Sticky Rice and Sand Healing: I Visited Thailand to Experience Its Reopening

After two years of phased policy changes, the country is ready for its comeback


Chadchai Ra-ngubpai / Getty Images

On my third day in Bangkok, I peered over at the large crowds waiting behind me while tucking into the famous crab omelet at the world-renowned, Michelin-starred street eatery Jay Fai. From my seat, I could overhear chatter in several languages, see a variety of food lovers of different ages, and recognize various diverse faces. For all intents and purposes, it seemed that tourism to Thailand was alive and well.

It took a long time to get to this point, and so did I. Thailand had always been on my bucket list; I had always loved its cuisine, dreamed of its beaches, and was a longtime fan of one of its most prestigious exports, the Palme d'Or-winning film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Plans were in place for me to visit in spring 2020, which were soon pushed to summer 2020, fall 2020, and finally, the heart-sinking indefinite postponement.

I wasn't the only one heartbroken by the circumstances.

Like many countries, Thailand has been on a rocky path to recovery after months of pandemic-related closures. In the past two years, the government has seen its tourism dollars almost completely wiped out by the pandemic. Only 428,000 travelers visited the country in 2021, compared to the high of 40 million visitors Thailand received in 2019 when it ranked eighth globally in international tourist arrivals.

The numbers were hard to swallow for a country whose tourism industry once comprised 12 percent of its gross domestic product. Policy changes meant to allow foreign travelers into the country were quickly enacted, going through multiple phases. The first was a mandatory quarantine for travelers in the "sandbox destination" of Phuket, followed by a system that required testing on arrival followed by isolation in a hotel until results were received, and, earlier this year, the requirement of a "Thailand Pass," for which travelers would need to complete a questionnaire, confirm hotel stays and travel plans, and purchase insurance.

On July 1, 2022, Thailand reached its final phase: it dropped the last pandemic-related travel restrictions, opening its doors again to all travelers. After two years of waiting, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to explore what the country's full reopening was like. And so, after the country's new policy was announced, I seized the opportunity to visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the resort town of Hua Hin. Here's what it was like.

Bangkok Airport

Courtesy of Astrid Taran

Arrival and Experience in Bangkok

I arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport bleary-eyed after a 21-hour travel day. I went to the customs desk, where I was asked to show my passport, proof of vaccination, and nothing else. After both were checked, my hands were scanned at another desk, and I was on my way. The entire process took around 20 minutes, and I couldn't be more pleased—I had decided to stay awake for the whole duration of the trip to avoid jet lag, and I was really regretting it (although it worked!).

Lucky for me, I was about to lay my head down at one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever had the pleasure of staying at: the recently opened Capella Bangkok, situated right on Bangkok's majestic Chao Phraya River. Even in my frazzled state, I still felt like royalty walking into its stately lobby, and I almost cried when I sat down on the bed, which felt like a cloud of marshmallows.

Even though I was about to pass out, I sat in my bathrobe and devoured the perfect, flavorful midnight meal sent to my room—the first of many incredible Thai dishes I would be eating on this trip. When I woke up, I hit a button on the iPad on my dresser and watched in awe as the city of Bangkok revealed itself right in front of my bed. I had arrived.

Capella Bangkok

Courtesy of Capella Bangkok

Though I was only in Bangkok for three days, I made the most of every second. My first voyage was to one of the city's most important temples, Wat Pho, where I hung out with a 150-foot-long gold-plated reclining Buddha—just the first of several massive Buddhas I encountered that day. As I cruised through the canals of Thonburi, I saw the 200-foot tall Buddha of the Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen temple looming over me. In Bangkok, I took my first tuk-tuk, the famous auto rickshaws seen across Asia. And just as I expected, I ate incredible food, like the perfect street dishes at Jay Fai and a fresh-from-the-earth sustainable garden lunch at Poomjai Garden in the Bangkok Noi neighborhood.

Thai locals smiled and waved everywhere I went—I was taken aback by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. On our last day in the city, I checked in to the newly opened Bangkok location of The Standard. Sipping a cocktail at Ojo, the hotel's rooftop restaurant, I looked around to find hip Bangkok locals clustered in gregarious groups as far as the eye could see. Music, loud laughter, and the clinking of glasses played like an orchestra in my ears.

"Bangkok is open! Tell everyone you know!" the front desk clerk told me with a smile as I checked out the following day.

Chiang Mai Women

Courtesy of Astrid Taran

Voyage to Chiang Mai

After hearing so much about the temples, markets, and cuisine of Northern Thailand, my visit to Chiang Mai was among the most highly anticipated parts of my trip, and it didn't disappoint. Upon my arrival in the city after a one-hour flight from Bangkok, I descended upon Chiang Mai's famous Jing Jai Market, where I ordered an iced lemongrass tea to sip as I shopped. The crowds seemed to be a healthy mix of locals and European vacationers; after all, the farmers' market was the city's top place to see and be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

As I balanced several shopping bags in two hands, I tucked into my first exposure to the much heralded and beloved Northern Thai cuisine, starting with dishes like laap muang, a salad made with minced meat and dried chilies, and sai oua, a pork sausage with red curry paste, all served with a gorgeous, light purple butterfly pea sticky rice. Later that day, I took an electric tuk-tuk to Chiang Mai's Old Town, where I spent time admiring the 14th-century Wat Phra Singh temple and experienced one of the city's most famous street food carts, Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, where I had a delicious meal of stewed pork leg over rice and black bean buns for dessert.

That evening, I collapsed in my bed at the luxurious 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai. The property was built on a late 19th-century teak homestead which was once the residence of the son of Anna Leonowens, the main character in the classic musical "The King and I." Every element of my stay— from the Art Deco bar cart to the framed vintage photographs and the refined, uniformed staff—felt like stepping into an Old Hollywood film.

137 Pillars House Chiang Mai

Courtesy of 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai

Here, I got the trip's deepest sleep, perhaps because Chiang Mai's street markets required some serious strategy. The Sunday night market was filled with shoppers from around the world, walking side by side in search of deals. The sounds of shopping bags being filled, alongside the usual haggling and bargaining, filled the air. The craftsmanship I saw on display was astounding. It seemed that creativity was everywhere to be found in this city.

Relaxation in Hua Hin

My exhaustion couldn't have come at a more opportune time: I was about to head to Hua Hin, the beachside resort city that, in recent years, has become an uber-popular weekend getaway spot for Thais in the know. After days of temple-hopping, ceramics shopping, and eating, I was ready to fully immerse myself in some relaxation. I was told Hua Hin was the place to find it.

I checked in to the Anantara Hua Hin Resort & Spa, a classic resort property that put Hua Hin on the map. The majority of the hotel's clientele seemed to be Thais who were making a city escape from Bangkok, most likely due to it being a holiday weekend in the country: the King's birthday was the next day, and the streets were decorated with hanging string lights that lit up the night sky. Being there that weekend made me feel like I, too, was a local.

I enjoyed plenty of spa time at the Anantara and its sister property, the Avani+ Hua Hin. But my most treasured experience in Hua Hin was the evening I spent on the beach under a mountain of sand. That's right: according to Thai traditional medicine, the crystal sand found on the shores of this region of the country has the power to absorb minerals of the sea that relax, detox, and help with blood circulation.

Sand Healing in Hua Hin, Thailand

Courtesy of Astrid Taran

I arrived at the chosen beach around 8 p.m. when the sun had set, and the town had already quieted from the day's events. As I lay myself down in a pre-burrowed space in the sand, a group of wellness professionals surrounded me and began to bury me. Slowly, heavy sand covered my body, and I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper, becoming one with the beach. After several minutes, I looked down and could only see the top half of my body. The beach had gone quiet. I was alone.

Thai tradition proposes that after being buried under the heavy sand of Hua Hin, one should lie still for 20 minutes for the sand healing to begin—so I did. After all, it's not like I was able to move. As I lay still in the dark, with nothing but the sounds of waves to be heard, I thought to myself, I wish I didn't have to leave.

Wat Arun, Thailand

Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Return and Final Thoughts

The next day, though, I sadly had to do just that. Much like my arrival, there were no special requirements I needed to fulfill to board my flight home: only a full day of flying.

When I landed back home in New York, I began to reflect on the magical days I spent in the Land of Smiles. Thailand was single-handedly one of the friendliest countries I've ever visited, with locals going out of their way to smile, wave, or press their palms together and bow as a sign of respect. And while testing was no longer required to enter the country, and temperature checks had long gone to the wayside, I still felt extremely safe. Most locals consistently wear masks indoors, at restaurants, and in crowded areas, like street markets.

Thailand is a long way from being back where they were in 2019, but it is clear that they are ready for a comeback. While the country expects only 9.3 million visitors this year, a long cry from where they once were, my visit confirmed that the government is prepared to climb back to the top. And I have no doubts they will get there: even without the incredible history, sights, and cuisine the country has on offer, it is Thailand's warmth, kindness in spirit, and above-par hospitality that will continue to be a massive draw for travelers around the world.

Article Sources
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  1. McKinsey & Company. "Reimagining Travel: Thailand Tourism After the COVID-19 Pandemic." November 30, 2021.

  2. Bloomberg. "Thai Tourism Faces Tough Rebuild as All Covid Travel Curbs End." June 30, 2022.