Traveling the sandboxes to Thailand during Q4 2021 and early Q1 2022 is a once-in-fifty year experience. It is the tourism crowds of the 1960’s, with the prices of the 1990’s, and the modern luxuries of 2021. Like a sneak preview of pre-tourism Thailand, come now, before the world returns.

I’d say it’s time for you to get away.

Not away like a weekend stay at the Fairmont near the airport or sneaking a mid-week stay in your neighbour’s cottage, but an actual get away. Away enough that you’re separated. Away enough that creates a deep change-is-as-good-as-a-rest situation. Away enough that you won’t begin to miss that slew of new hipster Peruvian-Korean restaurants (take-out of course) that popped-up in the past 6 months.

We know what you’re doing right now. You should be working, but instead you’re reading this. Reading and thinking that you need a vacation, but this work-from-home clusterjumble makes it too hard to actually get away. How about the kind of vacation that can ween you off work, let you relax on the beach and eat some of the best food in the world? The sandboxes in Thailand are the perfect fit…

Seriously, if one of the world’s most famous countries safely opened its doors for you to explore with 2% of its regular visitors, what would you say? Well, Thailand is doing just that in Q4 this year, with the successful and safe launch of quarantine-free “sandboxes” throughout the country.

OMG I love sandboxes!

How it works

Vaccinated travelers from countries you’re likely from can visit Thailand starting with the Phuket Sandbox, the Samui +. Sandbox, and a combo of southern provinces and islands called the Phuket Sandbox 7+7 plan.

Even better, in October, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Kanchanaburi and various northern regions are slated to join the sandbox game. And as of time of writing, Bangkok will join late October too. That’s right,  traditionally one of the world’s most visited cities is preparing to open, sans mass tourism, sans crowds.

You know that excuse you’ve been looking for to get away? That opportunity just came knocking in the form of a concierge wearing flip flops and drinking out of a coconut. With a mandatory 7 nights in one destination on arrival (as of writing), you could think of it as part work from home / work from beach. Kind of a tropical island work-cation with cafe-hopping, market strolls, seafood gluttony, and stand up paddle board lessons.

To make this opening work safely for all, it’s quite regimented. There is some paperwork in the application process, and at present travelers need a pre-departure Covid test, an arrival test in Thailand, then a test at the end of the first and second weeks. Results after nearly three months shows it is about as safe as travel can be.

You’re still reading this, right? I know, there you are, working through the paperwork on the Johnson account for the third time this week, wondering why you bother putting pants on at all anymore, and this well crafted note comes in suggesting you should work from the beach, where pants are actually optional. You could get away to those sandboxes in Thailand. Then slow down, ween yourself off work, finish that book on the beach, learn a few local bartender’s names, and do all the things you skipped in pre-Covid high-speed holidaying.

Excited? Let’s set up a Zoom call (also pants optional), and discuss in real terms what these Thailand sandbox experiences look like.

What’s in it for the traveler?

Simply put, you’re invited to the sneak preview of one of the world’s great destinations. This is rock star parking at Club Thailand.

Entering Thailand via the sandboxes, such as Phuket or Samui, means experiencing them with the crowds of the 1960s but with the modern conveniences of 2021, and prices somewhere in the ‘90’s.  Come now before the world returns next year.

As outlined in my recent blogs about Phuket, the island is mostly open and business as usual, less some of the grittier entertainment strips.

Imagine beaches with a fraction of the crowds and day trips exploring lost paradise islands before anyone else. How about hip beach clubs requiring no advance booking, night markets with mostly locals, and funky boutiques eager to greet international travelers again. Then go to Northern Thailand and experience it like before it was famous. Few people, quiet temples, verdant jungles and stunning national parks. Experience zen in the time and place it was intended.

Imagine Bangkok’s narrow alleys and cocktail bars with locals. Imagine iconic landmarks like the Grand Palace with a handful of people, or Chinatown with its smallest crowds in decades, but with the hipster bar scene of today.

Throughout 2021 I’ve been visiting famous sites in Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Phrae, and Nan. These are places that I’d rarely visited the past decade simply to avoid humans. It felt like it must have half a century ago, just with better bathrooms and Thai iced coffee nearby. No fuss, no jostling for position to snap a photo. Just you, zen, and history to soak up.

Previously only the ultra-wealthy could see landmarks with few to no guests, or experience rooftop lounges as if visiting after hours. Sandbox travel, with its upfront paperwork and low numbers, means you are this traveler.  Suddenly landmarks are cool again, quiet again, yours again. We think there’s something special about this. Come see Thailand in its glory before the world comes back.

What could be better than that?! This: consider that your trip puts people back to work. Thailand has tens of thousands of hibernating guides, drivers, fixers, hosts, chefs, bartenders, bike mechanics, boat drivers, fruit vendors, motorcycle taxis, etc. Your single trip gifts them the dignity of work. That’s powerful. That’s eco-tourism, sustainable-tourism and regenerative tourism all wrapped up in a ball of travel goodness.

Here are some things you’d most likely do on a sandbox trip, which are indeed open and accessible, from the beaches of southern Thailand to the mountains of the north:

  • Boat trips to quiet islands. Check.
  • Kayaking and canoeing rivers, mangroves, caves. Check.
  • Great restaurants, lounges, cocktail bars. Check.*
  • Galleries, museums, art curio shops, antiques, etc. Check all that.
  • Shopping and all its bliss, with local markets, old town boutiques, etc. Check.
  • Cooking classes, private walking tours, foodie outings. Check. Check. Check.
  • Cycling, hiking, birding, beaching, surfing, snorkeling, temple-hopping, Check. Check. Check….you get the picture.

*as of mid September, many bars are open but not yet serving alcohol, though we’re expecting easing of this restriction by early October, and the rest to open in turn. Stay tuned.

So, what’s the catch?

To be sure, there are steps in getting to Thailand – or anywhere – at the moment. See this early traveler’s blog post, as an example.

For the foreseeable future, travel is temporarily back to that slower age with visas and vaccinations. We’ve become accustomed to a digital express lifestyle, but we’ll manage.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I went out of the country for university in 1993 to the United States, and was required to get several shots and process various documents to do so. It was a clear and reasonable choice: no shots and visa = no college acceptance. The world we’re (re)entering is not so unfamiliar. Travel processes are going back 30 years for the time being. Bonus: travel is quieter than it was 30 years ago too!

Of course there are potential downers, like any travel experience, and nothing worth doing in human history has been completely void of risk. Being in a city like Bangkok with a curfew as we’ve had in August and September would throw a spanner in the fun. As of this writing that looks to be easing early-October, so hopefully not an issue any longer.

And, as a sandboxer, there is the small chance you could test positive on arrival and suddenly be escorted to a hotel quarantine instead of your holiday*. So far 99.8% of the 35,000 arrivals have NOT had this occur. Further, you could get the misfortune of someone on your flight within two rows of you testing positive and be put in a temporary quarantine as you’d be deemed high risk until proven otherwise. Again, so far, of the 35,000 arrivals, this has happened to 0.03% of the people. My guess is that incoming flights space people out to avoid this, and remember these flights are hardly full so spacing out should not be difficult. In short, these risks are largely manageable, and the data shows it is a resoundingly safe experiment for incoming arrivals and for locals.

*By the way, if you did test positive on arrival, you could always choose just to go home rather than spending 14 days in a quarantine hotel room staring at the beach you wish you were dancing on with that guy who was three rows in front of you.

Early in the sandbox we had some media guests be among the first arrivals. Here are a couple of articles from their experience: FodorsTravel + LeisureInsideHook.

I think the other arguments against coming to Thailand via the sandboxes in Q4 actually bolster reasons for coming. One argument being effectively that Thailand is not yet catering to mass tourism. Yay! Areas like Bangkok’s backpacker mecca, Khao San Road, are barely open (as of late-September anyway). Amusement parks and nightclubs and the neon-lit entertainment zones are either significantly toned down, or temporarily closed. But for travelers keen on experiencing a deeper Thailand, that matters little. They’re more keen on cocktails in old town mixologist’s bars than nightclubs, and would rather explore obscure temples or neighbourhood alleys than amusement parks full of instagrammers. They’re coming for substance over form, with a backstage pass.

Having said that, I don’t think rushing this is wise. The Phuket and Southern Thailand sandboxes work partly because those destinations are over 80% fully vaccinated. For other destinations to join, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok and the like, I would welcome waiting until late October (from targets as of this writing) to get their numbers up and ensure this is done right.

And, I know some will claim that capitalism and human enjoyment should always come last until the final particle of covid has been zapped from our planet. Or that  travel where there is any risk whatsoever is bad form, and that we should stop having fun and go back to chewing rocks. Luckily, those people won’t be competing for your space at the omelette cart at breakfast when you travel to Thailand over the next few months. That argument didn’t work for the early continental explorers, just as it didnt for space travel, just as it didn’t scare us away from travel in the early post 9/11 world. We are human, and when it is safe to roam, we roam.

And when the world does return and the floodgates are open, that’s when Smiling Albino shines. We take people off that grid, into the quiet nooks and secret corners, we opt for hidden gems and less landmarks.

It is Happy Hour once again in Thailand. Friends, come for the ride before the world comes back!