Lekha Shankar | Bangkok — so near, yet so far
Covid does strange, surreal things. One of the strangest, most surreal things I did recently was take a shockingly long return-flight to Thailand from India.
The normal four-hour flight took as long as 35+ hours (including two huge layovers), and the ticket cost eight times the normal price.
Welcome to travel in Covid times. Or, should I say welcome to travel-bans, in Covid times?
It happened with the recent Covid-surge in India. Thailand suddenly announced a ban on flights from India, at very short notice. I was in Coimbatore, and had to pack up almost immediately, to beat the travel-ban.
But travelling in Covid times is not just about packing up and flying out.
It’s about a whole new system of tests and documents, quite unsurpassed in the travel industry.
Every airline/country has its own set of rules and regulations, and one needs to carefully study them before one thinks of an overseas trip.
The regulations for entering Thailand are different from those observed to enter India.
So, if one is getting a return ticket, make sure you understand the rules of both countries.
The main thing to remember both ways, in Covid times, is that the ticket availability is decided, not by the airline, but by the respective embassy, and it’s they who enumerate the rules and regulations.
While it’s the Indian embassy in Thailand that gives the clearance for passengers travelling to India, it’s the Thai embassy in India that gives the COE (certificate of entry) to the passengers travelling to Thailand.
The passport and visa are basic documents, of course. But the important document, in Covid times, is the Covid test report or RTPCR Test Report, usually from 72 hours before departure (some airlines ask for 48 hours before departure).
Two other mandatory documents needed to enter Thailand, during Covid times, are an insurance policy for $100,000 (which costs about Rs 28,000), and an ASQ hotel (Alternative State Booking) for 14 days (which costs between 40,000 B and 100,000 B, including three meals a day).
I chose Bajaj Alliance for the former (there are others), and Hotel Belair Bangkok for the latter (there are many others, which can be found on the various ASQ websites. This hotel is popular with Indians, because it’s reasonably priced, and is noted for its good Indian food and service.). Both were very quick with their bookings. So was Pegasus Travels (Chennai), who did my Coimbatore-Chennai-Doha-Bangkok air ticket in record time.
However, I must admit that if I managed to get all these documents uploaded in the nick of time, it was because of the help and guidance from the Thai Consul in Chennai, Victor Phuangketkeow. I was also fortunate that he granted my COE in a few hours,which normally takes a few days. Another person who encouraged me to take the epic flight so that I would beat the travel-ban was former Indian Ambassador to Thailand and current foreign secretary Harsh Shringla.
First flight, Coimbatore-Chennai. I nearly missed this, thanks to Coimbatore being a “silent” airport. There were no announcements, I was half-asleep. Till suddenly, I was awakened by a desperate airline staffer who rushed me to the aircraft that was ready to take off. Thank God it was a small airport, and I didn’t have to run very far.
The Chennai layover was 10 hours, and I kept myself awake with filter coffees and masala chais. Fortunately, the airport was not crowded (who on earth would travel, in Covid times?).
I was at the Qatar Airways counter three hours ahead of time, for my next flight to Doha, and it took nearly all that time to clear my documents.
In Covid times, there are no straight lines and queues, at airports. Only clusters of passengers and staff huddling together, to sort out documents.
I had all my documents, except one — my work permit. It was not on the official list, but I did not argue about it. Instead, I convinced the Qatar Airlines staff that I would have it delivered at the airport in Bangkok. There was no way anything could be delivered to Bangkok’s airport, in Covid times, but I simply needed to board this flight, before the travel-ban.
Four-and-a-half hours to Doha. Comfortable flight, good service. But the aircraft was freezing, and I developed a bad cold.
Not a good thing to have in Covid times, especially with a 14-hour layover in Doha’s enormous airport.
I realised I needed to rest, did not think of budget, and checked into Qatar Airways’ much-talked-about Al Mourjan Lounge. At $250 for 12 hours, it was not cheap, but I soon realised why it was rated one of the world’s best lounges. I took a shower, placed my luggage in a locker, tucked into buffet meals, sipped plenty of hot teas and coffee available at every corner, emptied all the tissues available (thanks to my drippy nose), and then rested in their “quiet rooms” — it was just what the doctor ordered for my knocked-out body. But it added to my expenses, of my epic journey, from India to Thailand.
No document-checking at this airport, but direct boarding of flight to my final destination.
A six-hour flight, which was comfortable because there were many empty seats (thanks to Covid), and I stretched out and had a welcome-sleep.
I woke up at 5 am with a huge sense of relief. Amazing Thailand at last. I reached in the nick of time, the day before the travel ban to India.
I was warned of the tough immigration officials at Suvarnabhumi airport. They looked imposing in their PPP outfits, but otherwise were pleasant, quick, efficient. Thorough scrutiny of documents, while the passengers were seated in socially distanced chairs. I was warned about needing several copies of the documents, and had a thick file of them. But the officials used only one set, and circulated those from hand to hand.
The last official seemed impressed with my two vaccination certificates that proved I had taken both doses of the Covid vaccine in India (a rarity in Thailand, where the vaccines are just coming in). But he stated that I would need to go through 14 days of quarantine (earlier, those who had taken both doses of the Covid vaccine needed to do only 7-10 days of quarantine, but now the 14-day quarantine has become mandatory for everyone.)
Future Indian tourists to Thailand might be interested to know that the country hopes to open out for tourism in July, in a phased-out manner. They call it “sandbox tourism”, where individual destinations, starting with the beach-island of Phuket, will be singled out to welcome vaccinated tourists. All the people involved with the tourism industry in Phuket (70 per cent of the population) will also be vaccinated by July.
If this works, the “Sandbox Tourism” method would extend to nine other destinations in the country.
I stepped out into the public area of the airport, where an official in PPP outfit held the placard of my hotel and let me to the hotel-car.
The driver sprayed my luggage with sanitizer, and I was soon on my way to the next phase of my long and expensive Covid journey from India to Thailand — the quarantine period.
Another strange and surreal experience — another story.
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