I won’t mince words: Thailand’s continued affinity for face masks makes me sick. Disappointed. Annoyed. Embarrassed. Perplexed. Disgusted. Angry. Sad.
So, why did the proverbial “Land of Smiles” become a faceless dystopia? Contrary to popular belief, masks weren’t all that common prior to covid-19. At the same time, it seems unlikely that ordinary Thais are actually very afraid of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Still, there are indication that masks in Thailand may now be a permanent part of life in the Kingdom, so I think it’s sensible for us to try and understand why.
The “Land of Smiles” No More
If you’ve been to the Kingdom since its borders reopened in late 2021, then you’ve probably noticed how many masks there are in Thailand. With some exceptions, Thai people wear masks everywhere: Not just in indoor settings, but outside and even in their own cars. Many Thai people have attached decorative lanyards to their masks so that they can put them down while they eat, an investment that signals a certain permanence.
So, when did the “Land of Smiles” become a land of faceless zombies? I wish I could tell you it’s always been like this, or that there was something in Thai culture that predisposed people to wearing diapers over their mouths and noses. In reality, the authoritarianism of the covid era seems to have broken Thai people, many of whom seem unable to remove their muzzles, in spite of ample evidence that they serve no scientific purpose.
Why Thais Wore Masks Before Covid-19
In early 2018, my first “smog season” living in Bangkok, my Thai language teacher was frank. You’re putting your health at major risk, she warned, if you don’t wear a mask (which I now know to be an N-95) every day. I never did heed her recommendation, but these days I do go out of my way to avoid central and northern Thailand between about February and April.
For some locals, my least favorite aspect of masks in Thailand—that they render many people indistinguishable from one another—is a feature, not a bug. In certain instances, this is due to social anxiety, particularly among young women. In other cases, it’s due to wanting to go about one’s business in the city without being detected by friends and family. Not my cup of tea, but you do you, boo.
While I can understand why people might believe a facial barrier would stop the spread of viruses, actual science has never supporter this conclusion. In spite of this, a certain contingent of Thais have always worn masks with sick with cold, flu or allergies, and even while in hospitals for treatment, but not sick. Before covid-19, however, this entailed maybe 1-2 per cent of the population, at most.
As you explore Thailand, you may notice that the country’s popular culture leans heavily on trends made famous in Japan and Korea. There’s an argument to be made that the ubiquity of masks in Thailand, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, owes to how common they remain in Japan. While I don’t have any evidence to back this up, my extensive travel experience in both countries suggests that it may be true.
Have you ever wondered why Thai people wear masks while riding motorcycles, but (often) not helmets? There are many reasons for this—and I’ll name some of them in another paragraph—but one is far simpler than you might imagine. Namely, the number of bugs in the air in Thailand at any given time. It’s fair to say, I think, that having any physical barrier over your mouth can prevent you from getting a nasty snack as you speed along.
Are Thais Actually Afraid of Covid-19?
As I detailed above and also, in my article about whether or not Thailand is safe, it’s common to see Thais wearing masks, but not helmets when they ride motorbikes. Given that this suggests—that Thai motorcyclists are not afraid of death by blunt-force cranial impact—it would be strange to posit that they are afraid of a mild virus with a near-100% survival rate. I think the reason Thais refuse to stop masking is deeper than that.
For reasons I can’t describe too specifically because I don’t want to get banned from entering the country, most Thais are predisposed not only to obey authority, but to behave in a way that signals their obedience. Continuing to wear masks years after the end of the pandemic kills both of these birds with one stone, and also serves various secondary purposes above (which most Thais city, somewhat defensively, when called out about their masking).
Other FAQ About Masks in Thailand
Are the Thais still wearing masks?
As of early 2024, virtually 100% of Thais wear masks in most settings, from inside buildings, to outside in the city, to the interiors of their own private cars, even when they’re driving alone. Some Thais are so permanently committed to wearing masks that they connect them to pearl or gold lanyards, which allow them to safely take them off when eating and drinking.
Are masks required on international flights to Thailand?
Masks were required on international flights to Thailand throughout 2020, 2021 and part of 2022. However, given that widespread mask mandates no longer exist anywhere in the world as of 2024, you no longer need to mask on flights to Thailand (although, unfortunately, many Thai people continue to do so).
Does Thailand need to wear masks?
Thailand hasn’t had a legal face mask mandate in place since July of 2022. In spite of this, it’s common to see large numbers of Thais wearing masks in all settings. It’s dystopian, and belies Thailand’s reputation as the “Land of Smiles.”
The Bottom Line
The topic of masks in Thailand perplexes and frankly enrages me. Thailand is one of my favorite countries in the world, and I absolutely love Thai people. At the same time, the extent to which they continue clinging to face masks years after the end of the covid-19 pandemic makes me hopeless about the future of travel in Thailand. While it’s true that no mandate is in place—in other words, foreign travelers don’t need to partake in this strange, new cultural custom—the ubiquity of masks is nothing short of dystopian. Need personalized help putting your trip to Thailand together? Consider hiring me to help!