Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Before the whole COVID thing really kicked off, our plan for spring looked like this:
March 15th: Fly back to UK
April 4th: Get married
April 6th: Fly to Spain and Italy for short honeymoon
April 12th: Return to Thailand
In any other year that would have been a perfectly viable plan. Here’s how it worked out:
March 15th: Fly back to UK – nailed it
Get married – cancelled, although it did spark off a whole lot of fun with some chocolate rabbits
Fly to Spain and Italy for short honeymoon – lol, no. April 12th July 15th: Return to Thailand
So just 4 months after getting back and 3 months later than planned, we’re back in Thailand. We are currently in hotel quarantine for the next two weeks, then hopefully we can go back to our flat, assuming the kombucha Frankie started making two months ago hasn’t gained sentience and changed the locks after 4 months unsupervised. It’ll still taste foul no doubt.
It’s been a long and winding road to get back. I know a fair few people are in a similar position, so here’s a rundown of what happened, how we arranged it all and how we got back. We were definitely lucky to get back this early. This is just our experience and the process is constantly changing but hopefully there are some useful points in here, or just a bit of a story about travel in this weird new world.
June 1st – applying to get home
Thailand reacted quickly and uncompromisingly to coronavirus. Since late March, the borders have been all but closed. Given the success in stamping out the disease locally, this seems like the right call, but it’s meant a very long wait for those of us who live in Thailand. Even Thai nationals have waited months to return on some scant repatriation flights from the UK.
As both of us are work permit holders with valid visas, we were lucky in being close to the top of the non-Thai pile. Throughout April and May we were told by the London Embassy that Thailand was closed, full stop, and to email again next month.
After hearing on June 1st that non-Thais could apply to return to Thailand (via Richard Barrow on Twitter, someone who is good to follow for general Thai news, but has been invaluable as an information source since the pandemic, and via a colleague in the same boat who was far more clued up than me), we immediately sent in digital copies of all our documents to the London embassy. All communication we had with the embassy as over email, and they were pretty responsive throughout. I think the documents are now being uploaded via a portal, but we sent copies of:
- Work permit
- Declaration form agreeing to quarantine and to abide by the rules when we got to Thailand (this may have been discontinued)
We were told our application had been sent to Bangkok for review. We politely nudged the embassy once a week. They politely nudged back and said they had heard nothing.
Another month went by. We were really fortunate to be able to stay in a loving family home through this whole time – the only arduous task was the occasional 5.30am start to line up with Thai working hours. I got really into sourdough and slow cooking (so original), got good at darts, gained weight, got into trail running, lost weight.
July 1st: Approved (with a catch)
On July 1st Thailand announced a partial lifting of the flight ban in place since March. We then got an email from the embassy saying that our application to re-enter was approved. This means they would issue a Certificate of Entry once we had a flight and Alternative State Quarantine confirmed. We were advised to wait on further information about flights.
As it turns out, commercial flights into Thailand were still very much banned. The only thing that had changed was that foreigners with an approval were now able to join repatriation flights. We were advised that EVA were running the repat flights from London on the 19th and 26th of July, but that the best we could hope for would be Premium Economy at ~1250 GBP each, or business at double that. Economy is reserved for the long list of Thai nationals, which seems fair enough.
We said we would also happily take any flight from Europe – the frequency and demand for flights in each country seems to be variable, and the UK seems to have few flights and a lot of demand. The London embassy said they would check on this for us – and around July 7th they said we could take a repatriation flight from Amsterdam or Frankfurt, economy, on July 15th if we could get there.
We decided on Amsterdam and thus ensued a level of stress I don’t ever want to experience again.
July 8-15: Hoop Jumping
The approval is great on paper – however for the embassy to actually issue the Certificate of Entry, and for you to get into Thailand, you need the following:
- A confirmed flight – we had to book LON-AMS for the 15th, then AMS-BKK for a random date in August or September (flights are not being sold for July). The Dutch (I presume? Maybe the Hague?) Thai embassy/KLM then changed this to the 15th July. Without the embassy’s say so, this would not have happened
- An Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) reservation – the embassy will give you a list of options who you then phone or email. A lot – even all of them – are non-refundable, but most I checked with allowed you to move the booking if your flight moved or something happened
- A fit to fly certificate – we used Doctap to do one in person. Gogodoc seem to issue them by video – issued no more than 72hrs before departure
- A T8 Health Declaration which is emailed to you
- Covid-19 insurance of at least 100k USD. We went with April LMG who had the best prices with an excess. Most people have health insurance in Thailand but not to the specified amount.
- A negative Covid-19 test by PCR – who knew a swab could go so far up a nose? This must also be issued at most 72hrs before flying and you need a lab test and certificate with it.
- We went with Medical Express Clinic in London at an eye-watering 250GBP a pop, for the lab result and a certificate within 24hrs. This was to ensure timing. They were excellent it has to be said.
- Others have had success using Randox – a mail order kit at about 150GBP. The advantage of the mail order kits is that you can time the test so the result comes back in the window. It may save you a trip if you’re not near a clinic that does private tests. The NHS tests apparently won’t do because there are no certificates/lab results issued. They did check for the lab test result at Bangkok.
With the flight on Wednesday morning, we managed to get everything arranged by Tuesday lunchtime and thankfully all the results were negative. We didn’t need to send proof of the tests or insurance up front to the embassy but were told clearly that we’d need these to get into Thailand. Our Certificate of Entry was issued, and everything was in place.
I have to say the London embassy were great with us – responsive, transparent and open about the fact they didn’t have all the information. We were getting emails at 11pm, at the weekends – they must be absolutely swamped with requests. We might have been fortunate or got in early but our experience was really positive all round.
I was still nervous it would all go wrong – even more so when reports of a fresh flight ban started doing the rounds after a visiting military officer skipped quarantine to go shopping in Rayong – thanks buddy, hope you bought something nice.
July 15-16 – flying post-pandemic
Airport farewells are emotional at the best of times – and it’s particularly tough when it’s your parents, you’ve not seen each other in person for the whole of lockdown, and you’re all wearing masks in the car park at Heathrow because only passengers can go into the terminal. Sorry Mum.
Heathrow was quiet, but not as much as I had expected – a fair number streaming into the check in desks. We were expecting a full document check at check-in but it didn’t materialise. KLM checked our passports and work permits, and I sort of wafted the Covid test at the desk without being asked – just to prove quite how Covid-negative I was. After quite a bit of confusion because the bookings were separated, we managed to check ourselves and our bags through to Bangkok.
Security was deserted but the departure area was busy, presumably because all the flights are going from one or two terminals. Not much is open at T2 – Leon, duty free and a few clothes shops, and the caviar shop obvs.
The flight to Amsterdam was packed and uneventful. We hopped out at Schiphol with 9 hours to kill, and the transit desk reassured us that everything was checked in and in order. There were no extra checks at Amsterdam.
Schiphol is a ghost town. It’s a ginormous airport with barely any flights, so most shops are closed but the building is open. McDonald’s and a few sandwich shops are about all you’ll get for food, but if you’re in the market for a wheel of Dutch cheese, these are readily available for reasons which are unclear.
Some of the benefits are plenty of space to hunker down and sleep if you like, the chance for a game of hide and seek which could easily kill four hours on a single round, and the feeling of being in a zombie film just before the zombies flood round the corner in a frenzied mass.
Eventually night fell and we boarded for the Bangkok flight. It does go on to Kuala Lumpur, but my understanding is that the only people getting off in Bangkok were approved by the embassy, so I don’t think there is a loophole any more to get onto this flight by saying you’re going to KL then jumping out at BKK. I could be wrong – but it’s a high risk move.
The flight was extremely quiet – perhaps 100 people max and mostly non-Thai. Every other seat was unoccupied on purpose, however there were still big empty spaces all over. I’m speculating, but I suspect the number of inbound passengers per flight or day is limited, hence the relatively low numbers. Hence there might be space, but not ‘availability’ if that makes sense.
KLM made an announcement before take-off regretting that the experience would not be what we were used to. Indeed it was unexpected. The empty rows meant plenty of space to spread out, we departed early, we were immediately given a light meal, then they gave us all an enormous bag of snacks, then we were left alone until touchdown. I regretted that all flights are not like this.
Top tip for flights – bring own headphones (with jack) as they aren’t giving them out.
July 16th – Thailand
Landing ahead of schedule, we were off pretty quickly and the rest of the process was extremely well-organised. The country is serious in keeping Covid out and you can’t fault them for that. Passengers for KL had to stay on board. This is where all the checks happen, and they happen in depth.
As you get off, people are waiting with your name on a card, then you’re given a little badge with ‘ASQ’ on it. You then immediately sit down in neat rows while masked and gowned officers check your documents briefly and check your health declaration which the embassy had sent earlier (T8).
In batches, you’re then sent to another counter where you are temperature-scanned. Anyone reading high (37.5+) is taken elsewhere for a more detailed test, we saw a few. Thankfully there is no minimum as my reading of 34 puts me well into hypothermia range, difficult to achieve in the tropics. Subsequent readings have me at a much more alive 36.7.
Documents are then checked again and at length. I got stuck behind an Italian man who didn’t seem to have the right insurance certificate. His friend eventually got him through after 15 minutes as they worked for the same company and he did have the company-issued certificate. Another man was still being checked when I eventually got through, having got there before me.
I bumped into fellow returnee and Farangs Stranded Abroad in Thailand Facebook legend Chris Owen at this point – having followed his nightmare getting back with Qatar a couple of weeks ago and found his general updates and information useful and accurate, it was good to see him make it.
After another small sit down, we went through normal immigration, where the officer told me, laughingly, in Thai that he had to look at me twice because the existing photo of me on the system ‘is a fat man’, so clearly before lockdown I was carrying the bulk of my 60kg in my face.
Frankie has an unnatural ability to navigate queues and had comfortably beaten me through the process, waiting with our bags. We were then ushered straight to our van to get to Alternative State Quarantine. The van has been virus-proofed in typically resourceful fashion.
A delightful hour of traffic later, we were at the hotel, checked in and locked away in our separate rooms for the next two weeks. Our cancelled wedding is a gift that keeps on giving – no marriage certificate means no staying together unfortunately.
July 16th – Alternative State Quarantine
We have splashed out a bit on the ASQ and gone for the Anantara Riverside – it’s not exactly affordable at 70k THB but it’s got nice balconies, big rooms, good wifi, a quiet area, excellent food and too much of it. We’re treating it a bit like a holiday except we can’t leave the rooms and we have to work most days.
This was my lunch today – just the six large sticks of satay, a green curry and a slab of blue burry (their words) cheesecake. Plus the coke and coffee. Next immigration photo I’ll likely be an actual fat man.
Food is left outside your door at set times, like a cat, and they scan your temperature twice a day with Covid tests twice over the stay. If we test negative on Sunday, we can go outdoors for a couple of hours a day and enjoy the full heat and humidity of rainy season – bliss. Two more weeks and it’s hopefully home time.
- Follow what the embassy tells you. I’ve seen a lot of conflicting info around but they have the most up to date status and they can tell you what is available flight-wise. The London embassy was helpful to us throughout – we were persistent if we didn’t hear back within a few days or there had been a long period of no news, but generally they were very responsive. If they don’t say a flight is available, it most likely isn’t, regardless of what the airline or agent says.
- Check for other countries. Initially we were told that the UK repat flights were the option, but when we said we’d happily take any European flight they contacted the Dutch embassy and we arranged our flight from Amsterdam. I don’t know how often this will happen but it’s worth exploring, maybe we were just lucky.
- Stay up to date but don’t read into everything. The Farangs Facebook group is useful for many things and full of people looking to help, I highly recommend it. There’s also a fair bit of (unintentional) wrong information floating around many other sources, which can get to you. While stopping over in Amsterdam I was fully convinced that flights were re-banned and ours would be cancelled and we’d live forever on gouda sandwiches in Amsterdam airport, based on what I had read. Refer to point 1 for the most accurate info. Richard Barrow on Twitter is also handy as he distils the contents of the Covid-19 briefings and shares relevant announcements succinctly.
- Hang in there. There were maybe 40 foreigners on our flight who got in, so the repatriations are happening and the process on arrival is smooth. It will happen. We were lucky to get in relatively early compared to most, but there is movement.