How COVID-19 Ended My Travels and Had Me Stuck 2 Months in Bangkok
By DAN FORTEZA
I was on a personal journey to travel to Northern Africa with a long-term travel plan in mind last March 2020. But my supposedly long-term travel plan was unfortunately short-lived.
Out of the growing fear of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, everything has changed quickly and unexpectedly.
Before I go further, let me give you a quick background of my travels last year:
Five months after quitting my job last April 2019, I embarked on a quest to do solo backpacking abroad. I was lucky enough to travel to 9 more countries from September 2019 to December 2019, summing up to 30 countries since 2015.
I went back to the Philippines in December 2019 to spend the Christmas holidays with family and in order to plan ahead my next journey abroad which I scheduled March 2020.
Yep, there is more to it.
I plan to travel for 3 weeks in Egypt (my 31st country.) Then fly to Morocco and stay there for a month or two. I might even go to the US or further south of Africa if my travel budget lets me.
I really tried to plan it out as much as I can. My flight itineraries to both Egypt and Morocco were already booked before February 2020.
But then the pandemic happens…
The global coronavirus pandemic is an obvious crisis. Some news articles even said that this is way worse than the post-world wars! It’s possible and I’m not going to argue about that.
So what I am about to share with you here is my own experience and struggles while traveling abroad, far from home, amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
Sad to say, but the timeline below is how COVID-19 ended my travel plans and left me locked in Bangkok, Thailand for almost two months.
MY TRAVEL TIMELINE:
Allow me to tell my story in a timeline manner so you’ll get a better picture and understanding of each scenario and how they correlate in sequence.
In other words, you may consider this as my COVID-19 travel diary.
- March 6
From Manila, Philippines, I was able to leave my country for Egypt.
During my first week in Egypt, it still felt normal. I was even able to perform my 4-day budget itinerary for Cairo, Egypt.
Back then, there were only 3 reported cases of COVID-19 in Egypt.
But day by day, it was getting worse.
- March 11
The COVID-19 viral disease had swept into at least 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people by this time and was now officially a pandemic as announced by the World Health Organization (WHO).
That was not a piece of good news to start off the day. I felt like the time is chasing after me.
My gut was telling me to cancel my flight to Morocco and get back to Southeast Asia or the Philippines where I myself would feel safer. I know it was crucial to make a quick decision before it was too late. But another part of me was telling me to wait…
I know, I know.
This coronavirus pandemic has affected everybody’s way of living.
That’s when I knew I really need to always look after my safety first and not just for the sake of fulfilling travel goals.
From that time on, I kept myself updated with the latest news and became more vigilant.
- March 12
The Philippines, my home country, will be in community quarantine (or lockdown as they say it) from March 15 until April 14.
Domestic air, land, and sea access to the 17 cities/districts of Metro Manila would be suspended during that period.
International flights in and out of the country would also be limited.
No matter how I condition my mind that this pandemic will just die out in the next few days, it just won’t. This is something out of my control.
- March 16
The Egyptian authorities have announced the suspension of flights in and out of Egypt effective March 19 until March 31.
Morocco has done the same by canceling flights from/to European countries including Egypt which had almost 100 cases by now, the highest number of cases in all of Africa.
At this point, all I thought about was getting out of Egypt as soon as possible, or at least before my Egyptian visa expires which is due the first week of April.
Luckily, I was able to book a direct flight from Cairo, Egypt to Bangkok, Thailand scheduled March 18, one day before the flight suspension was to take effect.
Phew, I thought I was going to be trapped in Egypt thinking of nowhere else to go!
Thanks to Kayak’s flight search engine that I was able to quickly browse and book the cheapest ticket I can find from Egypt to Southeast Asia!
Later that day, I canceled my flight to Morocco with a heavy heart.
- March 18
While most of the countries in Europe and other parts of the world were suspending international flights and restricting land-border crossing, I was able to safely arrive in Bangkok, Thailand.
However, because of the lockdown imposed by the Philippine government, I was not able to immediately find a direct flight back to Manila, Philippines. Flights via AirAsia and Cebu Pacific were only available April 15 onwards.
That would mean I had to stay for almost a month in Bangkok, Thailand!
- March 31
I keep checking flight restriction details from time to time due to this COVID-19 pandemic. And it looks like ALL Southeast Asian countries have imposed flight and border-crossing restrictions. A few of them have exemptions for foreigners, like Cambodia, but only if you can present a medical certificate, medical insurance, etc.
Since my free-visa entry in Thailand only allows me to stay in the country for 30 days, I decided to book a flight going to Manila scheduled on April 16. Just in time before my free visa expires on April 17.
- April 4
In the hope to spend less, I decided to move to another hostel in Bangkok on this day. The hostel was cheaper compared to my previous hostel and was just a walking distance to Don Mueng International Airport.
It’s my 17th day in Bangkok and the first time from that period I’ve seen the city again as I have been staying most of my day at my hostel.
From that day onward, I was counting down the days before I head back to the Philippines.
- April 7
The Philippine government has just announced that they are extending the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) period in Metro Manila and Luzon until April 30.
On the same day, AirAsia, my flight carrier to Manila, canceled my Bangkok-Manila flight (scheduled April 16) due to this directive. The said airline has canceled all domestic and international flights to/from the Philippines until April 30.
Oh well…change of plan, then.
- April 8
The Prime Minister of Thailand signed the plan to grant automatic visa extensions for foreigners currently in Thailand to April 30.
This means that I don’t need to worry about my visa expiring on April 17.
But still, since the community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila / Luzon has also been extended to April 30, I have no choice but to extend my visa so I’ll be able to stay in Thailand beyond April 30.
- April 13
I have rescheduled my flight to May 15. Since it’s the airline that has canceled my flight, it’s free to reschedule the flight on or before October 31 including unlimited flight changes as per airline’s official statement.
Some people I talked to also advised me to reschedule it to May 1 and just pay for a one-day overstay fine costing to 500 THB per day in comparison to a 30-day visa extension costing to 1,900 THB.
Although that is feasible, I don’t think it is safe to assume nothing will change. I fear that the lockdown in Manila might again be extended beyond April. So I’d rather go for a 30-day visa extension!
Wooh! So I initially thought I’d be only stuck in Thailand for a month but it’s going to be two months?
And here another reason I probably should mention: it’s been my tradition to spend my birthday away from home (I just preferred that way haha). My birthday is sometime in May, so I might as well stay a little longer until May and wait until the situation improves.
When exactly is my birthday? Keep reading.
- April 21
A second automatic visa extension for foreigners in Thailand was approved by the Thai authorities. This is to prevent long queues at immigration centers and stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Foreigners whose visas had expired since March 26 will be permitted to stay until July 31 without having to apply for an extension.
Thus, I don’t have to worry about lining up to the immigration center to have my visa stamped and extended nor spending more money for the visa fee.
What a relief!
- April 25
Meanwhile in the Philippines, the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) over places considered to be COVID-19 high-risk areas, such as Metro Manila was AGAIN extended until May 15 as per announced by the authorities.
So I would again expect that the flight I rescheduled May 15 will be canceled.
And it did. The next morning I got an email from AirAsia suspending my flight to Manila, Philippines.
- May 1
F*ck it! You know what, I’ve made my decision to stay here in Thailand (or jump to another country in Indochina) until September for safety purposes.
This is also to round up a gap year of nomadism that I started September 2019!
I don’t think it’s safe to go back home to the Philippines while the COVID-19 cases are getting worse there.
I must also commend Thailand and its authorities for taking the fight to COVID-19 outbreak so seriously that they were able to flatten the curve against the disease.
- May 10
Up to this day, I’m still in Bangkok and in a new hostel. And surprise…it’s my 30th birthday!
All those ‘I-wanna-travel-to-the-fullest-before-I’m-30’ sentiments I’ve said on this blog: do they end today?
Maybe…But one thing I’ll do for sure is to keep the adventure going!
So let me end this travel diary of mine here and enjoy the rest of the day.
WHERE DID I STAY?
Just like everyone else, I was also practicing social distancing while staying in the hostel.
There are only 3 or 4 guests in the hostel, so it’s not that hard to self-isolate myself from the rest.
I usually hang out at the hostel’s lobby.
With their free coffee or tea while I do some blogging works on my laptop–that is all need to keep my day productive.
Not to mention, the hostel has a good connection of high-speed internet which is perfect to stream a movie or do video calls when boredom strikes.
I only go out when getting food, withdrawing cash, and doing the laundry.
I know I am stuck but I feel alright and safe.
On to my second hostel: Diamond and Rust Hostel, here is the video I captured while showing the lobby and my bed in the dormitory room.
I usually book my room accommodations through Agoda or Booking.com. Room accommodation ranges from cheap hostels to luxury hotels. Book hostels through booking.com as they have free cancellation or pay-at-the-hotel option.
Or you can also try AirBnB. I have used Airbnb on some of my other trips and I loved it!
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ME AND MY TRAVELS?
To be honest, I really don’t know.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel again. It seems very uncertain at this moment in time.
Even my travel blog that I was hoping to back up my travel savings was also greatly affected by the pandemic itself.
My website traffic started to crash in February 2020 since people became less and less interested in searching for travel-related articles. Thus, my Google AdSense and affiliate earnings have crashed as well.
I understand things are crazy right now.
But there will come a time in the near future where things get back to a “new normal”. A normal that’s similar to how things were before.
People will search for things that they’ve always searched for.
Restaurants will be full.
Football games will be sold out.
The travel industry will prosper again.
So yeah, things are far from normal now. But we can use this time to get ready for when they are.