We have decided to leave Thailand earlier than we previously planned. We stayed on our small isolated island of Koh Phangan during the coronavirus pandemic. We feel that we were probably in the best possible place to wait out the pandemic, but now it’s time to go. We previously talked about leaving Thailand at the end of the year; this post will talk about why we changed our minds and left sooner. This is how we escaped from Thailand.
Thailand Goes On Lockdown
We want to tell you about why Thailand was the best place to be during quarantine, but allow us to fill you in on some details leading up to the national lockdown…
The last time that we left Thailand was in March of 2020. We went to Malaysia to renew our visas, as my one year Non-B (work visa) was expiring, and it is not possible to renew this particular visa within Thailand itself. You have to leave the country and renew it in a Thai consulate or embassy elsewhere (a visa run).
It can be difficult to maintain multiple work visas for foreigners in one business in Thailand. That is probably best left to another post to write about, however a detail relevant to this post is that during this particular visa run we decided to branch the yoga business off from the resort business so that they would be two separate business entities. One of the many rules in Thailand that don’t really make sense is that as a new business, the foreigner working for that business can only obtain a 90 day Non-B visa for the first one that is approved. After 90 days, you have to do another visa run, and then you can obtain a Non-B visa for a full year. <– Now if all of that sounds unnecessarily complicated and confusing, then welcome to foreign national life in Thailand.
In essence, this wasn’t a big deal, as doing visa runs is a part of life in Thailand, and so we just accepted that in June we would have to leave the country in order to renew my visa yet again.
During our March visa run, the World Health Organization declared that coronavirus was a global pandemic, and international travel started closing. We were concerned that we would get trapped in Malaysia unprepared, but fortunately this was not our fate and we were able to obtain our visas at that time and return to Thailand before the country closed.
The following week we started what would be our last yoga teacher training at Ananda Yoga & Detox Center. One week into our training, Thailand would close off its borders to the world and suspend all domestic travel and group activities. We closed off our resort in our own quarantine in order to keep our students and ourselves as safe as we reasonably could. We kept all training activities in the back of the resort so that we would appear closed to any officials who might drive by and force us to prematurely end the training, and we finished the course as it was originally planned at the beginning of April.
The Perfect Corona Virus Hideout
Despite Thailand’s status as one of the world’s most visited countries, the government did a remarkable job of controlling the spread of the virus. It was assumed early on that due to the amount of tourism in the country that it would be hard hit by the plague.
To the contrary, Thailand closed off its borders early, they did contact tracing to find and isolate their cases, and most importantly the politicians deferred to the judgement of the scientists and medical professionals. The doctors were in charge of coordinating the response. These key events spared Thailand from the type of carnage that would eventually engulf western countries, particularly the United States.
Thailand’s Buddhist roots and respect for each other and for the medical establishment allowed for the overall population to adhere to mask wearing and further limit the spread of the contagion. Mask wearing was near universally accepted in public, and was not politicized.
There was one confirmed case of covid-19 on Koh Phangan. It was isolated early and contained. As the weeks and then months went by it began to feel safe on the island and despite most business shut down, and locals laid off, the people of the island and the tourists stranded there felt a sense of ease and downright relief to be there and secluded from the rest of the world and its toilet paper shortages and mass confusion.
We had sunshine, we had Thai food, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. We were on a freaking tropical island, and as far as most there were concerned, there was no better place to wait out a global shutdown.
Why We're Leaving Thailand
We are essentially out of work. Our yoga business relies on tourism for new students to take our courses. Group gatherings were banned in Thailand in May, so we had to cancel our teacher training in that month. Thailand reopened domestic travel in June, but we cancelled the July training and the August 300 hour advanced trainings because there weren’t enough students enrolled and in the country to make them worthwhile. Quite frankly, the trainings require a considerable amount of time and energy, and I didn’t feel it to be worthwhile for fewer than 5 students to attend.
We have spent our off time productively, and will be rolling out some online courses that we’ve created soon. However, that’s a topic that I’ll save for another post.
Thailand has a visa amnesty for all foreign nationals trapped in the country. This has not been without stress and confusion. They do not announce their plans regarding visa free stay until the last minute. The initial visa amnesty was only until May 31st, and they finally let us know that it was extended to the end of July during the last week of May. Then, they finally extended the July deadline until late September with a mere 10 days or so before August.
Each time they extend it at the last minute, everyone is left wondering if they will suddenly be forced to leave the country and find a way home, or anywhere else.
Our visas expired in June. We have to leave the country eventually to renew our visas. All countries in Asia are closed to tourists, with the exception of Cambodia who requires a $3,000 deposit for entry, a medical certificate of health, and health insurance that guarantees coverage of covid-19. We’ll take a hard pass on those requirements.
Other countries aren’t letting Americans in. There are apparently some exceptions with proof of residency outside of the States, recent 72 hour covid tests, and other obstacles, but the information regarding these processes are often conflicting, constantly changing, and sometimes dependent on the luck of who your customs agent might be.
Without jumping through many hoops, our options were few, and it looked to us more and more that we would have to probably go to the USA to renew our visas, but that also means that we would get stuck there, as everyone is wisely declining entry of Americans across their borders.
We found ourselves with the likelihood of expensive round trip plane tickets to the US, probably no re-entry into Thailand, and a slim possibility for anyone to even attend our last scheduled training in October. Confronted with these circumstances, we decided that it’s time to cut our losses and run.
What Is Our Plan?
As we were waiting to see if Thailand would extend visa free stay beyond July, we were starting to become concerned that there would be a lot of commotion and that airlines might inflate their plane ticket prices for those with no choice. We decided to go sooner rather than to wait until we’re forced to do anything.
As we were resigning ourselves to the idea of moving in with one of our parents in the one country that is handling the crisis worse than anywhere else, we started searching for any other alternative. I did a Google search for “what countries can Americans travel to right now”.
Our choices were slim: Turkey (with a valid health certificate), Croatia (with health certificate), Albania, Kosovo (uncertain), Serbia, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, and Caribbean countries. So much for the US passport…
Mexico and the Caribbean didn’t appeal to us due to their proximity to the US, they seemed a likely place to catch a case of corona, and the airfare would cost more since we’re on the other side of the planet. Since our initial plans were to end up in Italy, our attentions gravitated toward the European options.
Low and behold, a few searches of those locations revealed that we could stay in Albania for up to one year without a visa! Albania had never been on our radar, and we had never previously considered visiting that country. Since the past four and a half years of our lives have evolved around visa and border runs in Thailand, the fact that we could stay somewhere for such a long time greatly appealed to us. It would be ideal to find a quiet place in the world to wait out the corona virus, and Albania seemed a good candidate.
We spent the next couple of hours researching travel blogs and US embassy information about Albania, and the idea just resonated with us. The cost of living in Albania appeared less than what we were managing on a Thailand island. It is a Mediterranean country, and has cuisine influenced by Greece, Italy, and its own Albanian and Balkan heritage. It seems perfect.
We decided to sleep and meditate on this plan. The next day our feelings about it only solidified, and within 24 hours of coming up with the idea to move to Albania, we had purchased our plane tickets.
We selected a route of transit that would allow us to skip any countries that might possibly give us problems. Our route would take us from Bangkok, to United Arab Emirates, and to Serbia, where we would catch a flight to Tirana, the capitol city of Albania.
We would have exactly one week to sell what we could and wrap up our affairs in Thailand in order to get out as quickly and as cheaply as we could. Ordinarily, this would be an impossible task, but we have lived our lives very minimally and in a yogic way. We do not have many possessions or physical attachments to “stuff”. This gives us a degree of freedom that most westerners will never experience or understand.
We informed Ananda of our separation from the organization, started listing our things to sell on local Facebook groups, and made peace with the idea that just like that, after all of this time in Thailand and within the span of 24 hours, decided to move to Albania.
That is of course, another story.