Trials and tribulations of returning to Thailand in the Covid era – a personal view

PHOTO: Ah yes, the copious Thai paperwork. More about that in the next instalment.

A series of articles by David Jackson

Sunday morning and I am sitting inside my viewless window in a Bangkok Hotel waiting in anticipation for a trip down to reception where, after five lonely days, I get to experience my first brief contact with a human – a nurse who will presumably force a swab up my nose. Welcome to my quarantine experience.

Following all the issues relating to teaching via online platforms, my school in Bangkok decided to close early for the summer holiday and, in my naiveté, I assured the owner that following a short holiday I would be back in Thailand promptly in order to resume my duties. Like many I assumed that the economics of potential mass unemployment would force the Thai doors open facilitating my easy repatriation. How wrong was I?!

The process of re-entry is difficult, long and full of pitfalls and, despite having return tickets which were made invalid, the system has to begin with the Thai Embassy of the country where you wish to travel back to Thailand from. In my case it started as a 9am internet scramble as many hundreds of ‘farangs’ competed with Thai to obtain a place on the limited Thai Airways repatriation flights.

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Quite rightly Thai citizens were given priority and, regrettably, the website could not cope with the volume of requests. Nevertheless, despite this technological setback, I was eventually allocated a place on a special Farang Express flight thanks in part to my boss and his diligence plus, presumably utilising the other forces in the name of pressure on the Ministry of the Interior from the numerous International Schools here in the kingdom.

I won’t go into the myriad of documents needed in order to actually be allowed on to the plane (that’s in my next story). Let’s just say that I had mixed emotions over the timing of this flight which fell at the end of a holiday period. So, I could feel my stress level beginning to build in anticipation of trying to obtain the 72 hour covid and doctor’s report when most of my country would have been in bank-holiday shutdown. Soon, pressure from Thai Airways to pay for the flight balanced with my inability to find a reasonably priced quarantine hotel forced a classic Catch-22 style problem in that I could not pay for one without the other. Luckily my kind boss came to the rescue and soon I had the flight, quarantine hotel plus report from the embassy confirming my work permit and thus meaning I would be able to return to Thailand.

Normally, the last few days of any trip back to the west is frantic with saying final goodbyes and packing, but not this year as the word frantic took on a new meaning. A trip to the city for two separate covid tests plus a postal one for good measure was augmented by an eventually successful attempt to find a doctor to certify me fit-to-fly. However, with no testing company guaranteeing the 72 hour turnaround for the covid report, my prudence to use three companies paid off as two of them provided my negative result and certificate within this tight timeframe.

One could feel the tension in the subsequent check-in queue and I certainly did sweat as the staff scrutinised my documentation like a stern headmaster looking for trouble… let us just say that the relief from the simple gesture of simply being handed my boarding pass was fantastic. After three long months overseas, full of despair, I was finally on my way to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and back to the school and children whom I love so much.

The flight was straightforward as the crew served the passengers whilst wrapped up in their PPE suits, masks and gloves. After a couple of films on the In Flight Entertainment system, and a snooze, I was soon awake preparing for our touchdown. However, the juxtaposition of the wonderful repatriation flight with what was about to happen was quite a shock to the jet-lagged system.

To be apprehensive of my arrival was the understatement of the year as I gawped at the enormity of what greeted myself and fellow red-eyed passengers. A column of official looking Thais stood just off of the aeroplane ramp guiding all 300 or so of us into the arrivals corridor where, after the mandatory half a kilometre walk, we were provided with a chair, each placed in a beautifully socially distanced array worthy of any geometry exam paper.

The stress continued as the paperwork was scrutinised, once by medical staff and then again in much closer detail. Some people were asked to show digital copies to confirm insurance which has to cover any covid issues to a value of US$100,000 minimum. Your name is subsequently found on a list and you are provided with a number to show to staff at the main door – the name of your quarantine hotel.

Following yet another check, it was time to join the standard immigration queue… yes, that’s it, the one that can be one hour long on a bad day as half of China seemingly arrive at the same time as you, but much easier at this time! In groups of ten you are taken to immigration and, to hear the noise of the date stamp landing on my passport was like music to my ears…yes…I had done it.

Scary…yes. Overkill… maybe. Safe… extremely. You are not getting into this country unless you run this gauntlet. Thailand wants, quite rightly, to keep covid out and its citizens safe.

So, collect your bags as usual and don’t even think about trying to use the ATM or visit a shop (they were all closed anyway). Welcome to your 14 days of social isolation and teetotal experience. My hotel representative collected me from the main exit from the airport where I was placed with another customer in a semi-isolated van for our journey through the Bangkok familiarity.

The check-in to my hotel was efficient and painless as it was done in the back of the van. You are then given a number and asked to find the room alone and just “make yourself at home”. And that is exactly what I am doing now as I write this article.

I wonder how boredom will affect me? How will I keep myself sane? Do I choose the farang or Thai food option? Will I pass the dreaded hotel covid test?

Find out more next time.

David Jackson in an English teacher and former headmaster from the UK working at St Mark’s International School, Bangkok.

Bangkok NewsCovid-19 NewsOpinionThailand News

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