Stuck In Thailand
– Nathalia Larotta –
The year 2020 was one full of uncertainty and stress. Some went into isolation at home with little to no physical contact to the outside world and some were on the front lines of the pandemic. My situation played out a little bit differently…
On January 17th, I blissfully left the Los Angeles airport, heading for Asia, with no idea what the year actually had in store for me, regardless of my plans.
The next 3 months traveling Asia included wearing masks and having little to no information about what this mysterious virus could be. As time passed, there were more restrictions and places began to close. Initially, Thailand had few reported CoVID-19 cases but in the month of March, cases skyrocketed and it was happening all over the world.
I felt a pit in my stomach that we were going to have to cancel our subsequent tours but I flew to Indonesia anyway to meet my business partner. There we made the heartbreaking decision to pause on our business venture. As we looked for flights, countries began to shut their borders and demanded their citizens return or risk getting stuck. The overload of people booking flights caused the site to crash and that led to me being stuck in Asia.
Watching the world shut down around you without the ability to get a flight home was a surreal experience. The nearest place that I had family was in Bangkok, Thailand so I returned there. With the help of my cousin, I was able to have a place to stay, eat, and work while I decided the next steps. I had some supportive roommates and we joined various “Stuck in Thailand” groups. Luckily we had some mutual friends that had decided to stay and a group of us began to form.
Restrictions in Thailand became increasingly intense and we decided to wait it out somewhere far from the capital city. Through a group consensus we decided on a house in Ao Nang, Krabi. We all took our respective buses and arrived in Krabi just days before the Thai government shut down interprovincial travel. It was a total of 10 of us and we were as international as you could get and funnily enough, we also had friends staying in the houses adjacent to us. Brit, Dutch, Canadian, Norwegian, American, you name it, we created our own special Covid free social bubble.
The best part about this experience was that we re-created the hostel atmosphere that we knew and loved while staying in the house. Group grocery runs happened every other day. We found out about the app Food Panda (like Uber Eats but the meals were $1-$5) and started to do group orders. We had events, exercise classes, family dinners, pool parties, and game nights. We distracted ourselves from the fear of what the future held and isolated ourselves from the pandemic that was raging across the globe.
When the government banned alcohol for a month and a half, we went exploring for bootleggers and scavenging for alcohol began an entire adventure. The Thai government had a strict “Mask up or Jail” policy and we could not walk in groups larger than 6. When entering grocery stores or even just a 7/11 we were required to have our temperature checked and use hand sanitizer. Shops were closed unless deemed essential and all food was carry-out. Many locals were hit hard by the drastic decrease in tourists and began to sell fresh fish and meats on grills on the street. We tried to buy from them as much as we could.
As time went on, people began to return home through the help of their embassies or if they got lucky with a flight. Those of us who stayed downscaled to a smaller place in a different area of Ao Nang. Even with the change of scenery everyone started to feel stir crazy and we all were yearning for something different. Some found purpose in joining a street dog rescue organization that included feeding them, building them houses, and doing wellness checks. Other found new groups to immerse with and discovered that some were staying in music video style beach houses that were being rented for dirt cheap because of the lockdown. Tourists were still fueling the Krabi economy amid the empty streets and border closures.
At this point it had been almost 2 months…As someone who had been living a nomadic lifestyle for a couple of years now, it was a bit anxiety inducing, even with the loving support system of fellow travelers. My partner was back in the states, my family was back in the states, my belongings, etc. My visa was expiring May 15th and I had to make a decision on what my next steps would be. I took the chance and booked a flight home that was a surprising $400.
Leaving was bittersweet and it was a long journey back to the Bangkok airport. When I arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was totally shocked. All the stores were completely empty and there was “Caution” yellow tape everywhere. It felt like a scene from the movie Zombieland, it did not look like one of the busiest airports in the world. Airline employees screened our temperatures at every step of the boarding process and our seating arrangements are socially distanced. Landing in Los Angeles, we had no health screening, no temp checks, and no hand sanitizer to be seen. When I arrived in Houston, most people weren’t wearing masks, including airport workers. I definitely wasn’t in Asia anymore.
Returning to the US was a bit of a culture shock but I was happy to be home. I will forever treasure my experience in Thailand and I’m so thankful that even during a pandemic, travelers were still able to cross paths and join each other to form a community away from home. That open mindedness and acceptance in the travel community is what made me fall in love with it originally. Almost a year and half later, I’m excited to start planning some trips and hopefully will run into the friends that I made during the time I was stuck in Thailand.