Through the nose: the highs and lows of Thailand’s COVID quarantine schemes

As of May 2022, Thailand is bidding farewell to most entry protocols for vaccinated travellers as it follows much of the rest of the world in loosening restrictions – far too soon or far too late depending on your perspective.

I realised recently that, since 2020, we have been through every single one of Thailand’s Covid entry schemes. ASQ, Sandbox and now Test and Go, we’ve done them all in the last two years.

I’m sure others have as well, but we must be a fairly small group.

31 days in quarantine, 8 PCR tests and a fair chunk of change later, I thought it’d be a good time to document them all in one place, to capture the weird and often not wonderful world of getting to Thailand in the wake of the pandemic.

In the beginning, there was ASQ

Sometimes I think about the trees that died so that ASQ might live. ASQ – Alternative State Quarantine to give its official name – was the OG Covid entry scheme for Thailand.

By far the most effective in keeping out Covid, it was also highly effective at keeping out people.

ASQ took a good few months to emerge, half-formed, from the primordial soup of Thai bureaucracy.

Rumours and half-truths abounded about the scheme, but in fairness the whole world was in a bit of a state at this point (to put it mildly), so confusion was to be expected.

Even getting into ASQ was a feat in the beginning. With many foreigners stranded outside Thailand, and beleaguered embassies as much in the dark as us, a spectacular rumour mill sprang up around how you could get back to the Land of Smiles.

Half truths abounded, urban legends popping up and fizzling out in the space of days. Some said you couldn’t email the embassy as they wouldn’t respond, but you could email this one specific person and they’d help you – this actually turned out to be broadly true. People who did (allegedly) get back briefly became heroes online.

There were all kinds of whispers about secret routes to fly into Thailand. Facebook was abuzz for some time about a mythical teacher who had definitely probably maybe returned by jumping off at Suvarnabhumi at a crew change stop. One guy drove from Scotland, hopped on a plane and got as far as Qatar before being told the connection to Thailand didn’t exist.

To recap, ASQ was a two week strict hotel quarantine, in itself enough to put off many would-be travellers. But the cost and inconvenience were nothing compared to the labyrinthine process of getting into ASQ in the first place. It took us four months and we were among the first foreigners to get in.

The list of documents was as long as your arm, and tricky to get hold of. You had to have a certificate of entry from the Embassy authorising your trip, a negative Covid test with a lab result before they were commonly available, insurance that stated you were covered for COVID before that was a thing, and an embassy-authorised repatriation flight.

Once printed with two copies – always have at least two copies for Thai paperwork – the folder was our heaviest single item of luggage.

Eventually, by haggling a bit with aforementioned helpful embassy person, we latched on to one of the Dutch repatriation flights, including an enjoyable 9 hour stopover in the cavernous ghost town of Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

Heathrow check in was a strange experience, as we were intensively grilled on the veracity of our paperwork by someone who freely admitted they had no idea what they were looking for or at. We were luckier than a few who hadn’t actually printed their documents and had to get them done at the airport to the tune of £4 a sheet.

Once in Thailand, the process was much smoother. We were fortunate to be among the first because there was barely anyone on our flight, so processing was pretty quick. They also took half the documents which lightened our luggage load considerably.

The following 15 days were less quick. Although our rooms had the luxury of both a window and a balcony – we spent more than we should have done on ASQ to be honest – 15 days of solitude with the occasional Covid test was less than fun.

We also had to quarantine separately – long story short, we went to the UK to get married, Covid happened, we weren’t married when we came back, we were not allowed to stay together. This is Thailand, and we’ll have no immorality here, thank you very much.

ASQ was strict – meals left outside your door, a one hour window to walk around the yard downstairs, a requirement to wear blue plastic bags on your feet whenever outside the room. I wrote about the many rules of ASQ at the time, if you want to relive that joy.

We were fortunate with ASQ. Our hotel was nice, the food was good and enough for our spindly frames. We heard different experiences from others elsewhere: a coeliac friend repeatedly receiving wheat-based meals. An American-sized (his words) friend being slowly starved on the dainty hotel portions. Hotel rooms without windows. That kind of thing.

Overall though, ASQ did the job it was supposed to for a decent period of time. It wasn’t a disease-spreading free for all like the UK, but nor was it a near-blanket ban like Australia and New Zealand. Getting into ASQ was like a heist movie and it cost an arm and a leg, but it largely did the thing that Thailand was trying to do at that time – minimise imported cases.

Pros: Elaborate system to even get into ASQ kept the excitement levels high, actually let us back into the country, good Covid protocols, excellent blue overshoes

Cons: Elaborate system to even get into ASQ kept the blood pressure levels high, took 4 months to actually let us back into the country, spent 15 days alone, cost the earth

Arbitrary rating: 7/10 – did the job at the time

Eventually though, with a need to make Thailand more accessible once again, a new, streamlined scheme popped into existence and we came to know…

The Phuket Sandbox and friends

The Sandbox was my favourite of the entry schemes – at the time, the options were spending 15 days in a room for ASQ, or spending 15 days larking about in the holiday destination of Phuket. It wasn’t a difficult choice to be honest…

The Phuket Sandbox simplified and relaxed a number of the rules and paperwork of ASQ, but also added some extra paperwork and quirks of its own to keep punters guessing. Moving to an online application system was a big help.

So it was goodbye to mysterious contacts at the embassy, but hello to a T8 health form that I’ve not seen before or since, and a fleeting dalliance with the Thailand Plus app, which didn’t work in Phuket.

Confusingly, over time the Sandbox concept spread to other provinces, but not under the same name or necessarily the same conditions. Like those Abibas sliders you often see in the markets.

So as well as the Phuket Sandbox we had schemes with names like Samui Plus and, I dunno, Krazy Krabi or something.

Eventually we had a whole host of Sandbox areas or blue zones, including the biggest tourist areas like Bangkok, Phuket and of course, Buriram.

But the Phuket Sandbox was still the best of the schemes in my opinion. A big island to explore almost unhindered, lightning fast processing of Covid tests, well-drilled setup at the airport, getting to quarantine in these surroundings.

We also had our PCR tests done by a guy whose accent was half Bangkok, half Jason Statham, so that was fun.

We ended up spending a month in Phuket, and I wrote a fair bit during that time about the Phuket Sandbox scheme, the exceptional food of Phuket Town and the charming Kin Dee seafood restaurant in the north of the island.

Pros: Simplified system, beautiful location, very slick processes on the ground

Cons: Drained bank account once again

Arbitrary rating: 9/10 would Box again

There was a lot to like about the Sandbox scheme, but again it was costly and drawn out – the outlay on tests, insurance, flights plus two weeks of hotel costs and two weeks in one place made it unrealistic for a lot of people.

So it was a welcome step for many when Test and Go came along, the latest and probably final quarantine-based entry program for Thailand.

A surprisingly long time in Test and Go

Just as the Sandbox simplified and relaxed the strictures of ASQ, so Test and Go relaxed the requirements of the Sandbox.

Our 14 day Sandbox quarantine had gradually become 10 days and 7 days, and Test and Go brought this right down to a single night hotel stay and PCR test in a wider range of locations, with a self-administered ATK test on day 5.

By the time we did Test and Go, the pre-flight PCR test had been dropped, but the arrival test remained. Somewhat counter to logic but each to their own.

The whole application was moved online via the absolutely secure Thailand Pass system which was only mildly susceptible to data leaks and phishing emails.

We got pretty adept at filling in Thailand Pass applications, having a few family members visit as well as our own trip.

Again, the system made things mainly easier, but with some notable quirks. You had to upload evidence of your documents like insurance, but only JPGs and PNGs were accepted. Not super helpful when most of the docs are PDF…

I spent quite some time artfully screenshotting my parents’ insurance to create a JPG patchwork quilt of evidence.

There was also the issue of QR codes. If you added a QR code from your vaccination to the system, it would speed up the processing.

The catch was that you had to crop the QR code TO THE EXACT MICRON for the system to agree that what you had uploaded was indeed a QR code, and you had to upload 3 QRs. It once took me 15 attempts.

Painful enough for one person, but imagine doing that for a whole family.

It’s debatable whether uploading the QRs makes a meaningful difference to processing times any more. It definitely did for our visitors in December – the first try without QR codes processed for 8 days and then rejected, the second try with QRs was accepted in 5 minutes.

Recently, though, processing times seem to have evened out to under 24 hours with or without the codes, from what I can gather.

Our final gripe with the system was that you could book packages through Agoda as an official partner, and upload your Booking ID to have everything auto-confirmed.

This worked a charm until we needed to move our flight by a week, at which point we noticed that the booking was both non-refundable and non-amendable. Seems a bit dumb that the official booking system wouldn’t make the bookings amendable at least, rather than just taking your money.

Moral of the story: book through the hotel directly. Also read the small print!

Again, at the airport the process was simpler and smoother than the previous scheme. They just looked at our Thai passes and hotel confirmation and then it was straight through to immigration.

Finding the transport to the hotels was a little on the esoteric side, as the system was divided into Tables and Desks with numbers and letters. So our hotel was on Table C Desk 2 – and that was in no way completely confusing after a 12 hour flight.

There was a faint whiff of chaos in the air as bleary passengers milled about and the staff hoisted hotel logos in the air.

That said, we stumbled into our table almost immediately and only waited about 5 minutes for our transfer. It probably would have been better to be PCR tested at the airport, but instead that happens at the hotel and for us a few hours after arrival.

Most people we know got in and out of Test and Go in a few hours, but we were told our results would come back between 9 and 10pm. We enjoyed a bland hotel room and the worst meal I’ve had in this country while waiting, to then be told our results would be available at 2am.

Staying the night, we phoned in the morning and the manager told us that, and I’ll never forget this turn of phrase, our results were ‘not negative yet’. The results did eventually come back negative, but we also had COVID recovery certificates with us from having it a little while ago just in case.

Test and Go, or Test, Wait, Wait, Sleep, Wait, Go as it was for us, was the fastest but also the most frustrating, albeit probably due to bad luck than anything systemic. I’d book differently next time, but there probably won’t be one.

Pros: Minimal paperwork and quarantine time

Cons: Hilariously fickle online system, worst club sandwich ever eaten, unexpectedly long wait

Arbitrary rating entirely clouded by my own experience: 5/10 a rickety but functional system

The end of the entry schemes

We’ve managed to time our various trips abroad so that we were some of the first into ASQ and some of the last out of Test and Go, which I feel is an impressive, ruinously expensive feat of timing.

The merits of entry schemes can be debated til the cows come home (via quarantine). I think they’ve served a good purpose overall while acknowledging that we’re lucky to have been able to afford the extra cost.

Much as I’ve highlighted some comedy flaws in each system in this piece, I think Thailand did a good job overall with the schemes at each point, though they did at times seem to be held together with sticky tape.

The Thai Pass booking system remains at time of writing, and it needs a bit of work, but it’s not that different from a typical eVisa system that most people would have to go through to enter most countries.

That said, I’m selfishly glad that we’ll no longer need tests and quarantine to come to Thailand. There’s only so much poking my nasal passages can handle, and only so many quarantine packages a bank account can support.

We’ve certainly had some interesting experiences with the Thai quarantine schemes over the past couple of years, but here’s hoping we don’t have to go through them again.



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