The Journey Home Goes Through The „Sandbox“

Since July 1, 2021, Thailand has been the first Asian country to allow vaccinated persons to enter Phuket with a mandatory stay of 14 nights, the so-called “Phuket Sandbox” model. This is where our Thailand-based author Melanie Rüdiger had to go after a necessary stay in Germany. A journey back with quite a few obstacles.

Originally, I wanted to fly to Germany in 2020 as every year in June. Due to Covid-19, my flight was postponed and finally cancelled, and I decided to wait out the pandemic in Thailand. Besides, I didn’t want to leave the country for fear of not being allowed to return to my husband. Then in the middle of the Covid-19 peak in February 2021 my only uncle died. I had to go to Munich to fulfill his last will.

Not quite that easy! After a very quiet year the Covid-19 cases in Thailand had eventually risen. All airports, even Bangkok, were closed. Any arrivals or departures were only possible through Phuket airport, about 160 km away, but to enter the peninsula was not allowed to unvaccinated people like myself. I was supposed to get my two shots in Munich, as vaccines in Thailand are still not accessible to the masses. I booked a Business Class special fare with Qatar Airways, in order to minimize contact to people as far as possible, and I hoped that me and my likewise unvaccinated driver would somehow be able to pass through to the airport with producing the mandatory PCR test. Much excitement, endless discussions about the validity of my papers followed. At midnight, I fell into my plane seat all exhausted.

Endless paperwork for the return trip

As soon as I had my second shot in Munich, I applied for the „Certificate of Entry“ (COE), the entry permit for Thailand. First, I had to upload the usual papers to a dedicated Thai government website: Visa, Re-entry Permit, a copy of my Thai husband’s passport, our marriage certificate and of course the vaccination certificates. Within two days I received the pre-approval of the Thai Consulate General in Munich by e-mail.

Step 2 was much more complex: Only certified hotels must be booked for the stay in the Sandbox and everything including transfers and three PCR tests for 8,000 baht (ca.200 euros) had to be paid in advance. I had decided for the model “Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension” which means that one must stay the first seven nights exclusively in Phuket, even boat excursions are not allowed. The following seven nights may be spent in selected places in the neighbouring provinces. I wanted to go to Koh Yao Noi, where we had spent our belated honeymoon.

When all of this was accomplished, I received the necessary codes, which in turn had to be uploaded to the government’s website along with other documents. Another three days later, the final COE was issued, one PCR test was to be taken before departure, and I was ready for the Sandbox.

Arrival in Phuket

At the airport an armada of Thais awaits us in full protective gear. One by one they pair with a newcomer, check their entry documents, and activate the government’s tracking app. Everyone was asked to download it on their cell phones in advance. Then I proceed to the health inspector, who forwards the data to the Health Office, and further on to the immigration authority. My luggage is already waiting, and I leave the airport towards the test boxes for the first of the three PCR tests. There, an employee of my booked hotel at the Sandbox immediately receives me, probably to prevent me from escaping on my own.

Upon arrival at the Novotel Phuket Kamala Beach, I am told that I had to go to my room immediately, and that I would not be allowed to leave until I would have been informed of the negative test result. This might be within the next 24 hours. In addition, I would have to report to the front desk every day for the daily scan of my QR code and check of my body temperature. My passport and all documents are photographed and sent to the Health Office once again. The bellboy drops my bulky luggage (after all, in addition to the normal luggage and the souvenirs, I had to bring a holiday wardrobe for two weeks and a yoga mat) in front of the hotel room door. He is not allowed in, he apologizes. With that the door closes behind me, and I am alone.

From Agoda I had booked the Sandbox’ “Quarantine Package” including three meals and a daily hygiene equipment. But they did not keep their promises. Accordingly, I am welcomed in my room with – nothing. There is no hotel information available. The minibar is empty except for a laminated note stating that due to Covid regulations all amenities must be requested. There are various QR codes around from where you can download the food and spa menu. I’m going to take a nap and later order dinner from room service. It comes covered in plastic wrap and the tray is again left on my doorstep. At 9 pm the front desk lady gives me a call informing about my negative test and that now, I was allowed to move freely in the Sandbox.

1. Quarantine on the tourist island

Day 1 and 2: On the first day I sleep until noon and despite the midday heat I set off along the beach to explore the area of the Sandbox and maybe buy some fruit and some street food. The sea is turquoise blue with a slight surf. Nevertheless, the beach is deserted. Anything that used to be a beach bar or a Thai massage pavilion looks pretty run down or is closed. Behind the row of beach hotels there is an expressway. Street food? Nope! So I head back to the hotel pool. The hotel guests are other than usual mostly single travellers, hardly surprisingly for the moment I am the only woman. The few couples are mostly Western men with Thai women.

Day 3 and 4: I wake up at dawn from a loud roar. That’s weird, I wonder, air conditioning must be working hard today. Then I notice the palm tree in front of my balcony swaying in the storm. The beautiful weather from the previous day is blown away, the sky is cloudy and it’s pouring. A perfect day for the spa. I swiftly get an appointment and for my two-hour treatment I would be guided to the largest room of the tastefully decorated wellness temple. I learn that the spa, which in fact offers 12 cabins, is currently mostly empty. I guess men are no spa customers.

Day 5: I need to take my second prepaid PCR test in the “Laguna”, a luxury real estate development from the 1980s on the territory of a former tin mine which is arranged around several lakes situated directly on the coast. The test centre is set up in a deserted shopping village. The test is done quickly. Having hired my driver Jack for the day, I take the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in Phuket. Unfortunately, the weather still hasn’t cleared up. Built in the 2000s on a hill in the middle of the island from white marble, the 45 metres tall “Big Buddha of Phuket” is covered in thick fog. As I leave Phuket two days later, my tracking app displays an exact image of our tour…

Day 7: My seven nights in Phuket are over. Another daily scan and yet a temperature check, then I’m handed over the Health Office‘s official transfer form. Jack takes me to the pier, where an employee of the second hotel, “Paradise Koh Yao“, is waiting for me to complete more formalities. Once again, my documents are photographed, and my temperature is scanned. The QR code from the app is scanned, and I need to go through a face detection gate where my name is promptly displayed. Not for the privacy advocates!

On the half-hour speedboat ride to the “Paradise Koh Yao”, I meet a couple from Czech Republic, Hana and Tomáš. When I ask them why they’re in the Sandbox, they relate they’re going on a two-weeks’ vacation. They were anxious to experience Thailand “as it used to be 20 years ago”, without the tourist crowds, and currently most hotel rooms in the luxury segment are affordable. But they also add that if they had been aware of the bureaucratic effort involved in the journey, they would probably have opted for another destination.

2. Quarantine in „Paradise“

On arrival at “Paradise Koh Yao” the usual procedure awaits us. Finally, I am brought to my room with the electric buggy. What a surprise! I got an upgrade, and the hotel has attentively provided me with the same „room”, rather a plunge pool villa as last time.

Since the hotel is situated in a secluded private bay, from which one does not just walk easily to the next village, I visit the “Activity Center” to book a few boat trips and go to see those islands that usually are overcrowded. I learn that almost all islands belong to the neighbouring province of Krabi, which I am not allowed to enter while under quarantine in Pha Nga province. Eventually, I book a yoga class, which, due to the lack of other participants, turns out to be a private lesson, and I make an appointment with my old teacher Loh for another batik lesson.

Day 10: Rumour had it for a while that the quarantine period for all those entering the country would be shortened starting on October 1. Suddenly, the events really start to take off for us who are still in the “sandbox”. After spending ten nights in quarantine and completing two PCR tests in Thailand, the third one is cancelled. The hotel employee hands over a release form, and I am free to finally go home to Ko Siboya.

Note: The entry requirements for Thailand are subject to current changes. The compulsory stay in Phuket has now been abolished, but the obligation to quarantine upon entry persists. According to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, this will be discontinued as a pilot project for some countries from November 1, 2021. A total of ten low-risk countries…

Sandbox, Thailand

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