Today is our 14th and final day in what is called the Phuket Sandbox-basically a program that allows fully vaccinated travelers from a wide range of countries to to serve their “quarantine” in a very liberal way. If you enter Thailand through Bangkok, it is straight to a hotel for 10 (expensive) nights of isolation. But if you are willing to jump through a few more hoops, you can qualify for this much more enjoyable form of quarantine. I say “a few hoops” but we did have a few stressful days right before we left London when our hotel was changed last minute (you have to stay at a special kind of hotel with extra certification and a lot of hotels lost that certification right before we came). When your hotel changes, your traveler ID number changes which effectively renders all the paperwork you have done and gotten cleared by the embassy void and you have to re-submit. Except there is no way to do this in the online system, so you have to call the embassy and get them to reject your already accepted application so you can fix your ID number. I do not know if you have ever had the pleasure of trying to phone up and embassy, but I do not recommend. At one point we got through, were told we were number 6 in the queue and then listened to the phone ring for an hour and 40 minutes before we hung up. Eventually we got through with email. We’re here so obviously it worked out in the end but I could have done without that last minute shenanigans.
Once the paperwork was complete, the rest of the Sandbox program was amazingly efficient! We were lucky enough to get a direct flight from London to Phuket on a seriously empty plane. The UK has just put Thailand on its “Red List” which means that travelers back from Thailand must do 10 nights in a quarantine hotel in the UK at great expense (I think I read it is about GBP 2,500 per person). Obviously not many people want to sign up for that, so mostly it looked like Thai travelers going home on our flight.
When we arrived in Phuket it felt a little like that scene in ET when all the scientists descend on the house-there was a very efficient system of checking paperwork, downloading a tracking app and then finally getting an arrival PCR test.
PCR test complete, you got shuffled into a car that sped you to your hotel. At the hotel we needed to wait in our room for about 6 hours for the result. We got an email, but also the hotel is informed and they come and knock on your door to tell you that you are free to leave and do what you want! Once a day we have gone to reception and checked in to have our temperature taken and it is all recorded and sent off for tracking. There have been reports of people who have tested negative for their pre-flight PCR test, but then texted positive upon arrival. This is not very pleasant as if this happens you are required to go to the hospital and complete your quarantine there. We have had to take two more PCR tests during this time, on day 6 and day 11. This was also very efficient, you just turn up at your selected location and get shuffled along and swabbed. It was another case of “how far up is this person going to swab” and I got a bit unlucky for both of my tests. Gav saw me on this last round and ran away from my station to take his chances with the other booth, which he reported was very gentle. Damn it! Well, hopefully that’s the last of these for a while.
The hotel we have been staying in is not bad-it advertises itself as a “collection of villas” which is, frankly, overstating it quite a lot but we have 4 bedrooms and a lounge area around a pool. Two of those bedrooms are locked so don’t go thinking we are all fancy! There is a strange Peppa Pig theme in the lounge/kitchen area for some reason but the bedrooms are nice and having 2 means that Gav and I each have had a separate place to work during the day.
I am looking forward to getting into a house with an actual kitchen and washing machine, as I have been cooking on a hotplate and doing my laundry in the sink. We have two hotplate type things in the kitchen area, one was kind of like a grill with an element that I could see getting hot and red. Then we had this other mysterious one that had buttons and directions in Thai and no matter what I pushed it just beeped at me and wouldn’t get hot. Eventually I made Gav take it to the front desk and ask for a new one. The new one did the same thing! Finally the lady pulled a pan out of the cupboard, set it on the hotplate and voila-it turned on. Apparently that’s how induction cookers work, whoops! In any case I will feel fancy cooking with more than one pot and also not hand washing my clothes.
We still feel a little strange being here, because it feels a bit like we are on holiday (especially being next to the beach) but we are also working. Four colleagues are in the same hotel as us right now, in the “villa” next door which is very funny. In meetings we all have the same very distinctive wallpaper in our backgrounds. Sadly, they do not have Peppa in their lounge though. One of the most fun parts of my job is going into class zooms and reading kids a book. This is more of a laborious (and possibly legally dubious) process than in the pre-Zoom days as I have to get my coworker in Yangon to scan and upload books for me so that I can put them into a slides presentation to read to kids. The kindergarten class has started to weigh in on what kinds of books they want me to read and every Friday I get a request for the upcoming week. When I am very lucky, I get an illustration to help me decipher the note.
I love it, these kids are hilarious!