The city’s biggest international airport, Suvarmabhumi, was constantly abuzz with movement; travelers arriving from all corners of the globe at all hours, long lines snaking through the cavernous arrival hall as incoming passengers awaited their turn at the immigration counters.
Today, as the country attempts to balance fears of Covid-19 with the need to restart the tourism economy, Suvarnabhumi remains eerily quiet.
In a country where tourism contributes around 20% of the GDP, the absence of tourists has been devastating, forcing tourism-related businesses throughout the country — Bangkok included — to close.
Test & Go, take two
Thailand tourism officials are now hoping they can entice travelers to rediscover one of the world’s favorite cities.
Bangkok was amongst the first capitals in Southeast Asia to reopen back in November, its “Test & Go” program allowing fully vaccinated tourists from a long list of countries to enter the country.
Pre-approved passengers could fly in, get a RT-PCR test and head for their government-approved hotel where they’d await the results. If that test came back negative, they were free to explore the country at will.
It was a start. Around 250,000 travelers flew into Thailand in December 2021 according to government figures — a drop in the bucket compared to the 3.95 million arrivals recorded in December 2019.
But then in late December, officials put the “Test & Go” program on hold due to fears over the spread of the Omicron variant.
Travelers pass through an empty Suvarnabhumi Airport on January 1, 2022.
Matt Hunt/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Now, they’re trying again.
Those who do test positive will be transferred to a hospital or specially designated hotel, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
So what can those planning to visit Bangkok right now expect?
Covid prevention measures are in full effect. Masks must be worn everywhere, both inside and outdoors except while seated for meals or drinks. Those who breach the rules face fines. Temperature checks are a regular part of life, even when entering convenience stores like 7-11.
Museums, galleries, historical sites, spas, cinemas, pools, tattoo studios and sporting facilities are all open but must limit the number of visitors to 75% of normal capacity.
The Rolls-Royce of street food
Chef Jay Fai, far left, in her Bangkok restaurant on July 15, 2020.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
Covid-related lockdowns and travel restrictions have left their mark on businesses in Bangkok neighborhoods traditionally popular among tourists, with many restaurants, spas, hotels and bars forced to close their doors permanently.
But plenty of traveler favorites remain — and now might just be the best time to experience them given the lack of tourists.
Among these is Michelin-starred Jay Fai, one of Bangkok’s most popular street food restaurants.
Getting a table at this shop house on Maha Chai Road was no easy feat prior to the pandemic, with diners showing up hours before opening time to put their name on a wait list.
But describing 76-year-old owner and chef Supinya “Jay Fai” Junsuta’s cooking as “street food” is a bit like calling a Rolls-Royce merely a car. Crab omelets are her specialty and cost 1,000 baht (about $30) per plate.
However most doubters are silenced when they cut into one, the huge chunks of crab spilling out from their blanket of crispy, perfectly seasoned egg onto the plate. Other popular items on the menu not to be missed include her yellow crab curry and Thai classics like tom yum soup.
Assistants added charcoal to the fire or prepped ingredients, but as always the diminutive Jay Fay stood tall in her bright red lipstick, beanie hat and trademark goggles, worn to protect her eyes from the long hours in front of the intense heat. (To see Jay Fai in action check out the video at the top of this feature.)
Elsewhere, the city’s dining scene continues to evolve in spite of the pandemic, with a number of new and exciting restaurants elevating Thai cuisine to the next level.
Wat Pho without the crowds
Richard Quest explores Bangkok’s Wat Pho temple to visit its famed massage school and take in a meditation lesson with the venerable Deputy Abbot.
Both Jay Fai and Nusara are located in Rattanakosin — Bangkok’s historic Old Town. It’s home to several of the city’s most popular attractions, including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and the Golden Mount.
Visitors to these revered spots will enjoy a far less crowded experience than they would have in the past, when tour buses and tuk tuks lined the streets outside.
“I thought Thai massage was supposed to be gentle.” CNN’s Richard Quest learns the art of Thai massage at the Wat Pho Massage School.
On a recent journey to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s oldest temple complexes, just handfuls of travelers could be seen exploring its grounds.
Free of crowds, the complex’s golden shrines, ornate pagodas and wonderful, restful cloisters and corners are now ripe for quiet contemplation.
In Thailand, the main style of Buddhist meditation is mindfulness, known in the ancient Pali — the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism — as satipatthana.
Wat Pho Deputy Abbot Phra Debvajracarya Thiab Malai provides a quick meditation lesson.
During CNN’s visit to Wat Pho, Deputy Abbot Phra Debvajracarya Thiab Malai discussed the importance of meditation — and how it keeps one calm in a city as chaotic as Bangkok.
“Every day you take a bath to clean your physical body,” he said. “So, you can purify your mind by practicing the meditation. You have to focus your mind only on breathing in and breathing out and then your mind will be peaceful.”
For those who can’t seem to get it right, don’t worry. He says there’s no such thing as a bad meditation.
Luxurious riverside stays
Arguably Thailand’s most beloved TV host, Woody Milintachinda shows Richard Quest his favorite parts of Bangkok.
Like almost everywhere in the world, the pandemic has caused immense damage to Thailand’s hotel industry.
“There is now hope, not just for owners and operators, but for the employees as well,” she said, noting that “50% of hotels were closed and 50% of employees left the industry” since the start of the pandemic.
Though some Thailand destinations within the country were able to benefit from domestic tourism, Bangkok’s hotels have been forced to get innovative by offering staycation deals to attract local clientele.
Travelers coming to the city now will notice rates are far cheaper than they were in the past, offering great opportunities to splurge.
“Aside from constant training during the lockdowns, we have challenged ourselves to explore less traditional strategies to capture our wonderful local market,” said Capella general manager John Blanco of how they stayed open during the pandemic.
“Be it in our unique accommodations, restaurants or our spa, finding ways to package and deliver experiences despite the restrictions has been an interesting exercise. We are positively thrilled to see tourism gradually returning to Thailand but equally happy to have had the opportunity to build relationships with our local market.”
Bangkok’s riverside has gone through a revival in the last decade, with the Talad Noi neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown becoming particularly alluring. This historic area features a wonderful mix of galleries, cafes, street art and restaurants in renovated shophouses and even factories.
Bangkok’s nightlife continues to slumber
Richard Quest sits down with Thailand’s famed drag queen, Pangina Heals, to discuss her art, the country’s history of gender fluidity and walking in high heels.
Though many of the classic Bangkok experiences travelers crave are ready for their return, there’s one area that officials haven’t fully resurrected — the party scene.
Entertainment venues such as nightclubs have been closed for much of the pandemic, reopening for several months only to be forced to close again in April of 2021 due to Covid-19 flareups.
Today, they remain shut and no official reopening date has been set. But this being Bangkok, the party spirit hasn’t quite died out.
Khao San Road, December 10, 2021.
Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
Certified restaurants are permitted to sell alcohol until 11 p.m., leaving a gray area some bars that serve food have been able to inch into.
A December 2021 visit to Khao San Road came as proof that the party isn’t over, with multiple venues on the famed Rattanakosin street filled with patrons enjoying drinks well into the night.
So while Bangkok still has a long way to go to being back to where it was, those willing to take the risk of traveling in these uncertain times will find a toned down, quieter version of the city they know and love.
CNN’s Richard Quest contributed to this feature.