Dreaming of Thailand: Five places to soothe pandemic stress, with shorter quarantines ahead

The serene coastal environment of Krabi.
The serene coastal environment of Krabi.PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

THAILAND - Vaccinated Singaporeans may soon consider a trip to Thailand's remote corners to soothe pandemic stress. The nation is now planning to shorten hotel quarantine for vaccinated travellers, to try to revive its tourism industry.

Since October, Thailand has been accepting foreign tourists, but they need to do a 15-night hotel quarantine at their own expense. Few tourists have been willing to endure this costly and arduous exercise.

However, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently announced that his government is working on a plan to do away with quarantine for vaccinated travellers eventually. That includes introducing vaccine passports for incoming travellers, which certify that they have been inoculated against Covid-19.

Last week, Deputy Premier and Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul gave more details, saying the quarantine for vaccinated foreign visitors will be reduced to seven days from 14 days currently.

Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters: "We have to be fast because we want to start welcoming tourists in the third quarter."

Already, the southern resort island of Koh Samui, which has its own international airport, has announced plans to allow quarantine-free travel for vaccinated tourists from Oct 1.

In January, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry coronavirus task force, suggested that vaccinated Singaporeans may avoid having to serve a lengthy stay-home notice when they return from an overseas trip in future.

Last Friday, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said bilateral travel corridors for vaccinated passengers from places with low to moderate infection rates may open in the second half of this year.

Singapore citizens who are thinking of post-vaccine travel in the months ahead will find restful places away from overcrowded cities in the Thai kingdom.

The timeless appeal of these peaceful places is a major reason I've lived in Thailand, on and off, for the past eight years.

Here are five of the country's most beautiful and isolated spots, including jungle waterfalls in Kanchanaburi, empty beaches in Hua Hin and northern mountain caves.

1. Soppong: Deep beneath Northern Thailand


The cavernous interior of Tham Lod cave in Soppong. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL


The mountainside countryside of Soppong. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

Many Singaporeans were riveted by the 2018 rescue of a Thai boys' soccer team stuck in a cave in northern Thailand for 17 days. Exploring the dark rock chambers of this wild part of Thailand - safely - is popular for both locals and tourists.

It was a mysterious cave that drew me to Soppong, a small town that is a four-hour drive north-west of Chiang Mai, near the border with Myanmar.

There are hundreds of rock chambers near Soppong, including some of the world's largest and most intricate cave structures.

Nestled within towering karst mountains, which are draped in jungle, the caves in this region own spectacular locations and of spiritual significance to the hill tribes.

The most famous cavern is the Tham Lod Cave. As I stand in its enormous entrance, staring into darkness, I feel truly insignificant.

Measuring more than 1.6km long, Tham Lod is pierced by a river and adorned by an astounding array of stalagmites and stalactites.

Its natural splendour is complemented by intriguing human input. Tham Lod is embellished by pre-historic rock paintings up to 2,000 years old, as well as by wooden coffins just as ancient.

This cave-burial practice is believed to have been carried out by the Thai Lawa tribe, who carved the coffins from teak.

2. Chiang Saen: Ancient kingdom in slumber


The remains of an ancient temple in Chiang Saen. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL


A hilltop temple in Chiang Saen. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

Hugged by the Mekong River, flanked by forested hills and dotted with ancient monasteries, Chiang Saen is so laidback that it quickly lulls me into a deep state of relaxation.

Yet, seven centuries ago, this was not a place of serenity, but the capital of a mighty kingdom.

Tourists often visit one-time Thai capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, but very few investigate the grand royal remains at Chiang Saen.

Perched on Thailand's far north-east, near the border with Laos and Myanmar, this sleepy town was the first capital of the powerful Lanna Kingdom, which controlled a swathe of Thailand between the 13th and 16th centuries.

Chiang Saen held this status for only three years, until 1262, but remained a key city of the kingdom. At its peak, in the mid-1300s, it was a thriving metropolis protected by a city wall and embellished by more than a dozen magnificent monasteries and temples, including Wat Phra That Pha Ngao.

I am able to visit surviving sections of this wall as well as some temples built during Chiang Saen's heyday, including Wat Pa Sak. Dating back more than 700 years, it is a Buddhist complex crowned by a tall stupa and surrounded by forest.

As I wander, it is easy to imagine the commanding capital that once existed here.

3. Kanchanaburi: Waterfalls and wilderness


A waterfall in Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

Kanchanaburi is best known for its sombre links to World War II. This small city, 110km east of Bangkok, is a popular day trip from the Thai capital due to its wartime cemetery, war museums and the River Kwai Bridge.

Made famous by the Hollywood film The Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957), the structure was built during WWII as part of Japan's infamous Death Railway between Thailand and Myanmar.

When I travel beyond this town, I am rewarded with idyllic countryside deep in this province that is about 26 times the size of Singapore.

Large parts of it are occupied by seven well-maintained national parks, and the most popular are Erawan and Khao Laem.

Erawan is famed for wildlife-rich jungle and dramatic waterfalls, some of which are lovely swimming spots.

Erawan Falls is flanked by many natural pools shaded by forest.

Khao Laem park, meanwhile, is ornamented by lofty karst mountains and a giant reservoir more than 50km long, around which are many relaxing waterside resorts.

4. Across Thailand: Deserted beach after deserted beach


A beautiful beach in Krabi. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

With a palm tree swaying above my head and the sun sliding from view, I lie on silky white sand, absorbing the gentle sound of ocean water lapping near my feet.

While enduring pandemic lockdowns in both Ireland and Australia the past year, I have often conjured up this tranquil memory.

It is not linked to one particular Thai location because I have savoured this sort of soothing experience at more than a dozen uncrowded beaches across the country. That daydream is a melange of sandy havens in Phuket, Krabi, Koh Samui, Hua Hin, Rayong and Trang.

Thailand is blessed with many pristine and empty strips of sand.

Once vaccinations allow people to travel freely to Thailand once more, I imagine many visitors will seek seclusion. There will surely be increased interest in the sandy delights of remote islands like Koh Lanta, Koh Mak, Koh Chang, Koh Jum and Koh Bulon.

5. Krabi: Mangrove majesty


Incredible tree root systems in a Mangrove forest in Krabi. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL


The dense vegetation of a mangrove forest in Krabi. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

My wife has her feet dipped in turquoise water as she sits on a tree root system so intricate, it looks unreal.

We are deep in a mangrove forest in Krabi province called Tha Pom Klong Song Nam. Growing from these wetlands is vegetation so dense, it almost feels like it could reach out and drag you in.

This is not the first time I've had this strange, cartoonish vision while travelling in southern Thailand, a place that is immensely verdant. Life seems to spring from every nook, with flowers sprouting from the ground, trees stretching towards the sky and wildlife frolicking.

Southern Thailand is rightly revered for its beaches. But those pristine strips of sand overshadow another splendid natural attribute - dense mangrove systems.

If you wish to feel fully enveloped by nature, just kayak or follow a boardwalk through one of these forests, which are especially plentiful in Krabi and Phang Nga Provinces.

• The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer based in Perth.