CHIANG RAI, 5 May 2020: People who make authentic travel experience happen in destinations across the Mekong Region are quietly putting the pieces back together after months of disruptive lockdowns and travel bans.
Just hours after the Thai government relaxed emergency decree rules last weekend, I cycled through neighbouring villages in the far north province of Chiang Rai. I sensed business was back. Open-air food stalls reappeared on the roadside billowing smoke from charcoal grills and village shops that had been shuttered for weeks let the sunshine and breeze in again to welcome passers-by. Even docile, village dogs gave chase this bright sunny morning, while hens scurried to safety as shop owners swept their premises clear of dust. The woman at the hardware store lowered a builder’s bucket, attached to a rope hanging from the rafters, primed and ready to store the day’s cash earning. She looked at it optimistically as pick-up trucks passed by. One of them would pull over soon enough. Village commerce was on the mend, and it reminded me I needed a haircut.
Now for the new normal. First search for the barber’s telephone number. Then ask if the shop is open and could they give me an appointment?
“Don’t be late,” the barber warns. “No queues, no sitting around chatting, doors wide open and the air conditioner off.” Ok, that’s new, but I am not complaining. We are returning to the simple haircut of the past; short back and sides. Hair blowing, shampooing, curling and colouring all dumped in the trash can for now at least; casualties of Covid-19.
More good news pops into my email box. My favourite restaurant opens this week. Even though the draft beer taps are firmly locked, the invitation to take in the river view and enjoy the ambience of Chivit Thamma Da is an invitation I cannot resist. I’ll settle for a double espresso with a slice of brownie and smile as the new normal presents itself at Chiang Rai’s famous riverside restaurant. Will it once again be packed with Bangkokians who fly north for long weekend breaks to enjoy Chiang Rai’s cool weather and dine in an ‘English style’ garden pub’? The 80-odd staff who work in this remarkable restaurant are counting on it.
The owner’s unusual invitation card starts with the preamble “as per government advice we have decided to open again just for inhouse dining.”
Now more of the new normal routine that will take some getting used to in the months ahead. Gone are your reserved tables. Staff will guide you cautiously from a safe distance to the single dining option; outside tables set neatly at an appropriate distance in the riverside garden. Indoor airconditioned sections remain closed.
Even the tables and dining capacity is restricted to ensure that social distancing can be carried out according to rules set out by the province.
In addition to staying your distance — even from fellow diners sitting at your table — you will need to eat at speed. The national curfew, 2200 to 0400, means the waiter takes the last order at 1930.
Restaurants are duty-bound to train their staff to follow strict safety procedures and ensure diners comply. Chivit Thamma Da explains the dining rules to guests when they arrive at the restaurant’s gate. They steer you to a mat to disinfect your shoes, and you pass through an alcohol shower mist, the closest you will get to alcohol all evening. But I am not complaining like a prisoner just released a riverside meal is heavenly.
Here’s Chivit Thamma Da’s video that explains the new normal for restaurant-goers.
If all of this is too much of a leap, then you can order drive-in take away at Line @Chivit234.