International Travel in Covid Times

International travel from Greece to Thailand – in the Times of Covid

“What? Are you kiddin’?” people said to me.  “You are going to leave your safe little haven of Leros – still covid-free! – to fly halfway across the world?  Why on earth would you do that?”

Why indeed. Leros is having a very mellow winter; the occasional rainy and stormy patch, but most days sunny. Temperatures roller-coaster from 8C or so up to 13-15C ;  not exactly freezing, but one still felt obliged to bitch about it being cold – it’s not quite the Greece-of-the-endless-sunshine that we’re used to !

So – why?  Well, our baby – Nyami – is sitting in Phuket, all on her lonesome; we left in somewhat of a hurry, as provincial lockdowns were imminent. Our departure from Thailand was end of July, not the usual April/May –  so we thought we’d only be gone 3-4 months or so.  Yes, we were still of the optimistic mindset then that this would “all blow over in a few months”.  Ha.

Empty, glorious beaches on Phuket

Thailand is “open” now to foreign visitors; but the mountain of paperwork and THEN a mandatory 2 week quarantine in a government-approved hotel is no enticement to their usual travel market. Many locals live from tourism alone; and they have few resources to back them up for a “rainy day”. They are desperate for their visitors back. So with optimism still undeterred, we expected the 2wk quarantine to be mitigated as they went into high season and realised this would kill their short-term tourism market stone dead.

Well, we got that all wrong. And so now – here I am sit, writing this from my 2wk quarantine hotel in Bangkok. As so many people had tons of questions from my personal facebook posts – I decided to string them all together into one cohesive story.

leros airport in winter

The journey begins on our lil’ island of Leros, in Greece. We have a small, domestic airport, but flights are sporadic throughout the winter. The runway can also only take small planes, so it’s not uncommon for bad weather to cancel flights.

Of course, I had been nervously following the forecast for the week before, and it wasn’t looking promising for our little Leros puddle-jumper.

But still – the plane made it from Athens, and then sat enticingly outside our little airport. The storm clouds hovered menacingly above, but we’d actually been checked in! We huddled together at the gate (1.5m distanced, of course), a little hopeful group of would-be travellers to Athens.

A deadly quiet hush came over the little crowd, as the check-in lady (aka Guardian of the Gate) arrived to make an announcement. For those of you who have been to Greece…. you will appreciate how rare that hush is!

First we were told that our bags would not make it. They would be shipped to us later. OK, not a disaster. THEN it was announced that only about half the passengers could fly! Names were called – those with the lucky raffle tickets launched themselves through the gate at high speed, the other disappointed souls reverting to normal Greek behaviour in an uproar of yelling and arm waving.

I got a lucky ticket ! (Or an ongoing int’l flight, as the selection criteria turned out).

So – Step One completed. Next little nail-biter was – could i get my Covid test at Athens airport in time for flight noon next day ?? Tests were not available in Leros, so ATH was my only choice. I was told “Normally 6 hours, but you should allow 24hrs”. I didn’t have 24hrs…it wasn’t possible, with all the winter intermittent connections. So I had to take a chance on looking desperate / pathetic / pleading enough to get my results pushed through fast!

So many ways that so many things could go wrong; but after hurdling that first Leros barrier, I felt I had the luck of the gods on my side.

(Addendum: Apparently a huge storm raged down on Leros about half an hour after we took off. I’m gold. The gods are definitely with me).

Athens airport in Covid Times

All went smoothly, including the Covid test result – my pleading look must have worked, as the nurse kindly wrote URGENT on my papers and highlighted it !

For anyone else who might be transiting through Athens – the test at the Airport Medical Centre was fast, easy and friendly.

Step#2 under my belt.

Onwards to Doha! The plane was less than a quarter full, so everyone had a row to themselves. Having an exit row all to myself, it felt like a First Class experience in “cattle” ?. Everywhere I’d been, from airport to hotel to plane, everyone was being very “well-behaved” – masks were 100% adhered to, most people respected the 1.5m distancing whenever realistically possible.

Someone asked on my FB post, if we had to wear the masks ALL the time, including on the flight. In theory, yes – except of course when we were eating or drinking. And dinner can take a long time. Many masks “drooped” a bit when it came to movie / sleepy time; but I noticed that everyone was very good about getting them appropriately back in place if anyone approached them.

Qatar - almost empty plane

Step #3. Doha airport. Wow, almost felt normal (apart from the masks) ! Most shops open, sufficient people to make it less like a dystopian sci-fi movie; great facilities as always. A very smooth transit, and I’m even OK about being without baggage, confident it will turn up.

I am feeling invincible by now.

Invincible, ha. I should know better than push my luck – the Greek gods are notoriously capricious.

It was nearly a fall at the last “gate”, literally. But, there had to be something, right?? After all, there would be no fun story to tell otherwise!

Thailand COE - it's wrong!
OMG, what???


Thank god I acted totally out of character, and was at the gate one hour early.

My docs had already been checked by Qatar in Athens, and all OK’d; but one sharp-eyed girl in Doha noticed – amongst the mountain of paperwork – a wrong flight number. The one I was about to board: QR830. My doc listed it as QR831.

!!!!!!!!! PANIC !!!!!!!!!!

Apparently this can be sufficient for “denied boarding”. The domino effect can be catastrophic in terms of timing (Covid test, fit-to-fly certificate, etc). The Qatar staff were very good and got straight on the phone to the Thai Embassy.

With just 5 mins to Gate Closure, they got the OK to let me on the plane.

If anyone had checked my vitals at that point, i would definitely have been denied boarding; heart rate off the scale, mega fever-like symptoms; Parkinsons holding out my boarding card. At least I got TWO vodka-tonics to recover… . Kudos to Qatar staff on every leg; super-helpful.

Finally – arrival into Bangkok.

Researching the whole “journey experience” of other people who’ve jumped these hoops before me – I was expecting a long, tedious and even ominous-feeling scene of arrival at Bangkok airport. Being “welcomed” by an army of space-suited staff, rough Covid tests attempting to access brain matter via nostrils, the whole process taking hours and hours; the scare stories are out there!

This is something like I was expecting….

Reality report: The arrival process at the airport was all very civilised and friendly, as befits LOS (Land of Smiles).

Took about half an hour, mostly shuffling from one (socially distanced) chair to another, paperwork checks and temperature checks. They have their “sheep herding” technique down to a “T” (no doubt years of experience shepherding backpackers on and off the seemingly chaotic Thai ferries). Reality is SUPER organised, with stickers and badges and checklists. The airport must have recruited ferry staff to teach them how to corral a mass of nervous, directionless and jet-lagged sheep with maximum efficiency. And even still smile behind the masks!

This is more like the actual experience at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport:

Once through with this, we were equally efficiently funnelled to our quarantine hotel transfers – and so the 2 weeks of “solitary” begins.

The Penultimate Stop:

And so – here I sit now in my quarantine hotel, halfway through – and it’s been just fine. The gods did look after me in the end, and I got a spacious, light n’ bright room with a BIG balcony overlooking the pool. Another expat friend is in a “posh” city centre hotel right now, which he loves; but has no balcony. My hotel is more lowkey, but being able to live most of the day “outside” makes all the difference to me. If you’re exploring the ASQ path too – take your time and choose carefully – find a place that suits your priorities best!

Here’s a little clip of what it looks like at the Silver Palm:

I got comments on my FB posts along the lines of “Well, that ain’t so bad, with a nice cold beer in hand”. Nope – this quarantine is strict as all hell. For the first week, no foot shall be set outside the room. For the second week, we are allowed one hour to walk around the outside; no going inside, and absolutely (my biggest ?) no swimming. And NO alcohol. None, nix, nada, zero. No sneaking it in your bags, no under-the-table sneaking of “gifts” to the staff. It’s a lose-your-job offence. (And heaven knows, jobs are hard to come by here!)

No alcohol in Thailand quarantine

I’ve no idea why…they think we are going to have a One Person Mega Rave party; jump off the balcony having gone nuts “in solitary”; guys attempting to sneak out of their rooms to find girlie bars…. who knows.

But my liver says “thank you” for a holiday anyway….???