Many of my friends know I left Phuket on March 14 for two weeks in Australia that included a five-day wine trip of vineyards around Adelaide. Then with COVID-19 spreading, the Thai government shut the borders on Saturday, March 21. It took seven months then to return to Phuket, which I did on October 14.
With an APEC Business Travelers visa and in my seventh year with a Thai Elite visa, I started out thinking positive, but then the optimism soon faded. I had cruises booked, flights to London to see our daughter cancelled. My Jetstar return flight to Phuket was cancelled and only a voucher issued. I had bought a Business class ticket on TG (Thai Airways) on March 19 hoping to get back before the curfew, but without luck. I finally got a credit voucher mid-September.
All up I eventually recovered over AUS$45,000 in refunds for flights, hotels and cruises – but it took five months and I still only have credit vouchers from the two airlines and a hotel stay in London outstanding, about AUS$8,000.
In Australia I used the time and refunds to do upgrades and repairs to our Sydney home and realised it was going to be a marathon – as indeed it turned out to be. Initially I was relaxed and busy catching up with friends and family in Sydney, so I waited, waited and waited. By July there were rumours that the next tranche of foreigners to be approved for a Certificate of Entry (COE) were those with a Thai Elite Visa. I started the email saga and after six weeks finally had confirmation that I could apply. The process started on August 21, and the application process changed before finally being accepted.
After various follow ups, three weeks later I finally had confirmation that I could apply for a COE through the Royal Thai Embassy in Sydney. I applied online, but was then told I had to submit documents via mail. To double check, I visited the Thai Consulate in Sydney, they then helped submit forms after they saw my name was on the list to re-enter Thailand via Thai Elite/Foreign Ministry.
Interesting challenge is that you have to specify a flight number and date, but can’t confirm without a COE and in Australia you also need the Australian Border Force to approve the exit of Australian nationals. A real Catch-22, so I took a punt and nominated September 28 and that is when the stress build-up started.
The stress, and I mean “STRESS”, is caused because you have no control over the process.
You need about nine pieces of paper and some require payment for a ticket on the TG476 flight and ASQ In Bangkok, both about B60,000 each, for which there is no refund. Others are time sensitive.
- You finally get your COE about six days before the flight, then are told to contact Thai Airlines to pay the airfare. You can’t use an existing open ticket and the repatriation flights are charter flights. Guess what? Thai Airlines are operating on minimum staffing levels and four different phone numbers and eight phone calls later you finally speak to a helpful staff member to pay for the flight
- You can’t apply to the Australian Border Force for an exit visa until you are confirmed and originally it took about 10 days – in the end the online application was approved in five hours
- The Fit To Fly certificate signed by a doctor has to be done within 72 hours (before the flight departs)
- A COVID-19 test also happens within 72 hours of the flight. The flight was on a Monday, and many places take 48 hours to report test results and don’t work on weekends. You need a certificate and there are only a handful of places in Sydney that will issue an approved form
- Finally, you have all the documents and approvals so the trip to the airport starts. You are required to be there a minimum of three hours before the flight. Bags checked in, documents checked, but then as an Australian you have to wait while the TG staff check with ABF if you are permitted to leave. After a further 30 minutes, with confirmation received, you are issued with a boarding pass so you proceed through deserted immigration, customs and security areas to wait in a deserted airport for the 10:00am flight
The flight leaves on time but it feels eerie with the crew heavily dressed in plastic and goggles. Masks are worn for the full nine hours of the flight and I later learnt that there were 270 passengers on a new A350 flight. No alcohol was served and meals were pre-packed even for business class. 80% of the passengers were believed to be Thai citizens with less than 40 foreigners.
We landed in Bangkok about 4:30pm and as one of the first off the plane, I was stunned to see about 200 Thais lined up to process the flight
- Temperature and health records were checked in the first area before proceeding
- Documents checked and ticked off the “list”, then you move on to the next area
- ASQ bookings were confirmed then seated in groups of 10
- Then allowed to go in groups to Immigration and then to collect your own bags
- As you exit through customs there are no checks
- Outside there is the “list” again and you are escorted to a van. One person per van
- As I am over 60 it was from the airport to Bangkok Hospital for the first night for temperature check, blood pressure and later a COVID-19 test.
- You get the results at 7:00am the next morning, and with the all-clear from a negative test, it is off to my ASQ which was Movenpick BDMS
- At the entrance, take off your shoes and put on hotel slippers that were to be worn anywhere in the hotel apart from the garden
So now to ASQ – it is actually 16 days not 14 – the first and last days don’t count as they are part days only.
Simply, you initially download an app called Coste and record temperature readings in the app twice a day
- No alcohol allowed
- Temperature and blood pressure taken at 7:00am
- Breakfast at 8:00am
- Lunch at 1:00pm
- Temperature check at 5:00pm
- Dinner at 6:00pm
- You can book 45 minutes exercise walking in the garden once a day
Door bell on each occasion – you understand about Pavlov’s dog first-hand about responding to stimuli. Meal is left on a coffee table outside the room door and after the meal, leftovers and utensils left in a red plastic bag on the outside coffee table.
I thought I used to be strong mentally, and the first week is relatively easy because you have books and TV (there were 69 channels but after eliminating Thai, Korean, Arabic, Chinese and Russian channels you effectively only have 15) and some exercise equipment.
But on day eight I started to hit the wall when you realise no matter how good the food is or pleasant the staff and even though you can open the balcony and breathe “fresh” Bangkok air, you have no control over your life. I can now understand why solitary confinement is used as a punishment.
My blood pressure kept rising and at one point hit 190/120 even though I tried deep breathing and meditation. Interestingly, later within two days of getting out (of the hotel quarantine) my BP had dropped to 135/75.
On day 11 we had a final COVID-19 test and got the results the next day. On the final day you could book a departure from 6:00am – I was outside at 6:05am. Fortunately a friend was driving from Bangkok to Phuket and the 11-hour drive started the destressing process. Now feeling relaxed.
- So glad to have made it back to Thailand and be settled in once again in Phuket
- Admiration for the Thai approach, protocols and professionalism from airport arrival through ASQ. Amazing how good it was
- Saddened to see how deserted Phuket is and see so many businesses suffering
- Realising that the people who live or retire in Thailand are a special breed who really make you feel very welcome and very special
- Be careful in ASQ – with too much food and not enough exercise, it is so easy to put on weight
- Feeling safe in Thailand with everyone taking care with temperature checks and compulsory wearing of masks