Thailand’s alcohol-free reopening is no cause for celebration


All my happiest holiday memories involve alcohol. From the welcome glass of slightly warm cava on arrival at a hotel to the final beer before boarding a flight back to reality, a steady flow of booze is a key component of every trip.

I’m not actually a huge drinker at home, generally adhering to a weekends and parties-only rule and often partaking in sober October, dry January or whatever month becomes a corporate co-opted teetotal event next. However on holiday, when normal rules should be suspended, the right dose provides that unmistakable mix of relaxation and giddiness that simply elevates the experience.

Crucially – bar one regretful night in the bowels of Brooklyn – I’ve never had a significant hangover abroad. Well, at least not one that couldn’t quickly be remedied by a bracing swim in the sea, or indeed another beer – ‘Why not, you’re on holiday!’

When I flick through my greatest holiday hits in my mind, in the most vivid snapshots I’m always sipping a drink. And it’s not just cocktails on culture-light beach breaks. On my first safari trip to Tanzania, the highlight was, of course, seeing a day-old elephant and clutch of young cheetah cubs. However, it was the sundowner in the bush – a g&t served out of an antique apothecary chest – that provided the pause and calm to reflect on those stirring moments. And when travelling to somewhere far-flung, a bottle of local beer can take the edge off the culture shock and allow buttoned-up Britons to fully immerse themselves in their surroundings.

For hazy, happy memories, no destination quite compares to Thailand, somewhere I’ve returned to many times. Whether it was sickly sweet ‘buckets’ of throat-burning Thai whisky and redbull, glugged on beaches on my gap year or, more recently, thimble-sized gimlets sipped overlooking Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river, drinking has been central to my experiences in the country. Many street food adventures have been accompanied by ice-cold pitchers of Chang beer, which I’ve shared like water with guides while perched on fluorescent plastic stools slurping impossibly hot curry noodles.

people sat on plastic chairs on street drinking

The bars of Bangkok’s popular Khao San Road

Credit: VW Pics
/Universal Images Group Editorial

Now Thailand is finally back on the holiday menu, coming off the red list earlier this week and on Monday announcing it will reopen to tourists from a select number of ‘low risk’ countries, including the UK, from November 1. Previously, holidaymakers have only been able to enter the country via its convoluted ‘sandbox’ scheme, which involves a mandatory seven-day stint on Phuket and multiple tests.

With most other countries in the region still firmly shut, the reopening is cause for celebration. But before you pop the champagne, do read the small print. Thailand is currently dealing with a significant Covid surge and still has a number of restrictions – remember those? One of the more peculiar rules is the banning of alcohol in bars and restaurants across the country, which will be in place until at least the start of December. Yes, travel next month and it’ll be a trip to ‘Dryland’.

Everyone has their hill to drunkenly stagger on and mine is alcohol. To travel now means accepting various pandemic-induced inconveniences and I can deal with masks mandates, social distancing measures and frequent testing, but please just let me have my margarita.

It’s not yet clear whether tourists will be able to drink in their hotels, à la Dubai, but I can’t see this as a decent solution. I’ve never witnessed so many booze-soaked tourists as I did while staying at a skyscraper hotel in the desert city, which is surely due to the containing of drinking to set venues, leading to an odd compound mentality and ultimately over-indulgence.

While I really don’t see how it relates to the spread of Covid, I understand the dangers of alcohol very well. My father has been sober since the late Nineties after it became clear he could never just have a couple of drinks. And I’m not suggesting that he and my increasing number of teetotal friends don’t get as much out of holidays. But for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to drink in moderation, it’s one of life’s great pleasures, and something that can connect us to others and illuminate destinations.

Yesterday, a friend sheepishly admitted to postponing her much-longed-for November Thailand holiday to February due to the booze ban. She felt embarrassed to admit that a sober trip wasn’t one worth going on, which perhaps reflects our complicated relationship with alcohol in this country. Still, when the rules ease I’ll be on the first plane – most likely enjoying a mid-flight tipple.

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