The Odyssey: Pattaya expat’s quest to come home during COVID-19 – Final Episode

The next thing I knew, we were landing. Never has Suvarnabhumi Airport looked so good.

In a galaxy far, far away, news was beginning to filter through that I was going to be allowed home and finally see family and friends. I had got myself onto a repatriation flight back to Thailand via Thai Airways. I was leaving the Twilight Zone – a.k.a. the UK.

We last left things as I was about to get to Terminal 2 at Heathrow. This was my fourth attempt at getting home so I was not going to hold my breath and fully expected someone to announce that the plane had been taken over by Ewoks or Jabba the Hutt had taken the crew captive.

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For those who are late to this missive, I was meant to return home on 1st April (silly me!) but Singapore Airlines cancelled all flights at the end of March so that buggered that. I then managed to get myself onto a Lufthansa flight to Bangkok on 3rd April. I got as far as Frankfurt only to find out that Thailand had closed its borders for the weekend when I was somewhere over Belgium. Apparently, some new arrivals at Suvarnabhumi were protesting about having to go into quarantine – I would love to meet these guys one day! So back to London it was…

Lufthansa, who were thoroughly brilliant through all of this, told me they had got me on a Qatar flight on 6th April so I rolled up to the check-in desk on that fateful day only to be told Thailand was keeping its borders shut for the foreseeable future. So back to my friend’s flat it was yet again…

Anyway, I got to Terminal 2 on 25th June hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

I had all the paperwork needed to allow me entry into Thailand. For those of you who come after me in getting home, forget what people say, bring five copies of everything. Not all of it will be needed but it could make things a whole lot easier for you.

For the first time in my life I got to a check-in desk before it actually opened. I had a great chat, socially distanced of course, with an Irishman who had been cleaning at Heathrow for over twenty years and a Thai lady who managed the luggage shop next to where we had to check in. This passed the time wonderfully and then the staff arrived. After setting things up they asked me to step forward. They looked at all the documents I had been told to show them. I was half expecting to be told I did not have everything required but no, I was allowed through. Yippee!

Thus armed, I proceeded to passport control. I tried to get out via one of those stupid ‘Do It Yourself’ machines but failed miserably. I was greatly heartened by the fact that the supervisor could not scan my Boarding Pass (BP) either so I had to go to the end of line and attempt manual entry to the Duty Free side. The bloke there also had great trouble in scanning the BP.

I tried to get out via one of those stupid ‘Do It Yourself’ machines but failed miserably.

By this time, my BP (Blood Pressure!) was not doing well. Three men had failed so far. My heart was sinking. Here we go again I thought. Then a lady immigration officer came over to find out what the problem was. She took the card away from the last chap to have had a go, held it over the scanner and it worked first time. Never have I loved the fairer sex so much! I was in – or out as the case may be.

Almost all the shops were still shut and there was no business class lounge to be found operating anywhere. However, the important places were open – Duty Free (booze), Boots (last minute drugs) and WH Smiths (stale sandwiches).

We were called to the plane an hour before departure. We all had to have our temperatures taken before boarding as we were told we would not be allowed onto the plane if we refused – I have never been so happy to see an electric thermometer.

There were loads of contradictions on this journey. As long as you are in the UK you must adhere to all social distancing regulations wherever possible but as soon as you got on the plane they went out of the window. Economy was rammed to the gills but all the staff were still wearing hazmat suits as though everyone on board had Ebola.

Anyway, I digress, we were all sat in our seats and the stewardess came round and asked if we needed anything. A large G&T says I. Then the first bombshell – no booze is allowed to be served on the flight. This did not bode well at all. I was right, the food reminded me of my old prep school where it was hard to distinguish between the pork and pollock and the ham and halibut. Still, I reckoned, it would only be a few hours before I would be on home soil so better not to whinge too much.

However, as the thought of flying for half a day without even a sip of sherry began to sink in I realised that no matter what time of day or night it is, no-one should have to be absolutely abstemious on a long-haul flight – especially on their birthday.

I am totally aware that this does not reflect well on me, but only once in my adult life have I ever flown totally sober. And that was not my fault. My wife and I were stupid enough to leave all the booking arrangements for our honeymoon to the travel agent. Now, I do understand why he chose Egypt Air – we were going to see the pyramids and sail down the Nile after all but really, a bit of common sense please. I can’t be the only one who is such a lush when it comes to air travel. Sipping an ice-cold Martini or a gently chilled glass of Champagne has been a ritual ever since someone put a shell around that contraption invented by the Wright brothers.

Alcohol is important. Especially in these dark times. It can be no coincidence that during lockdown, seemingly every government in the Western world deemed off-licences as ‘essential’ – up there with pharmacies and supermarkets and a lot more important than schools and GPs. It is as daft as being allowed to go to a garden centre but not a pub garden and social distance all the way up to the plane door only to spend the subsequent journey packed in like a tin of sardines with strangers. Let’s face it, there were riots in South Africa when they closed down the liquor stores but none when people were told they should not go to work.

Anyway, yet again, I digress. Once I had got used to the fact that there would be no alcohol and a complete lack of haute cuisine, I settled into the flight by falling asleep.

The next thing I knew, we were landing. Never has Suvarnabhumi Airport looked so good. We parked and the doors to the plane opened. A few more steps and I would be on Thai soil. Yes! I had done it.

As soon as you get off the plane you are escorted into the terminal. You then take a seat in an area which is either side of the Travelator. Here your documentation is checked again, and you have your temperature taken. This will not be the only time this happens over the next 24 hours – indeed fortnight.

Staff at the ready to receive incoming passengers.
Airport staff at the ready to receive incoming passengers.

Once the authorities have confirmed you are not a desperate tourist trying to get to Pattaya and why you are really being allowed back into the Land of Smiles you are taken to customs and immigration.

You, dear reader, will know the love of the Thai authorities for paperwork and so everything is checked all over again as if it has never been done before. One thing to mention here, I was asked for my Covid-19 Certificate (C19C) even though the Royal Thai embassy said all I needed was a ‘Fit to Fly’ Certificate. However, I was allowed to proceed anyway so I guess the embassy was right – phew! – but if you do happen to have the odd C19C lying around it may make things easier for you.

Keep the ‘Fit to Fly’ Certificate and the odd C19C handy, it may make things easier for you.

Once through immigration, I was led to carousel 23 and told to wait for my bags. Eventually, they made an appearance and I put them on my trolley. I was told to take a step back and then all my luggage was sprayed with disinfectant. After this we were marched off to the bus which would take us to hospital.

As a non-Thai, you are not given a choice. You have to pay for your quarantine. I arrived at a well-known private hospital in Bangkok. I was given a thorough medical examination which included the nurse using two swabs. The first is for your mouth but it felt as though the nurse was determined to attempt a tonsillectomy by what she was doing thus completely ignoring I had my tonsils removed more than 55 years ago.

The second one is for your nose and by the time she had finished I thought she was trying to do a frontal lobotomy. However, she obviously got what she came for and I was then left alone for a while and confined to my room for 24 hours. After this they only disturb you to take your temperature and blood pressure.

It was tolerable but a little bit of thought would have made things a lot better. For instance, there was no top sheet or blanket on the bed – only a large towel – and the pajamas supplied would have last fitted me when I was about twelve years old. I am not sure who did the food but it was worse than what we had on the plane and it was cold. At least there was a microwave in the room so there was some foresight I suppose.

After you have been in hospital for 24 hours and proved you are rabid, covid and God knows what else free then you are taken by hospital bus to the government approved hotel of your choice.

Here you get your temperature taken again and shown to the room where you will spend the next two weeks of your life. Yes, you are allowed out for one hour into the garden every day but that is it. The rest of the time you are confined to your room. Mine did have a small balcony but I had to ask for a chair and table. I got a chair. I gave up on the table.

You get a menu delivered where you get an A or B choice of breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next fourteen days. Sometimes you get what you ordered, sometimes you get a mystery dish. Sometimes it is in between. This hotel’s definition of “Tuna sandwich and potato salad” is a tuna sandwich (good start) with a side plate of lettuce leaves, chopped cherry tomatoes and soggy French fries.

You can order food from a limited room service menu but pay extra and that is it.

The room is sanitized before you arrive, there is a kind of posh looking plastic covering over the carpets and everything you eat or drink for the next fortnight is served on plastic plates or in paper cups and you ‘dine’ with plastic knives, forks and spoons. This can make piercing the ‘al dente’ carrots quite a challenge at times and you can forget the broccoli. This is a shame as these are just about the only two vegetables, apart from spuds, which are served with the western dishes. Cordon bleu it is not.

When you have finished your food, you slide anything left over into a bio-hazard red plastic bag and leave it outside the room for collection. Any rubbish you have has to be put in an enclosed waste-paper bin which has a bio-hazard sign on it and “Infectious Waste” written on the lid. You don’t really feel like a leper …not much!

Despite all these shortcomings, there is no point in losing your temper. The staff are really struggling to follow the government rules. I suspect that many hotels would not volunteer to become a quarantine venue again if they had the choice.

Government regulations state that you cannot have any food brought in from outside and there is a total ban on all booze. Anything to do with alcohol has been removed from the mini-bar and none shall be served by the hotel or be allowed to be delivered to you by friends who are forbidden from seeing you anyway.

Anything to do with alcohol has been removed from the mini-bar and none shall be served by the hotel or be allowed to be delivered to you by friends who are forbidden from seeing you anyway.

Believe me, some mates tried and I was told I could pick up the ‘parcel’ when I checked out. I wondered how the staff actually knew that there was whisky in what had been dropped off. It was only when I saw that the package had not been sealed and the bag had a Hendrick’s Gin plastered all over it did I realise it would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to work this out.

It was only when I saw that the package had not been sealed and the bag had a Hendrick’s Gin plastered all over it did I realise it would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to work this out.

You must follow the government guidelines. Please excuse the poor use of the double negative for emphasis as it is hardly Oxford English. Let me be explicit on this:

* You must not (NOT) go shopping before you arrive in Thailand and purchase items such as chocolates and other tasty snacks that you know you should not have.

* It is imperative you do not, NOT, go to the booze section of a supermarket before arriving at the airport or stop off at duty free once you have checked in and buy wine or spirits as this is against the rules set out by the government.

* These government instructions even include certain things like salt and pepper. You must not, not, buy these.

* There is absolutely no point in buying a bottle opener as you will not be able to use it as you will not have bought any booze.

* You should not gamble on your bags not being checked just because the airport is not 100% staffed at the moment.

The days can drag on and I was so glad I had work to do and lots of books to read. But it was nearly over.

On the penultimate day, you are called to the medical centre where the nurse is waiting for you in a full hazmat suit. Honestly, you would think we were in the middle of a biological warfare attack – or maybe we are? Anyway, enough of the conspiracy theories. The nurse tried to do another tonsillectomy and was nearly successful with the lobotomy. This was the acid test, I had been here since the 26th of June. Was I Covid-19 free? I would be told within the next twelve hours. I was due to check out on Saturday, 11th July. Fingers crossed!

After my tests, I returned to my room. Only three more meals to go from plastic plates and paper cups. The rest of the day passed by interminably. I then got the phone call after 7.00p.m. Yes, miracle of miracles, I was germ free and allowed to join the real world again.

This does then beg the question, why couldn’t I leave the hotel then? I had been under the care of the hospital and hotel since 4.00p.m. on Friday, 26th June. This was Friday, 10th July. By my calculations, this was fourteen nights and over two weeks (there are 168 hours in a week and I had done two weeks plus three hours). However, I have been here long enough to know to play the game so I went to bed.

I woke up all excited. Had yet another omelette for breakfast – it will be a long time before I want to eat this form of egg again I can tell you – and waited the doctor to give me my Covid-free certificate. I was told to report to reception as I would get it when I checked out. It was official, I was Covid-19 free!

I had ordered a taxi and was on the way home. Even though I have lived in Thailand for more than 26 years, I had forgotten the madness of Thai roads. After the sedentary speeds of the UK, it was a brutal reminder and I started to think of other things.

I was so looking forward to drinking out of a glass that was not plastic and eating off a china plate. Something I had not done since leaving the UK on 25th June. I called my wife and did not ask the usual polite things, “Hello darling, how are you? Do you want me to do any shopping on the way home? Are the dogs okay?” No, it was, “Have we got enough ice and lemon?”

Finally, on Saturday, 11th July, I was at our house. I was only meant to have been in the UK for thirteen days. 116 days later, my wife opened the front door to welcome me home and I tripped over one of the dogs. Life had returned to normal.

I will leave you with this thought from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”.