It’s fair to say that the Phuket Sandbox has generated a heck of a lot of buzz locally in Thailand since it launched in July 2021.
After over a year of effective closure to the outside world, the Phuket Sandbox is a small and heavily caveated step towards reopening for a country more reliant than most on tourism.
No wonder then that the first trickle of travellers to arrive on the island were greeted by the prime minister, although this must have seemed pretty surreal to a bunch of jetlagged folk stepping off a long flight and became reassuringly farcical when the opening ceremony had a Covid case.
I don’t want to imagine a similar scenario in the UK with Boris Johnson waiting dutifully at Heathrow, clammy paws outstretched for a big Covidy bear hug while he leers at passing women. But now I am imagining that and so are you, sorry.
Anyway, after a very welcome and unexpectedly smooth trip to the UK at the start of August, we banked on the Phuket Sandbox to get back to Thailand.
We are likely in quite an unusual position of now having come into Thailand via the Thai ASQ scheme and now the Phuket Sandbox. Whilst our ASQ stay was at the beginning of Thailand’s programmes to allow people to arrive from abroad, it was quite a difficult and convoluted process.
So on this round, we went into our Phiket Sandbox application with a little trepidation. Thankfully, getting into Thailand via the Phuket Sandbox was – for us at least – straightforward. Here’s how the process went.
Getting into the Phuket Sandbox
There are just a couple of steps for the Phuket Sandbox and all of your registration is done online through the website https://coethailand.mfa.go.th/
Before booking a flight and hotel, we pre-registered – for this you’ll need digital copies or photos of a few items:
- Covid-19 insurance
- Vaccine certificate
The website is pretty clear and easy to use, and this Phuket Sandbox infographic pops up with a handy list of all the info.
We also had to provide our work permit as we work here but you can select whatever entry type including the normal tourist visas and visa exemption.
Our Phuket Sandbox submission was then pre-approved by the London Embassy which took around two days.
We then booked our accomodation and flights – flights are as normal but accommodation needs to be booked in an SHA Plus hotel to qualify for your 14 night quarantine.
For Phuket Sandbox hotels, Agoda have a useful function for booking Phuket Sandbox approved hotels that we used.
In terms of where to stay, if you’re looking for lively then look at Bang Tao/Laguna or Rawai beaches. We opted for the quieter Mai Khao for more working space.
NB if you do use Agoda, they’ll send you a follow-up email instructing you to update your booking with exact names for each guest, even though their own system won’t allow it. Which is silly.
But fear not, your hotel will contact you directly to confirm details (it might be a good idea to find a room on Agoda then contact the hotel directly to book to be honest…).
One thing to note: check how long you need to book for – it should be 14 nights for most people rather than the 15 which was the case for ASQ. There’s something about when your flight lands as to whether that is your first day or whether it’s the day after.
After this they’ll send you a shiny SHABA certificate (no idea) which you will upload into the COE website along with your flight details.
The only other thing you’ll need to submit to the embassy for your COE is proof of payment for Covid tests. We were directed to https://www.thailandpsas.com/ at an eye-watering 8,000 baht for 3 tests, but I’m not sure there are other choices.
Make sure you download the PDF receipt from the Covid swab site as we didn’t get a confirmation email and you’ll need to upload the receipt for your COE and print it out for inspection.
After a quick jaunt back to the COE website to upload all that info (it’s less than I’ve made it sound), your COE will be approved. Ours was approved in a matter of hours.
Travelling to the Phuket Sandbox
After a whirlwind but excellent few weeks in the UK, including what turned out to be a very nice but hilariously ill-advised stay in Newquay just as it became Covid Central UK, it was time to head back off to Thailand.
As is now quite standard at international borders, you will need a negative Covid test taken within the 72 hours before your flight departs.
I cannot recommend the in-person service at Cardiff airport enough for this by the way – less intrusive brain-stab, more gentle nose massage with a pillow-soft swab. Luxury.
At the airport you’ll need printed copies of all your docs, so that’ll be:
- Covid test (lab certificate)
- COE Certificate of Entry
- Covid swab payment receipt for Phuket
- SHABA certificate
- Vaccination certificate
- Covid-19 insurance (we were fine with the insurance letter – our friend was asked for the full policy)
- To have Thailand Plus app downloaded (there’s a twist – when we got to Phuket they told us that Thailand Plus doesn’t work in Phuket so you also need to download Mor Chana. Save time and get both)
- Also fill in a T8 health form otherwise you’ll have to do it at Phuket
As ever – and there’s always one – when we pulled out the paperwork in the queue someone pointed and said “Ooh what’s all that for, do we need documents?”. Don’t be this person. Printouts at Heathrow cost about £4 per page…
The document inspection is pretty thorough and so the queueing takes a while.
Our flight was quite well-spaced, as it was on the way out of Thailand. I saw a board in Phuket saying there were 57 people on our flight from London, so you should have a decent amount of space.
At Phuket Airport
After a sleepless, bumpy, hot and cold 12 hours of sheer joy we landed at the spick and span little airport in Phuket.
When we came for ASQ in Bangkok the process was a classic Thai blend of chaotic but functional. Here in Phuket it was a breeze – despite the plane announcement wrongly telling Sandboxers to stay on the plane initially.
For the 50 or so of us getting off in Phuket there were probably 20 staff to welcome us and check printed documents and the Mor Chana app before you go through immigration.
Our luggage had already been pulled off the belt and was waiting for us when we came through immigration, the checking and immigration process taking just 20 minutes.
You’ll also receive your first Covid swab at the airport as you walk out, which your bleary, jetlagged senses will surely love.
All of the hotel drivers are already waiting to collect, so from stepping off the plane to getting into the car took around 25 minutes which was pretty impressive.
Phuket Sandbox vs ASQ
You have to stay in your room in Phuket until your airport Covid test comes back negative. They really rush this through and that meant freedom in about 4 hours, 3 of which we were asleep.
On this basis the Phuket Sandbox is hands down a better option than ASQ – being able to go out and about cannot be overstated. We walked out to this, which beats two weeks in a hotel room any day.
Yes – there is a risk of getting put into quarantine should someone nearby you on your flight test positive, but this seems a small risk. At time of writing only 85 positive tests have come from Sandbox visitors out of about 30,000 visitors – you’d have to be unlucky to be affected.
Phuket Sandbox rules and daily life
You are free to do what you like in Phuket once you’ve had your first negative test. The Phuket Sandbox rules are pretty easy.
You’ll need to check in daily with your hotel on the Mor Chana app and do your assigned Covid tests at the end of week 1 and week 2, but other than that there are no real restrictions (other than staying in Phuket of course). At the end of the stay you get a paper certificate which you’ll need to keep a hold of to prove you’ve finished the Phuket Sandbox and are free to move around Thailand.
After 7 days you could move to Phang Nga, Surat Thani or Krabi but we haven’t explored this, there’s plenty in Phuket.
As I mentioned earlier, Phuket seems quiet, especially up here in resort-heavy Mai Khao. Rawai and Bang Tao are much busier with most things seemingly open and, from what we’ve seen, relatively busy on the beachfronts.
We’ve heard from a few people now that Kata and Karon beaches are extremely and pretty closed up. Our friend visited Kata and said the main strip is mostly closed, but there are a lot of food trucks off the main drag that are open. So if you want to be in livelier places, think about Rawai and Bang Tao/Laguna.
Phuket Town is very much open and really worth a visit for the amazing food if nothing else!
But there’s still more than enough going on and most of the people we know who are in the Phuket Sandbox are planning to stay on the island after their 14 days are up. Flights to Bangkok have now resumed as of September.
There’s also wildlife, greenery and brilliant beaches that aren’t too packed – it’s a lovely time to enjoy Phuket’s natural delights.
Having your own transport is highly recommended and has helped us get around the island and to restaurants and supermarkets. Our car rental is only 550 baht a day so it needn’t be a huge expense.
Wherever you are there are plenty of restaurants open and Phuket has some great ones, especially for the seafood lovers.
Domestic tourists are now allowed back which will surely boost the local economy, and we saw a number of visitors from Bangkok checking into our hotel in the last few days of our Phuket Sandbox stay. It has always seemed odd that Phuket opened up to foreign travelers while cutting off the presumably much larger domestic pool.
Whilst the peak of rainy season means days are, well, rainy, we’ve still had plenty of sunshine so far.
Overall I’m positive about the Phuket Sandbox, we’ve found it well-organised and easy to get into with very few of the bumps and bureaucratic quirks you often see in Thailand. We’ve wrapped up our two weeks in the Phuket Sandbox, and while we were desperate to get out of ASQ and left at the earliest opportunity, I’m quite sad to be leaving our resort here in Phuket!
In fact, we enjoyed Phuket so much that we’ve delayed heading back to Bangkok to spend a little more time here.
Phuket – in the right places – is probably the liveliest and most open place in Thailand at present thanks to the Phuket Sandbox.
The freedom to get out and about and enjoy a quiet but not dead Phuket is great and for us it’s absolutely the best way to come to Thailand in 2021.
Hopefully this has helped if you’re planning to come to Thailand in the near future, please do drop any questions into the comments!