Greetings from Thailand: Recalling the past, indulging in the present

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In Chiang Mai, Lisu Lodge got by during the pandemic by attracting locals seeking nature and seclusion.
In Chiang Mai, Lisu Lodge got by during the pandemic by attracting locals seeking nature and seclusion. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew-Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

I had waited more than two years for this moment, and when it arrived, it was almost bittersweet.

This week, I got on a flight to Bangkok, a place I fell in love with at first sight decades ago and stayed in love with through the passage of time.

I had visualized it so hard -- the moment when I would stand in front of the immigration officer at Suvarnabhumi Airport and say, "Sawasdee kha"; that when that moment finally arrived, I of course would fumble and mutter, and she would look at me oddly, smile and say, "Welcome back to Thailand."

The passage to the kingdom was as smooth as silk. The Singapore Airlines flight was "100% full," as the check-in agent had gleefully boasted when she told me I couldn't have my customary aisle seat. The economy-class meal of pork and century egg congee was served in a paper box marked "Sustainable," an example of how this airline is rethinking its in-flight offering in tandem with the times.

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The entry was equally smooth. I showed my Go Thailand Pass (which was approved less than 24 hours after submission -- vaccination certificate, recovery memo, insurance) at check-in, on arrival and at immigration, and I breezed through. Suvarnabhumi felt quieter than I remember it in the BC (Before Covid) era, but it was still encouragingly busy.

This one-week trip to Thailand is as much about revisiting the old as it is about discovering the new, and I feel that just as I am, in my senior years, bridging the transition from young to old, Thailand, too, is undergoing a similar transition, from old to new. A passing of the torch, as it were.

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While I was there, I learned of the passing of the first travel industry leader I met on my first visit to Thailand as a rookie reporter. Kusa Panyarachun, age 103, set up World Travel Service in 1949, the first Thailand-based tour operator to handle incoming business. He was a man ahead of his time and led a generation of tour operators such as East-West Siam (Peter Larsen) and Turismo Thai (Roberto Jotikasthira), pioneers who shaped the beginnings of Thai tourism, and I am sure many tour operators in North America who've dealt with Thailand would know these special characters.

I met Khun Kusa when he was president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, and the former military officer and diplomat was a true gentleman as he made me feel at ease. I knew so little about travel then, but he always made time for me.

An tourism industry in transition

He leaves behind an industry in transition. From all the conversations I've had with industry folks, of different generations, Covid has been a time of great reflection. Almost everyone I spoke to believes that Thailand must find a better way forward for its tourism, that it mustn't go back to the bad old ways, that this is an opportunity to rise to the occasion.

Suan Sampran, a third-generation family business, has found a new life as an organic and wellness retreat.
Suan Sampran, a third-generation family business, has found a new life as an organic and wellness retreat. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew-Hoon

The Tourism Authority of Thailand has said that pursuing numbers is no longer its goal, the 40 million arrivals in 2019 not on its immediate radar. Yet the reality is this is an industry that is a vital part of its economy (said to be 12% of GDP), so a balance must be sought.

According to this report, there were about 340,000 foreign tourists in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 45,000 in the previous three months, and Thailand is expecting 5.5 million tourists in 2022. Given these numbers, it could be a long, slow recovery, but no one I spoke to seems to be in a big hurry. And anyway, you can't hurry anywhere in Bangkok because, well, the traffic jams are back, which you could say is a good thing. Even in Chiang Mai, where I am writing this from, traffic is fairly heavy in the city center.

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In Bangkok, I revisited my favorite cafe, Patom Organic Living, which is a good example of a travel business in transition. It's an offshoot of the Yuvaboon family business, the Rose Garden, that started 60 years ago. It transitioned to Suan Sampran, an organic village and resort, out of which grew Patom, started by the third generation of Yuvaboons.

A younger generation of Thais now only know the family business through Patom, which includes a cafe and organic products.

With wellness top of everyone's minds, including mine, I also visited the RAKxa Wellness & Medical Retreat on Bang Krachao, curious to find out what the fuss is all about. A 50/50 joint venture between MK Real Estate and VitalLife, a subsidiary of the renowned Bumgrumrad Hospital, it is positioned as an oasis of fully integrated healing located in what is known as the "Green Lung of Bangkok."

The Western machines they have are impressive - from oxygen chambers to cool sculpting to colon cleansing - and the alternative therapies on offer (aryuvedic, Thai, traditional Chinese medicine and energy) are extensive and comprehensive.

I will write more about this retreat but suffice to say, I was impressed by the holistic and integrated approach to wellness. Everyone must be diagnosed first ("Know Yourself" is the mantra) before any treatments or therapies are recommended, and to me, it represents an obvious direction forward for Thai tourism.

Yes, wellness has always been a part of Thailand's offerings, from names such as Chiva Som and Kamalaya, but this one seems to dial it up a notch and blends the lines between hospital and hospitality.

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"We feel this is what the new traveler wants," said Dusadee Tancharoen, managing director of RAKxa. "We must find a slower, more sustainable way of travel for Thailand."

"Slower, more sustainable" appears to be the catchphrase post-Covid -- from Cambodia to Thailand, to Penang and Singapore -- every destination is aspiring to slow down, and Thailand, ranked in the world's top 10 destinations in terms of international visitor arrivals in 2019, has a lot at stake.

Lisu Lodge finds a new audience

In Chiang Mai, I revisited Lisu Lodge, a native hill tribe community enterprise started 25 years ago when no one was really talking about community tourism. The pandemic was tough on the ecolodge, yet it has created a moment for it. When foreign visitors (100% of the lodge's business pre-Covid) disappeared, locals found it through influencers and social media. Lisu Lodge enjoyed pretty healthy business last high season as a result, said Asian Oasis CEO Chananya Phataraprasit, as locals who were seeking nature and outdoors discovered something unique and special in their own backyard. OK, they weren't as into the hill tribe culture and treks as the foreign guests, but they appreciated the experience of lodge living and the great outdoors, she said.

The Araksa Tea Garden, which is also part of the Asian Oasis collection, was also a good referral of business for the lodge. The tea plantation, which makes handcrafted teas for boutique shops around the world, also had its breakout moment during Covid among a younger generation of Thais, looking for new experiences and, yes, Instagrammable moments to share and boast about with their friends.

The author gets a cooking lesson from a chef in a local spot in Chiang Mai, one that doesn't have a name but is regularly visited by foodies in the know.
The author gets a cooking lesson from a chef in a local spot in Chiang Mai, one that doesn't have a name but is regularly visited by foodies in the know. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Yeoh Siew-Hoon

Designed by architect Jan Glasmeier of Simple Architect, the Araksa Tea House is packed with so many photo opportunities you hardly have time for the tea tour and tea-tasting experiences as well as enjoy the different teas and cakes on offer. But I recommend you make time -- the handcrafted teas are getting rave reviews from tea connoisseurs and my favourite, Bluefly (lemongrass with butterfly pea flower), has a waiting list for orders.

This is the new generation of tourism businesses that will take Thailand into the future. I know I have barely scratched the surface of discovering what's new and evolved in this short trip to this wide and diverse kingdom, but what I've seen and experienced so far gives me faith for the future.

There's a new generation of Thais who are charting the future of an industry created by pioneers like Khun Kusa.

And, oh, did I mention that the food is still as good -- from the clean simple tastes of Patom cafe to the healthy and fine cuisine at RAKxa, to some of the best home cooking from a kitchen in Chiang Mai. That hasn't changed.

Yeoh Siew Hoon, editorial director of Northstar Travel Media Asia, is the founder and editor of Web in Travel, a content and community platform for online travel professionals in the Asia-Pacific region.

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