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Cyrus recently got back to his home on Koh Phangan after being stuck in the UK when the COVID Lockdown came. He came through KPG Solar on his work permit and Non-O Visa. We catch up with him to find out how the ‘new normal’ process went, the experience including quarantine and his advice for others in a similar situation.
Hi Cyrus, first of all, how did you get stuck in the UK?
I had to travel back for work, and the time that I went back was exactly the time they decided to close all international borders. I was meant to be back for two weeks and at the end of the first week, it happened. I ended up being away for 5 months.
We were deciding whether I should try and come back, and then the decision was made for me as the borders will shut. So I ended up having to stay, not really knowing how long I was going to be in the UK for.
How did you find out that it was possible for you to come back to Thailand?
To start with, it wasn't possible. I was stuck from March. I think they announced from the first of June that they were taking applications to enter the country. It was just a case of seeing other people’s post on the various Facebook groups related to the subject to find out what was going on, Thai Expats Stranded Overseas due to COVID-19 Restrictions & Farangs Stranded Abroad Due to lockdown in Thailand were the ones I joined.
I could see that there were updates on the UK embassy website as well, but the consulate was shut and was taking no appointments for visas.
Towards the end of May, I could see that plans were starting to come together to let people back in so I contacted the Thai Embassy via their Facebook page. From there, although it was very time consuming, the embassy was very supportive and helpful of my application for the CoE (Certificate of Entry)
You came back because you have a business, work permit and Non-O visa Correct?
Correct. I mean, obviously, I live here and my wife is Thai so I needed to come back. But the method that I actually came back with was through my work permit. In June, the only way you could come back to Thailand was with a work permit.
What documents and checks did you need to do to be able to apply to come back to Thailand?
Back then you needed a commercially booked flight. Even though you couldn't use it and it still wasn't clear at that point. Bear in mind, the embassy was as unsure as everyone else. For the process, they were getting directions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And all of this was very hastily put together so there was a lot of confusion on what the actual process was.
I was lucky my visa and work permit was still valid. Obviously, as time goes on, that's going to be a problem for people, because the longer they're out, the more chances their visas and work permits will expire. However again the embassies were very helpful if people had been approved to come back and their visa had expired then they were often re-issued one on the spot.
I didn't need a negative COVID test to apply then, but I think now you do need one to even apply. I needed to fill out a request form to come back and a letter from my employer specifying why it was urgent that I came back.
Did you need COVID insurance?
Oh, yes I did. I have insurance here anyway and luckily that insurance was coming up for renewal around the time that I was coming back. Pacific Cross was very helpful and I just contacted my insurance broker and told him my situation. He provided a letter so that it explicitly said that it covered COVID-19.
When they gave you the Yes to come back to Thailand, what was the process?
I finally got approval at the start of July. The embassy told me that I could only fly with specific flights and they would confirm when I had space available on that flight. It was Eva air then. Now I believe they are using Thai Airways.
You can't book, as you would do a normal commercial flight through the website. You have to contact the airline directly, who has been told by the embassy that you're allowed to fly.
They give you bank details and you transfer the money to the airline. They then confirm with the embassy and then you can get on the repatriation flight, which was a business class flight only.
(All economy seats are given to Thai people returning to their country).
It is obviously quite expensive and it's one way. You're paying a full fare business class flight for a one-way seat, normally when you pay that much money you'd get a return but you only get one way.
What's the flight like? Do they not serve food anymore?
The flight was okay. There was no business lounge at the airport, so that was a bit annoying. I was hoping for some free alcohol before the flight, haha. Heathrow was deserted, there was one restaurant open so I stocked up on some food and wine and sat on a plastic seat and waited for my flight.
Apart from the nice seat, the service was pretty basic. I'm not complaining too much though, I was just glad to get on the flight.
All the aircrew had PPE on, quite bizarrely some of the Thai passengers had full CSI white overalls on. That was quite funny. You had to wear a mask for the whole flight.
Overall it was a pleasant flight, and it was a business class so you got the fully reclining seat which was quite nice so I just got drunk and slept.
What’s the process when you land in Thailand?
The process was very efficient if not a little bit overblown. When we landed there was an army of doctors and nurses and military personnel who took you to get processed.
You've got rows of seats where you're sat socially distanced. They take your temperature and check your paperwork.
That was the other thing when you're checking in they check all your paperwork to make sure you've got your COVID tests within 72 hours because that's the key thing to come back. You don't know until that test has come back, whether you're actually going to be on the plane or not because if it comes back positive you can't fly and then you have to start again. You don't actually know for sure until a day or two before you fly if you will because of waiting for the test result.
Then you're taken to the hotel with the other people in your Quarantine hotel.
Tell us about the Quarantine…
It's for two weeks at a hotel of your choice. Thai people can get government quarantine if they want and that's free, but I believe that's at a Naval base or something so maybe not the most luxurious accommodation. A lot of cheap offers go quite quickly as a result
Another problem with the accommodation is now the new rule is before you can apply you need to have accommodation booked. So that's stopping other people applying because they can't get the quarantine accommodation because people are just booking random hotels, not knowing that they’re even going to be able to use those dates.
There’s a price range, it goes from about 20 or 30,000 Baht up to some places charging 150- 200,000 for really kind of high-end stuff.
It’s worth checking what people write about their various hotels, as the experience varies. The hotel I was in was the Anantara, so it was nice and there was a good selection of food.
You had to stay in your hotel room for the first two or three days as you have your first COVID test in Thailand. If that comes back negative you're allowed out to the courtyard.
It's a little bit of a VIP kind of prison courtyard situation, lots of people walking around in a circle getting a bit of exercise and then back to their rooms.
They take your temperature twice a day and then you get a second test. When I arrived you were still able to go and use hotel facilities. You could use the swimming pool, gym, etc. Then the day I left they phoned me to tell me that I was no longer allowed to use the swimming pool, because of a new rule from the ministry of defence. Not quite sure what the point of it was.
Quarantine was fine, I was busy and it was quite nice not being disturbed by people for two whole weeks! There's no alcohol in the quarantine which actually is quite a good thing. Otherwise, I think people would just sit in the hotel room and get drunk by themselves, which would be a bit sad.
Did you fly from Bangkok or go by land?
Yes, I flew from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Samui on Bangkok Air, and that flight was quite busy.
There were a lot of Thai people travelling but none of them came to Koh Phangan, they all seem to stay in Koh Samui.
What would you advise others in a similar situation if they are stuck abroad?
Well, it depends on who's paying for it, my work was able to cover my costs. For me, I have lived and worked here for a long time so it was worth this process. My wife and my home are here.
But it’s very expensive so for other employers I can see it's not worth it. I've had conversations with people who have told their staff just to wait because otherwise, they’re wasting money trying.
For someone that's working in a dive school or in a bar or restaurant, it's difficult for their employer to justify effectively 2-300,000 Baht to get their staff back.
I was lucky that I was staying with my Mum in the UK, but if you're stuck in the UK in a hotel, it's a financial weigh up of is it costing you more to be stuck in the UK or coming back to Thailand.
It’s a really unfortunate situation if your wife and family are here or in many cases unmarried partner and children (where it’s even harder to get approval to return).
My personal opinion is that the whole thing has been completely blown out of proportion given the actual risk of getting COVID and dying from it. It just shows you what a destructive force modern media is in society. Everything gets twisted to justify a sensational story.
I was very lucky because I applied right at the beginning of the process so I got approved and managed to come back, but now many more people are applying so that list is long. And there's still a lot of Thai people trying to come back. They take priority.
People need to be a bit realistic about trying to get back, for me because my family's here I would have still spent my own money if my company did not help.
The real problem now is the lack of seats for Thai’s and foreigners on the repatriation flights. I think there are only a handful of flights per month, with maybe 50-60 seats available for foreigners and thousands of people try to get back. For this reason alone it doesn’t look promising to get back easily until travel starts to return to a fairly normal process.
What are your observations of Koh Phangan after being away for 5 months?
I mean it's quiet that's for sure. I had a very small circle of places that I used to go to anyway, Reds Bar, Soho and Whiski bar and those places are where locals go anyway., albeit a bit quieter without tourists to pack them out.
My routine hasn't changed very much. I don't really go to parties at all, I might go to Hollystone once in a very blue moon, but that’s about it. For me, I'm just happy to be back, it hasn't changed a great deal. Selfishly I like the quiet, but you know that's not great for businesses on the island as we are dependent on tourism,
Thanks so much to Cyrus for talking with us. You can support his wife’s local business Unpacked here on the island. An amazing natural and sustainable shopping experience.