competing and conflicting with each other, Thailand has dozens of official agencies with idiot names and no inter-agency communication. Desperately trying not to cancel the holiday, they first decided that banning alcohol sales in key areas might somehow limit the spread of an infectious disease. Unheard of anywhere else on earth, Bangkok and Chiang Mai went dry almost immediately. Knowing Thai logic and with my birthday approaching, we stocked up on beer during a weekly trip to the local Tesco. Requiring plastic crime scene tape around all seating areas and sections selling non-essential items, food supplies in the British-owned supermarket were sketchy at best but they usually had enough bread, cold cuts, and fruit to keep us nourished at lunchtime. Quickly becoming the most popular store in the small mall, the local Pizza Company (Thailand’s largest pizza franchise) baked hundreds of pies every hour and lineups remained high all day. Opting instead for MkRestaurant, a popular Thai suki chain, we brought home roast pork and dim sum every time we needed supplies.
Somehow caught by surprise, none of the alcohol-loving European locals saw the inevitability of our province declaring prohibition and sure enough, two days later they issued a provincial ban on alcohol sales. Intentionally giving a scant 24-hour notice, hoarding was already impossible once word spread to the English-speaking expats and local foreigners. Becoming the next victim of Covid19 prohibition, Prachuap Khiri Khan Province exemplified a totalitarian government disguised as a Constitutional Monarchy. Celebrating my strangest birthday ever, we cracked open some crappy Australian wine fresh from Brisbane, splurged on steak and pasta in styrofoam containers, and laughed at the childishness of banning 70 million citizens from enjoying a beer because of a health crisis. And of course, they eventually canceled Songkran celebrations anyway and promised paid holidays in lieu at a later date.
As a side note, the Thai Government has extended the “National State of Emergency” every month since the pandemic started and it was still in effect when we departed in October. Pressured by billions in lost revenue, they caved in on the booze ban after about two months and decided that banning alcohol wasn’t as effective as emergency declarations and curfews. Ironically, Thailand continuously reported some of the lowest new cases on the planet during the worst of the crisis but “face” dictated that only total eradication was good enough for the government. Sadly, after months of no new cases, that ended in 2021 when they began allowing migrant workers back.
Comparatively speaking, nobody on earth topped America regarding disinformation during the pandemic thanks to a deranged lunatic in The White House that’s directly responsible for 500,000 needless deaths. Certainly guilty of its own share of falsehoods, Thailand’s lack of transparency, corrupt government, and horribly high disparity of wealth haven’t helped its cause in fighting Covid19. Localizing the problem to our little beach town, sometimes foreigners created problems also. Remembering one of our favorite spots for Thai food in Pak Nam Pran, we searched for the cozy beachfront establishment soon after we arrived. Owned by a Thai woman originally from Thailand’s poorest region that’s married to a rather seedy British expat, we found her open but lacking customers even before the restrictions.
Advantageous for many, marrying foreigners lift scores of Thai women from poor rural regions out of poverty but often comes with a price. Often loveless marriages of convenience, men with every situation from multiple divorces to being socially inept get companionship and the luckier women escape a hard life of low wage service work or worse. Apparently agreeing to business ownership over hanging out at the spa and shopping, we’d met the proprietor and her husband before. Weathered looking and skinny, he’s one of “those know it all” types that convince everyone around him of his superior abilities to get things done. Thinking he’s a pillar of the local expat community with ties to local government officials (never available to foreigners), in 2019 he told us he could get our visas extended without proper documentation or funds (He can’t). Conspicuously aware of his bullshit, we listened to endless ramblings because we liked his wife and she cooked great food.
Thankfully, she stayed open even after the Covid restrictions and was more than happy to cook for us several times a week because she desperately needed the money. Strangely absent from the scene, the husband apparently split for Bangkok when the going got tough and left his three kids with his wife to fend for themselves. Spreading innuendo, he told his wife about inevitable all-day curfews bordering on martial law that he supposedly knew was coming because of his contacts. Often running low on supplies, she struggled to get by so we offered to pay more than the meal cost and agreed to let her take it off the bill when we came back. Avoiding judgment on the topic of Thai wives proves difficult for me even though many of our white male expat friends are married to Thai women. Hardly ever spending time together in public, Thai wives rarely understand or remotely care about western culture and often wait in limbo for the inheritance coming their way when their elderly husbands pass away. Hoping our favorite Thai cook in Pak Nam Pran is still able to feed the kids 14 months into the pandemic, I’ll keep the establishment name anonymous but show you the food because it’s among the best in Sam Roi Yat.
Uneventfully, time passed and as we followed events around the globe, Thailand mostly escaped any serious consequences with new cases dwindling from 120 a day in March to less than 20 by May. Authoritatively, the government continued its daily barrage of propaganda urging people to be mindful, and continues imposing tighter restrictions even to this day. Hoping the interprovincial travel ban might be lifted, we waited anxiously for April to end but on May 1st, they announced another 30-day extension. Comments on social media indicated no rhyme or reason regarding enforcement of quarantines for those defying the travel ban. While some reported driving long distances with no issues, others said they were turned back at provincial border checkpoints. Not having planned an extended vacation, my blood pressure pills ran low but unlike in North America, most medications don’t require prescriptions so I bought more and checked my supply of daily disposable contact lenses. After almost two months, we really wanted to go back to Chiang Mai and still had to pay monthly rent while nobody lived in the house. Negotiating an indefinite reduced rate with the pool villa’s owners, we decided to stay a bit longer and then take our chances on the road ten days later on a mid-week national holiday.
Bigger than it looks on a map, Thailand’s landmass encompasses 1,124 road miles from the southern border at Malaysia to the Mae Sai checkpoint with Laos in the far north. Covering about half the nation, our drive home was 565 miles (about 12 hours). Understanding Thai culture influenced our decision to leave on a sleepy mid-week holiday when travel was already low. Clearly sick of unpaid overtime, daily overnight shifts for curfew enforcement and actually working hard for a living, the pandemic weighed on Thai police officers. Saying goodbye to the pool villa 55 days after arriving, we headed north for Chiang Mai at 5:30 AM. Since the checkpoints were just closing shop for the day, we expected smooth sailing to Bangkok and breezed down the suburban freeways at 110 KpH almost the entire way. Arriving at the northern end of Bangkok’s ring road, we stopped at McDonald’s for an early lunch. Hilariously, the world’s most famous hamburger chain had no available beef so we ate McChicken sandwiches; in the car of course.
Negotiating Thailand’s central region became much easier since they expanded and paved the national highway from Bangkok to Lampang (one hour west of Chiang Mai) and it’s usually an easy four-hour drive at freeway speed. Chuckling when they see Chiang Mai license plates in the south, the Thai can’t grasp why anyone would drive so long when flying is easier and affordable which leaves the four-lane highway devoid of almost all traffic except for some trucks once you leave the Bangkok region. Needing to pass through nine provinces, we hoped for the best and amazingly, only one inter-provincial checkpoint at the remote province of Kamphaeng-Phet was manned. Quickly glancing inside our window, the Thai cop no doubt assumed I was another white guy with a Thai wife wanting to go home from somewhere and waved us right through. Unobstructed and relieved, we made the turnoff for Chiang Mai in a record nine hours and headed west unsure what to expect as we hit the homestretch.
Stopping one last time for gas, the mid-day sun beat down and the temperature clocked in at 37 Celsius (98 Fahrenheit). Residing south of Chiang Mai proper in Mae-Hia, we turn off onto a ring road before hitting the city limits but we expected a provincial checkpoint sooner than the interchange. Eyeballing our exit, we felt like criminals outrunning the quarantine police, and as we crossed under the last overpass before our clean break, the mid-week holiday gamble paid off. Hiding in the shade of the underpass, a group of Thai police dozed, slept, or just hid from the late afternoon sun. Knowing supervisors never work holidays, we figured lower-ranking officers might take advantage of low traffic volumes by goofing off and second-tier holiday workers rarely enforce rules in Thailand unless absolutely necessary.
Guessing they’d go back to work once the limited rush hour started, the checkpoint for the only major east-west access road into Chiang Mai sat unattended and we cruised home having escaped scrutiny. Foolishly choosing an international trip to Australia during a developing crisis, Diane still hates me for that decision, and barely getting back into Thailand before they locked down the borders was too close for comfort. After cleaning our dusty three-bedroom house in suburban Chiang Mai, we spent the next six months figuring out how and when to leave for Canada. Retrospectively, the same conservatism (or fear) that dictates my policy of keeping half our assets in cash probably saved us from disaster. Planning each day down to the last Napoli pizzeria, canceling our European 20th-anniversary trip irritated me to no end. But clearly, the odds of contracting Covid19 while visiting Italy in March 2020 were exponentially higher than the chances of a Thai police officer turning us away and forcing us back to a beautiful pool villa in a sleepy beach town during a global pandemic.
Having avoided any new cases in over three months, Chiang Mai began easing enforcement of restrictions by June of 2020 and a gradual phase back to semi-normalcy meant we’d be able to exercise at the gym without masks, dine out at sadly empty restaurants where social distancing wasn’t necessary (due to no customers) and renegotiate a temporary three-month lease with our landlord while attempting to reschedule flights back to Canada. Watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs from a bubble in Edmonton during the summer helped pass the time and narrowing down 26 boxes that we transported from California to Malaysia in 2015 proved challenging. Unable to use sea transport due to quarantine restrictions upon entering Canada, DHL air freight directly to Calgary was our only option.
So after experiencing a cornucopia of fun, educational experiences living in Southeast Asia, we ended the first chapter in The Experimental Expats Overseas Early Retirement after five years and three months. Perhaps fatefully, we didn’t make Mexico despite thousands of Canadians and Americans leisurely traveling back and forth over the last 14 months for vacations, snowbirding purposes and anything else they please as North Americans always do. Unclear where I should take the blog from this point, I’d be very interested in hearing suggestions from anyone kind enough to read this long post and thank all of you who continue supporting my writing. Cheers from Edmonton, Alberta.