Travelling During the Pandemic – Seeing Each Other for the First Time in Almost Two Years (Thank You Thailand)

Why We Travelled to Thailand

Photo: China D

When international borders around the world closed virtually overnight, my fiance China had just flown back to the Philippines and I was in Australia. In March 2020, we didn’t know that we would not see each other again in person for 1 year and 9 months, such was the rigid response to the Covid 19 virus. Prior to the pandemic, separating for a month or two was difficult and seemed basically unfair. For me, describing the pain of this recent separation cannot be done with mere words, but it is along those lines plus cranked up to breaking point.

Throughout our long-distance relationship, we have always been willing to do whatever it takes to be with each other and reduce the, sometimes necessary, time apart. Despite all our efforts, we could not crack this new, unparalleled code to enter either mine or China’s home country and be reunited. Regardless of being engaged and registering our relationship in our home Australian state, the Australian government would accept nothing less than marriage for us to be considered closely related – and yet it didn’t allow China in so that we could tie the knot. As the classic book that explained catch 22 says, “Insanity is contagious” because the Philippines too saw me as nothing more than a tourist - not the significant other half of a household that supports seven children (China’s cousins who she is the guardian of) and almost as many dogs.

Photo: China D

Having already missed two birthdays each (one being China’s 30th) and one Christmas, losing yet another Christmas day together, and the chance to form the precious memories that accompany it, was simply unthinkable. Enough was enough – time to take control of our lives. But, with December looming plus a new variant of the virus causing the Philippines to retract any promises made about opening, we had to act quickly and, with conventional doors closed to us, radically.

Down to our last remaining options, we chose to marry by proxy through Utah State County in America. Although it wasn’t the ceremony we’d originally planned, the loving feeling we’d hoped for was there in abundance, and that, after all, is the reason to get married - not for the party.

Aside from finally being married to the love of my life, the humbling nature of the experience, which required us to let go of the social expectations we thought were needed for a wedding, caused both of us to reflect on what’s actually important. This gave us a fresh perspective on what it means to commit for life. It was a valuable reminder of the essence of life, which is to simply love and be loved. Rolling with what life gives you, although difficult sometimes, is always humbling. On top of this, even though it’s the reason for the ceremony, it was also humbling to know that another person has dedicated their life to me, even in the most difficult circumstances. I will spend my lifetime striving to be worthy of that selfless commitment. 

Excited and hopeful, I once again applied for a visa to enter the Philippines – this time as the spouse of a Filipina. I believed in my right to be with my wife. We had done everything asked of us by our governments and the systems in place and, we thought, had earned the right to be together. It was no small shock when I was told that our marriage, bound by love that transcended boundaries no matter what happened in this world, could not (or would not according to some mid-level laky) be recognised at this time in the Philippines due to its family code. Although the irony of this code actually being designed to keep a significant percentage of people apart was laughable, I was in no mood to even smile at this crushing and frankly insulting blow. The feeling that the Philippine response produced in me goes beyond unfair and even unjust. I simply do not have the ability to describe it - it’s so unprecedented in my experience of this life. One day, when telling our story, I may have the perfect sentence that sums it up, but for now it is too raw, both in the sense of pain and unfinished. 

And so, the last chance we had of seeing each other, before yet another year in our short lives was spent without being side by side, was to meet in a third country. With limited options, we chose the one country that allowed both Australian and Filipino citizens entry - Thailand.  

Photo: China D

The purpose of our visit was to see each other in the flesh. Nothing else really mattered. One thing that being in a long-distance relationship, then a pandemic, has taught us is - the little things money cannot buy, often barely noticed when present, are desired most when absent from our lives. Holding the hand of your loved one, smelling their scent, feeling their warmth, just knowing that they are within arm’s reach to share in the ups and downs.

As such, we had an idea of the things we may like to see and do while in Thailand, but nothing was planned down to the minute. As it turned out, every day was an adventure, giving us experiences and memories beyond measure. Because we just planned the basics, such as the towns we’d be in, and the rest we left to our open hearts, the adventure and even more love just came across our path. I’m so grateful for it. The activity and adventure was like a bonus gift from the heavens to compliment our pure intention, which was to just be together. If we’d planned everything we ended up doing, writing it out before leaving so we could tick it off as we went, it would have definitely felt like too much. But letting the adventure spontaneously come to us was just right.

Requirements to Enter Thailand

In order to enter Thailand and use their Test and Go package, we needed to apply for a Certificate of Entry (COE) or Thai Pass. To get the Thai pass we had to fill out the online application (see below), upload our passports, vaccine certificates, quarantine hotel booking, we had to purchase insurance and upload that, plus buy our plane tickets and provide those too. It was quite the task to complete but once everything was in order and submitted, the Thai authorities replied within a few days with a giant QR code (both the symbol of individual tracking and freedom) which meant you were in. We just had to pay too much for a PCR test in our home countries a couple of days before our flight and make sure to have access to our international vaccine certificates (both electronic and hardcopy are accepted at airports), the ones with the all-important QR code – and we were good to go.

What to Expect After Landing

Image by: Thaiger

I landed in Bangkok knowing that China should have arrived about an hour earlier. We’re in the same country! Inside the terminal, you’re greeted with long rows of folding chairs, evenly separated with obvious care, one for each passenger. As I and my fellow passengers sat in our chairs, we were told by the uniformed staff to ready our documents and to wear our masks. Although it felt a little confronting, like something from a George Orwell novel, because I was so close to seeing my wife I barely cared about this new direction the world is going in. A group travelling from the UK (judging by their accents) broke the dystopian tension by remarking, “It’s like we’re back in school!”.

After a few minutes, we were then directed to join one of the four lines that lead to an official checking passports and papers. Because everything must be in order before you’re even granted a Thai Pass, all the official needed to do was scan your Thai Pass QR code, see your negative PCR test, check your hotel booking and stamp your passport. I was then free to collect my baggage and walk to the pick-up area. The entire process from exiting the plane to exiting the airport took no longer than 30 minutes. You’ll be even quicker if you don’t get stuck behind an American family, the members of which, despite the fact he lost either his hearing or brain on the plane, nominated the confused husband to do the talking – “You need what? Sorry, hold on a minute. Is this it? What did you say? I’m sorry, what?”.

In the pick-up area, a mass of people stand holding signs with all the quarantine hotels written on them. Once I found the name of my hotel, I was whisked away in a private car to the local hospital for the compulsory PCR test upon arrival. The car drove around the back of the hospital where there was a nurse in white overalls, blue gloves, face mask and face shield waiting. I didn’t even have to leave the car, I simply had to wind my window down and dig my fingers into the seat as the swab reached the prefrontal cortex of my brain. Or so it seemed. The ordeal was over quickly and I was then taken straight to the New Siam Palace Ville Hotel.

China and I booked the same quarantine hotel, although we would be in separate rooms until the result of the PCR-test-for-fun returned. After 656 nights apart, just one more stood between us and our reunion. As soon as I entered my room, I dropped my luggage and pulled my phone from amongst the other important things in the designated secure pocket of my shoulder bag. When I got the hotel wifi working, I called China. As we spoke, I realised that I could hear her not just on the phone but through the wall. Our rooms were coincidently side by side – only a thin hotel wall was separating us!

A surge of adrenaline hit my stomach and I could feel my heart beat faster. We squealed and cheered with excitement - the euphoric feeling was so explosive it needed a way to manifest itself outside of our bodies. Then I could hear a faint knock coming from my wall. That’s the hand of my wife! I knocked back and like a kid I stood crouched with my ear close to the wall waiting for the reply. Knock, Knock. I yelled, “I can hear you Mahal! I can’t believe we’re side by side!”.

After comparing our rooms through description and confirming that we both had sliding doors, China said, “Should we go out on our balconies?!”. Yeah! Let’s do it!

Before tutting about a near breach in rules, let's help end all the madness by allowing each other the little freedoms that should have been returned to all of us by now – God knows whoever is in charge won’t do it for us. The restrictions on our freedoms (not for our health) only work if we all comply. Instead of policing each other and creating a worldwide environment where people feel like a criminal for just breathing (without a face mask) let’s unite in proving that at this point, with the vast majority of the world fully vaccinated, it is safe to carry on with our normal activities. We’ll all be dead from old age if not Covid the way things are going. Some things are more important than anything else in life. If being separated for almost two years, doing everything that was asked of me by my government, including being injected with a new vaccine, providing every last bit of information about myself for official records, plus being tested and passing that test isn’t enough, there’s nothing more I’m willing to do in order to get permission to live my life. I’m going on that balcony. 

Reunited! How it Felt Seeing Each Other Again

I stepped through the sliding door and onto the small balcony. There was a wall between my balcony and China’s, a railing in front and about 5 metres down to the courtyard where we had both entered the hotel separately. I waited with my eyes fixed on the sliding door next to mine, my lips curled so tight the smile may have stayed there permanently. Then she stepped through the door, her image both so familiar and somehow different – she’s real this time, not a flat computer image!

“Hello Mahal”, her smile was that involuntary kind that despite all effort cannot be suppressed. I know that smile. “Hello my love”. We stood for a moment in our own world as though we were absorbing each other through our eyes and to our souls for safe keeping. Due to the circumstances, we were forced to be restrained. There was no leaping into each other’s arms and squeezing tight like we’d imagined for so long. Like our wedding, our reunion wasn’t what we’d originally planned or how we thought it must be in order to fulfil the requirements for a cinematic experience. But, as it turned out, it was perfect because we were together. That was all that was required, nothing else. Our whole LDR and pandemic experience has shown us the importance of rowing your own boat together and dropping what is superficial.

We couldn’t hold each other just yet. At first, we dared not even touch. But from our general feeling of good health and our negative PCR test just 72 hours previously, plus our pieces of paper that say, “Fully vaccinated” we knew we were “safe”. In a display of mild defiance, because our PCR-test-just-to-be-sure result hadn’t come through yet, we dared to reach out and touch each other’s hand. Our fingers grazed each other’s palms before finally interlocking. We’re finally here! The point of being together. Some days during the pandemic it felt like this day would never come. Just as there was a light appearing at the end of the tunnel, the easing of restrictions, the tunnel would shoot forth into the distance, another variant, another excuse to prolong the emergency, more distance to cover before respite. 

In just one more night, our Thai PCR test result would be confirmed as negative and we would be free to be together fully. Both of us were tired from the journey (my flight was an overnight one and China, being Filipina, was at the airport the night before so she wouldn’t be late) so we decided to sleep to pass the time.

After she had disappeared inside her room, I took a packet of chocolate cookies that I had saved from my flight for China, because I knew that she would love them, and I placed them on the railing of her balcony to surprise her. Just a few hours later, my phone rang. It was China excitedly saying that her result had already come through, the letter handed to her from the front desk – negative. “You should get yours soon!”.

The surprise cookies. 

Imagine that, we could be having our first dinner in 656 together tonight. Rather than make the wait any better, being in separate rooms side by side was a tremendous tease – getting through just one more night was going to be harder than I thought.

As I spoke with China, the phone beside my bed cut through the air with its ring. This must be it! The front desk must have no sooner returned from China’s door when they received the result of my test. A phone call was quicker and easier than running back upstairs. “You’re test result is negative Ms Kirby”. Khob khun Ka.

There was no time, or need at this stage, to even comb my hair let alone dress in any sort of way ready for the full reunion. I know by now that China loves me no matter what state I’m in, and I her. We have made sure to give each other that confidence and assurance in our relationship. I did, however, manage to pull on a pair of shorts before my door swung open. China stood at the threshold for barely a moment before taking a couple of quick steps and leaping into my arms. Finally, we were holding each other tight just like in our many dreams since March 2020. Every effort we made to make it into Thailand was more than worth it. 


Thailand – The Gold Standard

There’s a reason that millions flocked to Thailand’s shores pre-pandemic, many of them return visitors each and every year. It’s the ideal place to escape and enjoy a lifestyle rich in beauty, adventure, good food and good times, even if it’s just for a short while.

Photo: China D

Its people are accepting of these temporary “wannabe residents”, as well as the many foreigners that wholeheartedly choose Thailand as their permanent home. The place is so alluring, it’s as if the streets are lined with gold – well even that’s not too far from reality. From its many wats, Buddhist relics, stray gold leaves from Buddhist rituals blowing in the wind, to golden sands and abundant sun reflecting off impossibly blue waters, Thailand is a gold ray of hope for tourists in a darkened world. 

Photo: China D

That’s just Thailand’s natural beauty and personality. What about its brains? Is it up to gold standard when it comes to navigating through a pandemic?  

From the moment we landed, Thailand felt up to the task in terms of providing everything required for a good, safe holiday. Even without a pandemic, processing thousands of tourists a day is a complicated and convoluted task for immigration authorities. You’d forgive them for being a little overwhelmed and slow in the midst of the pandemic and its sneaky variants, with all the extra requirements for each and every passenger needing to be checked and recorded, plus their own Covid bubble on wheels from the airport to their hotel via a hospital also needing to be provided. Far from being slow and painful, the process we experienced was streamlined and quick. The system in place worked very well – in fact we were probably processed quicker than at any other time pre-pandemic. The time from the moment I landed to sitting in the back of a private car on my way to the hospital would have been around 30 minutes.

What I noticed, and was very impressed with, was the clear organisation and communication between all authorities involved in the safe and efficient processing of tourists – immigration, hospitals and hotels, usually separate entities, worked as if parts of a bigger machine, all knowing how to move in synch with each other as well as executing their individual roles well. This was a major contributor to the success of Thailand’s Test and Go Package in the short term. Long term, Thailand surely has gained the trust and appreciation of thousands wanting, or needing, to travel overseas in a world that is closed off with no clear open date in sight – this means positive economic injections from tourism, a sector non-existent in other countries right now, for months and years to come.

Opening Up – Can/Should it be Done Safely?

Thailand is a shining example to countries and territories around the world on how we can travel and holiday safely with a virus which is here to stay. We cannot go the rest of time in a state of constant lockdown. Lockdowns should remain as an emergency measure, not become some entity’s psychopathic idea of a “new normal”. What is the point in being alive and covid free if it’s only to exist in a bubble?

To play devil’s advocate, we should ask - is the cure/prevention worse than the disease? Plus, what was the point in vaccination if restrictions aren’t lifted?

The world can and should open up now. It can be slowly but it must also be surely – no more steps backward.


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Information and links

As of 22nd December 2021, Thailand has suspended their Test and Go program until further notice.

Travellers can still enter Thailand but must undergo quarantine. A Thai Pass is also still required – select either The Blue Zone Sandbox (for fully vaccinated travellers) or Alternative Quarantine (for unvaccinated Travellers).

Under the Sandbox Programme, travellers do not need to do quarantine but they must stay in either Krabi, Phangnga, Phuket or Surat Thani for at least 14 days in an accredited SHA+ Hotel. They will then be allowed to visit other destinations in Thailand. 

What's your pandemic travel experience? Let us know in the comments or on our socials!

Much love, PG 


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