Top: The empty Rainbow Wooden Bridge area on Dec. 22, 2020 in Samut Sakhon. Photo: Pornphan Wongde / Courtesy
SAMUT SONGKHRAM — The eponymous Auntie Jai of Jay Jai restaurant in Samut Sakhon looked out over the sea, where a rainbow-colored bridge stuck out into the ocean, empty of any visitors.
The scenic bridge is one of the most popular attractions in the province, aside from its massive Mahachai Market. But the new outbreak of coronavirus linked to the market is now driving away visitors, not just in Samut Sakhon either.
“It’s never gotten to the point before when there’s literally no people here,” Pornphan “Jay Jai” Wongde said by phone. “Normally, it’s packed on Sundays, but I counted and there were literally three or four cars in the morning. Since then, no one’s come.”
She went on, “I only had three customers on Saturday, so I closed my restaurant on Sunday. I knew as soon as I heard the news that I had to close. I can’t risk getting COVID since I have small kids and an old dad.”
Alarms were raised when an unnamed 67-year-old seafood vendor tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. At least 1,000 more were found with the virus since, most of them migrant workers at Mahachai Market.
The outbreak is not only a disaster for the province’s fishery industry – analysts believe Samut Sakhon is losing as much as 1 billion baht per day since lockdown measures were introduced – fears of the virus also snuffed out tourism across Thailand in the month that many businesses have hoped for a last-ditch effort to revive spending.
Seaside towns along the Gulf of Thailand that rely on drive-through destinations saw barely any visitors. Countdown events, New Year fairs, and light shows have been cancelled in provinces as far away as Khon Kaen and Yala. A number of tourist attractions were also closed down to avoid gatherings.
“All the vendors are complaining since they can’t sell at all,” said Pornphan, the owner of Jay Jai restaurant. “Even local people won’t go outside to buy things. Everyone is so afraid since the numbers are so scary.”
Countdown to Calamities
Many tourism and events operators have been pinning their hopes on the New Year season in December, which typically sees travel rushes and numerous celebrations taking place every year.
But the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration on Sunday canceled all government-sponsored countdown events in the capital, citing threats posed by the coronavirus.
Although privately held celebrations can still go ahead, like in shopping malls and hotels, organizers are required to seek permission from City Hall. The announcement soon led to either cancellations or downscaling at notable venues – Mega Bangna said it will no longer host a countdown party, while Asiatique’s countdown will still go ahead, though without a concert.
Outside Bangkok, countdown events and shows were cancelled in Yala, Nakhon Phanom, Koh Samui, Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen, Rayong, and Pattaya.
More cancellations are expected; the Tourism Authority of Thailand announced on Tuesday afternoon it is deliberating on whether to scuttle all of its 18 New Year’s Eve events across Thailand.
Alcohol sellers and seasonal beer gardens are also affected; December is usually the most popular month of outdoor drinking due to the relatively mild weather.
“The effect on sellers has been quite extreme since all the events, beer gardens, and parties are cancelled,” Thai Alcohol Beverage Business Association sec-gen Thanakorn Kuptajit said. “This was supposed to be the selling season. By volume, 20 to 25 percent of alcohol is sold during this time.”
He continued, “Of course, we understand that the state wants to stop infections. We also want that. But there should also be regulations to help the industry.”
The regulations, however, seem to be taking a different direction. A new amendment to the alcohol law that came into effect on Dec. 7 places a blanket ban on all online sales of booze and advertising, crippling the industry even further.
“The government needs to reconsider this. I think selling alcohol online is a great method of social distancing,” Thanakorn said. “People who still want to drink alcohol despite the lack of events will want to drink at home, so there should be online selling.”
Kasikorn Bank’s research center estimates that scrapping New Year celebrations in Bangkok alone could result in a combined loss of 15 billion baht.
The tourism sector is also set to experience a whopping 17 billion baht in lost revenues due to delays or cancellations of trips during the New Year vacation season.
Costly Name Confusion
Located about 30 kilometers from Bangkok, Samut Sakhon is the gateway for travellers heading southwest toward cities and resort towns along the Gulf of Thailand, like Samut Songkhram, Phetchaburi, Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and beyond.
Needless to say, the impact from the outbreak in Samut Sakhon is inescapable for its neighbors, who already suffered throughout much of the year due to border shutdowns and subsequent loss of foreign visitors.
The owner of Tub Tieng Shoes, a bag fixing and cobbler shop at the world-famous Maeklong Railway Market, where goods are sold on the train track itself, said she’s never seen the bazaar this empty since she opened her shop 11 years ago.
“Many shops are closed. Even if they’re open like us, there’s absolutely no customers,” the vendor said by phone. “Some people who fixed bags and shoes with us said that they would come pick up their items after the new year.”
Jantip, who runs Jantip Clothing shop at the market, said that businesses there could still recover after the first wave of coronavirus earlier this year but this second blow could be a death knell for many.
The similar-sounding names of places in Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram don’t help either. “Some people misunderstand and think that Mahachai and Maeklong are the same place!” Jantip said.
About 7 kilometers further west in Samut Songkhram is the Amphawa Floating Market, once packed with visitors from all over Thailand and overseas. A man answering the phone at the number listed for the weekend market said that the shops had to close because government officials asked them to, and then hung up, even after repeated calls.
Angkhana Phippayanurak, who runs the Sri Amphawa souvenir T-shirt shop at the market, said that the market saw very few shoppers this past weekend.
“Normally this time of the year we get lots of visitors due to the good weather,” she said. “But now, some people are confusing Samut Sakhon with Samut Songkhram.”
Further south, a 159-kilometer driving distance from Mahachai Market, is the Cicada Market in Hua Hin. In normal times, the market is a magnet for Bangkokians and expats of Hua Hin, especially the Scandinavians, Germans, and British.
“Since Taweesin announced the news the mood of vacationing was killed,” market manager Satorn Onkaew said, referring to pandemic response center spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin.
Satorn said many travellers are afraid of catching the virus at gas stations and rest stops along the driving routes, most of which pass through Samut Sakhon.
“It’s not just us who have fewer visitors, but the entire town. People are moving their hotel bookings,” he said. “It’s over for tourism this year.”
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