Luck, Travel and the Virus

I am a lucky bastard. In mid-February I had cancer and traveled to the USA to be evaluated for surgery. I qualified and had surgery on March 3, just about a week before Covid-19 shut down most non-emergency procedures. Lucky. A week later, I was out of the hospital and recuperating at a friends house (thanks to the Kirby’s!). Early the following week I could see the coming lockdown in Thailand and bought a new ticket in an attempt to beat the lockout. I made it home with less than 24 hours to spare. Lucky again. I wasn’t even required to quarantine. Without my lucky timing I would likely be homelessly wandering the streets of LA…or worse.

The lockdown in Thailand was pretty soft. Restaurants could only sell take away, but many businesses stayed open, some with curbside service. Streets were empty for a week or two but then traffic picked up. Tourists mostly fled. By the middle of April, my life was back to normal, but the borders were shut tight and all domestic travel was prohibited. Even Thai citizens living abroad were prohibited from coming home. It worked; locally transmitted cases of Covid-19 plummeted. Gradually, restaurants and golf courses opened, followed by bars, although most places that rely on tourists remain shuttered. The number of Covid cases dwindled to none. The government began allowing Thais to return home, but kept them in fortress-like quarantine. Thailand’s (pending) victory over Covid adds to my lucky streak. There’s a big advantage having an authoritarian government and a fairly obedient citizenry. Finally, domestic tourism began to not only open up, but to be strongly encouraged with some very good “Thai Resident” discounts.

Now it has been well over 2 months since the last local transmission of Covid-19. The only new cases are among the returning Thais (I never realized how many Thais were living in places like Sudan, UAE, Egypt, and everywhere else on the planet). A small percent of those returning tested positive in state quarantine. Last month they began letting in a trickle of foreigners, such as those that had family here, or had work permits. A few of them also have tested positive, but so far the virus has not escaped the quarantines. Best of all, my first post-op MRI came back clean, and I am officially NED (no evidence of disease)! How much luck can I have? Now, with virtually no foreign tourists, and many hungry resorts, Jane and I have set out for a domestic adventure.

Booking a trip was a bit difficult, with resorts and airlines unsure or uncommitted to opening. It took two tries to book our airline tickets and two tries to book a resort. Our first stop was Khao Sok National Park.

Traveling by air within Thailand was easy and convenient. Masks required, and no food or drink on board – even the seat pockets were emptied. But all seats were used, and outside of temperature checks and logging in to the Thai Chana (translates as “Thailand Wins”) surveillance app, the travel was uneventful. With no security or check-in queues, air travel was easy and pleasant.

Masks up upon arrival at Surat Thani airport.

Our first stop for 2 nights was Khao Sok National Park. The Park’s main attraction is the large reservoir backed up behind Ratchaprapha Dam. The dam, completed in 1987, flooded towering karst topography and virgin rainforest. This area is the wettest in Thailand, with over 3500 mm (138 in) of annual accumulation. Long-tail boats service several floating hotels anchored to the wilderness shoreline. We stayed at the Panvaree the Greenery, a high-end option about 45 scenic minutes from the Dam.

The weather during our stay was drizzly and dreary, fitting for one of the wettest places in Thailand. On our first night, we had quite an overnight storm that left us a bit queasy, and blew away some cloths we had hung out to dry. The next morning, the resort staff couldn’t find their rescue boat. Finally they realized that it sunk in the storm!

The staff spent several hours refloating their “rescue” boat.

The highlights of our stay included kayaking the local waters, hiking to a jungle cave festooned with glittering stalagmites and stalactites, and enjoying delicious and abundant southern Thai food at our floating home. I highly recommend the Panvaree – very friendly and comfortable for a floating, wilderness resort. But I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the entire experience.

On the way to the Cave.

The low water level of the reservoir exposed about 10 m of normally submerged shoreline and the exposed, drowned deadwood constantly reminded me of what a beautiful albeit inaccessible place this must have been before the engineers arrived. The building of the Dam necessitated moving several villages and displaced more than 300 households, but also generates 240 megawatts of hydroelectric power and fuels a small tourist industry surrounding and within the park. For anyone willing to swallow these contradictions, I would advise visiting the lake when the reservoir is full; that way at least you can pretend the lake is natural.

Our trip will continue on Koh Phangan.