Welcome to Thailand…

Over the course of the last three years I have been heard to sigh as I utter this phrase above. It covers a range of contradictions, frustrations and breathtaking moments that are hard to replicate beyond the borders of this incredible country. With those borders firmly shut in response to the pandemic that closed schools across the country, a significant number of international teachers travelled domestically as compensation for effectively being “stuck” in Thailand. Their epic road trips a chance to get to know this beguiling place better.

First to the deep south, the land of limestone, azure blue and steaming sand. The hotels are luxurious, the skies mindblowing and our holiday truly restorative. Not so much for the local economy. International schools in this region are few, and as such the economic impact of the virus restrictions there could be telling on smaller but vital institutions.

The countryside in northern Thailand is truly extraordinary - rather like Thailand’s escape from the spread of Covid 19. With only 58 deaths we remain somewhat mystified and clearly hugely relieved.

Why this happened is something of a mystery. The borders being shut is clearly key, but also “track and trace” being applied early made a difference. Schools closed on the 18th March, comparatively early given the scarcity of caseloads. So thankfully most were spared the dread of a case in the school community. The manpower available to the health authorities allowing swift and thorough investigation of cases early on certainly helped, and the broadly compliant population wearing face coverings and avoiding human contact responded quicker than most.

In observing these human reactions to the pandemic we understand Thailand a little more. In lifts, all occupants obediently turned to face the wall wherever we were. Pre-closure there was a clamour to close, nobody wanted their school to be the first one with an outbreak as it would possibly bring shame to the community.

"Everyone accepted it when the government said that face masks should be worn in schools."

Face coverings are worn here - simple. When the smog is prevalent, face masks go on. In that case nobody is compelled, but also it is not seen as weird and this is critical. When the government here made it clear that face masks should be worn in schools as well as across society, all accepted it and got on with it. There are many who will read this and say “how pointless”, and they may be right. However, wearing a mask quickly became a social convention. If you have one on, you are doing your bit, and can it really hurt?

In the 1970s and 1980s a few cricketers experimented with crash helmets when batting. In hindsight this now seems sensible that one should protect one's head when standing in front of a hard projectile hurled at you at close to 90mph. At the time however, there were many who said it was soft, pathetic, a failure of manhood and possibly the fabric of society. Even now I still hear people claim that wearing a helmet when batting slows your reactions to the ball. Apart from the fact that this is utter claptrap, it is also more of the same dull narrative – “that looks weird, so I’m not doing it” (with an added dose of “I am more of a man if I willingly expose myself to danger”).

In listening to news channels from afar I hear the “helmet deniers” when talking about masks in schools, and clearly there are enough at the top of UK government to have prevaricated on this for so long. For a while I was a helmet denier too, and my natural predisposition is to ignore medical (or any…) advice. However, I eventually realised the folly of my position (when facing proper bowling), and more importantly everyone else started wearing helmets. In Thailand everyone wears masks, and I have a daughter with Type 1 diabetes who is supposedly four times more likely to die of Covid 19 than me (more proper bowling) - I wear a mask, and so do all my staff.

"In Thailand, quarantine means quarantine."

In the days leading up to the start of the new academic year Thai international schools only had a few decisions to make.  How many students could we safely fit in the dining hall, theatre and how to distance 1783 students across nine acres at break and lunch? Thankfully there were no last minute booklets of guidance from the ministry, nor did we have to debate which areas are mask free zones - none are. Thai government schools have been back at school for two months, students have complied with the regulations (though are less enamoured with the government's record on social change) and there have been no local infections as all entrants to Thailand are going through two weeks mandatory quarantine.

New staff have just emerged from their enforced isolation. In Thailand, quarantine means quarantine (and not in a Theresa May way). Staff were collected from the airport and taken to the hotel we chose for them (owned by the school’s owners) and staff ensured that even the most brief sojourn up the corridor was dealt with in the way old school matrons would have dealt with a boarder up and about after lights out.  Five Covid 19 tests later, staff are delighted to be in school and so happy to have escaped their 5 star prison cell - yet another contradiction in this wonderful place.

With a new term upon us we will be making hay while the sun shines. Face-to-face lessons, physical education, fixtures against Harrow, and yet I can’t recall a weirder start. There are so many things in Thailand that would be considered weird elsewhere - phone use at funerals, U-turns on motorways, masks everywhere.  Although Thailand is far from perfect, these items will not be on the agenda at the next student protest.  Welcome to Thailand.