The pandemic has created unprecedented changes to the way we lead our lives, from trivial things like having to check in with the increasingly irritating Thai Chana app to bigger shifts like spending less money by cooking or drinking at home. The question is: which changes do we want to remain once the pandemic is gone for good? Here are the changes we hope to see stick in the months and even years to come.
Tourism in Thailand has taken a big hit since the dawn of the pandemic. Festivals, large-scale events, mass tours and a booming nightlife industry helped the country record 39.8 million tourists last year. This year, it will be lucky to even see a third of that amount.
Realizing that tourism has always been one of the country’s main sources of wealth, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) masterminded a campaign
to revitalize domestic tourism before international travelers return. Running until Oct 31, the campaign—rao tiew duay gan
, “we travel together”—will see the government subsidize two million air tickets, limited to B2,000 per person. The government will also subsidize five million nights at 40 percent of normal room rates, limited to B3,000 per night for up to five nights.
Domestic tourism isn’t a long-term solution for economic crises, but it is something we hope remains robust in the future. In fact, with eco-friendly and community-based tourism is on the rise, domestic tourism could pave the way for a more sustainable industry.
On nearby island paradise Koh Mak, locals are fighting tooth and nail for a greener future through the sustainability-driven Local One Project. On top of encouraging the use of renewable energy, recycling and efficient use of water, the project aims to promote sustainable tourism by embracing traditional ways of life and fighting against the larger resorts’ wishes to extend the high season. Through their low carbon project, which includes the banning of foam packaging, the discouragement of engine-powered water sports such as jet skis and banana boats, and avoidance of agricultural chemicals, they hope to attract a smaller number of visitors who share their vision rather than selling out to mass tourism.
For a more sustainable future, the people of Bangkok, with our greater numbers and purchasing power, need to keep it green as we rediscover the riches of our own country.
As social animals, we need to meet and connect with other human beings. However, the pandemic has cast light onto our sometimes questionable hygiene practices and made us all aware of how to be cleaner and more considerate when we’re out in public.
Forget shaking hands. We’re back to the simple wai. We’re also (finally) remembering to cover our mouths when we cough, wear masks to protect others when we’re sick (or in a pandemic) and sanitize our hands after touching anything (because we know what happens if we don’t). In most Bangkok malls
, elevators are now sterilized every half hour, while some are equipped with foot pedals for you to choose your desired floor. You even frequently see cleaning staff wiping escalator handrails. At higher-end shopping malls, cleaning staff have been supplemented with handrail UV sterilizers and contact-tracing robots. Yep, it’s over the top, but being clean is a good thing. Although let’s maybe ditch the creepy robots.
Credit to families and educators for teaching kids to take health and safety measures seriously. Kids growing up will know how diseases are spread and understand the value of preventative measures. The Bangkok of 2030 might be better equipped to handle pandemics. If nothing else, it should be a cleaner city to call home.
"This won't be the last pandemic" - Yossapon Boonsom
Smarter urban planning
The Covid-19 pandemic is quietly driving innovations and transforming the cities of tomorrow. Melbourne has set in motion plans to put shopping, work, and leisure within 20 minutes of residents’ homes. In New York, Paris, and Vilnius, officials have expanded sidewalks at the expense of car lanes, creating space for bars and restaurants to serve customers and for pedestrians to exercise safely. Bogotá has added 76km to its pre-existing 550km network of permanent bike lanes.
In Bangkok, however, little seems to have changed. When parks were closed in April, no roads were reserved for residents to exercise. No space has been given over to bars or restaurants, either. In May, after the lockdown was lifted, an all-too-familiar gridlock returned, amplified by frequent rush-hour breakdowns on the BTS. This made us wonder whether the new normal would be any different from the old normal.
Yossapon “Yos” Boonsom
, director of Shma Designs, an award-winning landscape architecture firm pushing for green and sustainable development, thinks we still have time to change. “This won’t be the last pandemic,” he says. “So why don’t we use the [proposed B400 billion stimulus] to revitalize the city…and examine ways it can be developed in the future?”
Shma has pitched a sweeping initiative called the Green Link to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). That project that would create a 54km network of greenways across the city and add up to 10,800 large, dust-filtering trees citywide. That would be useful when the dreaded PM2.5 returns. Yos says the project would boost land prices, develop public spaces and reduce sprawl by enhancing quality of life in the city’s many neighborhoods. Living in better integrated communities would also lessen our reliance on cars. Basically, wins across the board. So why aren’t we seeing any change?
“Two years ago, we created a pocket park under an expressway. It showed that you could create something better from our gray structures—and we have a lot of gray structures,” Yos says. But the biggest pandemic plaguing Thailand, he notes, is a lack of policies and incentives that would help projects like the Green Link get off the ground. “It was just a good example—it was never replicated. There’s no policy to provide a goalpost for these projects.”
Yos isn’t deterred. He says Shma is currently developing pocket parks in Samyan, on the riverside and in Ekkamai, where an abandoned lot will be turned into an adaptable space: an urban farm feeding the community during crises and a park during normal times. Shma has also teamed up with 30-plus organizations that work on a wide range of social issues, from urban poverty to water management, to form a nascent “urban platform.” Together, they hope to work toward a single goal and provide a roadmap for the government. Then maybe urban farms, bike lanes and smart communities like those in Melbourne will be the norm rather than the exception.
"I see [regulated drinking hours] as a bit redundant" - Avi Yashaya
With bars shut down for a third of the year
and news of the government potentially banning online booze sales
, Bangkok’s nightlife and alcohol industries haven’t had it easy. As we slowly move toward normalcy, bars are up-and-running again, but with a big caveat: they can stay open only until midnight for the time being. Unable to sell between 2-5pm, and now shuttered after midnight, bars and distributors are in a bind.
“I see [regulated drinking hours] as a bit redundant,” says Avi Yashaya, a partner of Mahanakhon Beer, one of Thailand’s pioneering craft beers. “Assuming all the protocols are being followed, I’m not sure how closing time would affect the disease spreading, especially considering there have been no local transmissions for a month and a half.”
In fact, he adds, tighter hours might be problematic. “[Bad] behavior might just shift to earlier hours or, worse, [it might] promote binge-drinking due to a stricter timeline,” he says. “There must be other ways to achieve these goals without economically suppressing an already fragile industry.”
In the end, Yashaya thinks the pandemic will shape the experience of going out for a long time to come. “Spontaneous outings and venturing beyond one’s comfort zone might not be a priority for a while,” he says.
That makes this moment a great opportunity to consider better ways to have fun responsibly, whether at the bar or at home, while also supporting small businesses and bar owners. Jerome Le Louer of Wishbeer asks rhetorically: “Does it even make sense to forbid alcohol sales between 2-5pm? What’s the rationale here?” Easing regulations to serve during the day ime, he suggests, could improve business and encourage consumers to drink earlier and take public transport home rather than drive.
In fact, the curfew and shutdown yielded another interesting side effect: many people reported having drinks earlier in the day. That meant ending and sleeping earlier, waking up at a reasonable hour the following morning, and not driving home after having had a few. Not to mention we saved some cash in the process.
“We have to admit that a lot of people ordered alcohol online to drink at home [during the lockdown],” says a representative of beer review page Prachachonbeer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from officials. “But conversely, I think it was a good thing, since it limited a lot of drink-and-drive [incidents]…I don’t understand why drinking at home [is considered to] be such a bad thing.”
"[This] has given me the space and time I need for a personal transformation" - Waralee Kaewkoon
Continue working from home
When the pandemic broke out, many employers sent us home. At BK, we certainly embraced the flexibility that working from home
and virtual meetings provided. Plus, it wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be. There were even some productivity gains from not having to commute to the office. We’re not alone.
“This has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own happiness, values and life goals, all of which have a direct impact on my creative work,” explains Waralee “Mook” Kaewkoon, an aspiring architect and design coach. “It has given me the space and time I need for a personal transformation.”
She says working from home has given her a chance to find balance between working and resting—to switch freely between the two and better manage her stress, which can be a challenge for many of us in office environments. “For me, being able to reach and maintain an elevated emotional state is key for finding inspiration, staying motivated and creating quality work,” she says. “[While working from home,] I have become more aware of my needs and developed a personal routine that prioritizes my well-being and therefore my work.”
The home office does have its flaws, though, from new sets of distractions and sources of stress to requiring an unprecedented level of discipline to maintain productivity
. “The smallest distractions can disrupt the creative workflow, and it costs both time and energy to restart the process,” says Mook. “This means it takes longer to finish a project, and there will most likely be some frustration as well.”
When asked if Thailand is really prepared for working from home in the future, Mook pulled no punches.
“Frankly, Thai people are resistant to change. They have a fear of the unknown, and they don’t challenge authority. They complain about unsatisfactory situations without offering any tangible solutions,” she says emphatically. “I think change truly occurs when awareness of one’s needs is matched by the determination to pursue them. The question is whether Thai people possess either of those qualities.”
Mook believes we might all just be waiting for a return to normal rather than adapting to the reality before us. “However, if we can recognize this as an opportunity to improve while remaining flexible, we can be empowered to take the brave step into the unknown and embrace change for the better. For example, if enough people agree that work from home would significantly improve traffic, then maybe that’s a good enough reason for them to consider doing it in the long term.”
Be truly digital-ready
The prospect of going cashless seems especially attractive now that we’re using QR codes and online payments more than ever. But will the ubiquitous Rabbit card ever end up like the Octopus card in Hong Kong or the Oyster card in London? (Mangmoom card
, where are you?)
The bigger question is: are we really digital-ready? According to a Cisco Systems report in 2019, maybe not. In that study, Thailand ranked third out of six ASEAN countries—and 11th out of 14 countries in Asia-Pacific—in digital-readiness.
In other words, we have a long way to go.
When you’re out at a shopping mall, it might be relatively normal now to use anything from credit cards to e-wallets when making purchases. But when it comes to traditional markets, it’s only recently that several vendors have started to offer bank transfers or QR payments—and even then, there aren’t many doing it. And how many Bitcoin machines do you know of in Thailand anyway, outside of the one gathering dust at Chit Beer
on Koh Kret?
A lack of expertise in technology (many still prefer endless paperwork over digital documentation), poor functionality of state-run websites, an utter lack of transparency in regulations and surprisingly poor Internet quality present other challenges. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Thailand has some of the world’s slowest 4G—it might be alright in Bangkok, but outside of the capital, not so much. Then consider what happened in April and May, when millions ran into delays receiving their B5,000 handouts.
When coupled with a relatively undeveloped digital infrastructure, despite setting milestones in research and development spending in recent years, it’s clear we may have to wait a while to finally achieve Thailand 4.0 status, our answer to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Europe, the UK and the US, where societies are already digital-driven.
What does Bangkok Gen Z want to see stick after the pandemic passes?
Sakdinant Riangkrul, 25, Political Consultant, Vriens & Partners
“Keeping up hygiene has proven to be key during the pandemic, but it’s definitely something we should keep well after. Hygiene should extend to food deliveries and public transport. While our efforts to go green by eliminating plastic bags at the beginning of 2020 was halted, it’s an opportunity for us to improve the single-use products we rely on to not just practice proper hygiene but stay on an [eco-minded] path as well. Also, anything contactless should still remain post-Covid.”
Surasek Bunnag, 24, Executive Recruitment Consultant, Monroe Consulting
“I think the concept of working from home is a nice thing that came out of the pandemic. It proves that working from home doesn’t result in a drop in productivity. It doesn’t have to be five days a week, but the option to work from home even a day a week will increase productivity and the work-life balance for employees.”
Sumetanee Dulyachinda, 25, Marketing Manager, PropertyGuru, Asia Property Awards & Events
“Temperature checks are useless in my opinion, because 90 percent of the people working the instruments don’t do it properly. This needs to go. On the other hand, having hand sanitizer everywhere is great. The coronavirus pandemic is training people to take notice of their own health. Wearing face masks should stay but maybe not for every single person. If you’re exhibiting symptoms, then you should wear one. Also, I like social distancing because #personalspace.”