March 23, 2020 found me at the Suvarnabhumi Airport trying to process the realization that I was leaving my home in Thailand for 4 1/2 months and going to my home in America. I knew this was the right thing to do at the time. What I didn’t know at that time was how hard it was going to be to get back. I naively thought that surely by the time August came around, travel would be back to normal. When June arrived and international travelers were still not able to return to Thailand, I started worrying. I’m sad to say it, but I did. A lot. Below is a summary of my journey back and some of the hurdles that needed to be cleared before I was allowed back. For those unfamiliar with any of the process of returning to Thailand, those who wish to return need to accomplish a checklist of things, mainly get a special insurance that covers Covid 19, reserve a special certified hotel for quarantine, get on a chartered repatriation flight, get full permission from the Embassy (CoE), submit a Fit to Fly Certificate and results of a Covid 19 test upon check in at the airport (Especially for readers who are planning their return to Thailand: stay tuned for another post that gives links to helpful websites and examples of documents needed).
June 9—I call the Thai Chicago Consulate for the first time and am able to talk with someone. No Americans currently allowed back in, he says. But next month there’s sure to be good news. I hang up feeling strangely elated that I get to talk Thai to someone.
June 17, 2020: Journal Entry “Father, my prayer this morning again is let me get back into Thailand in August, on my ticket date. Perhaps I should have searched your will more when I bought that ticket. I don’t know. Father I pray that you would open the doors to let me back in. Your will be done.”
June 18: Journal Entry “Still no definite news on getting back to Thailand. I’m glad my departure date isn’t until August because hopefully by then the bottleneck of people reentering will have eased a bit. Father, I pray let me get back in time. Without spending thousands of dollars. Zachariah 8.”
June 21, 2020: Journal Entry “About 3 months ago already that I decided to come home. In some ways it’s gone so slowly, in other ways so fast. Jesus, getting back into Thailand looks harder and harder. Help me, Father, to wait for news. I think I should write a letter to the embassy but I don’t know what the best timing is. Lord, these things are in the future, yet you already know. At least Aug 9 gives me something to work for, even though I know it might change. ‘No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.’” Isaiah 54:17
June 23: I email Payap, my university, about my dilemma, asking for advice. Not much advice comes.
June 26: Journal Entry: “Coming into Thailand looks slightly more hopeful, except for the possibility of the extension of the emergency decree. But I have seen students listed as possibilities to come back in.” I finish my letter to the embassy in Thai and send it to a Thai friend to edit.
June 29: I receive word that students were to be let into the country.
June 30: I receive the letter back from the friend. Send it to the Washington DC embassy. Main problem—what kind of documents do I need to apply for a Certificate of Entry (CoE, a special document required to enter Thailand during the Covid pandemic) as a student?
July 2: I call the Thai Consulate in Chicago. At first, I am told again, No Americans are allowed to reenter. But I have a student visa, I say. Oh! Well, then, go to the DC Thai Embassy website and go to the application for a CoE. Once I am able to check the website, there is no spot open yet for students to apply. The only visas types still able to apply are non-immigrant O and B, even if technically students are allowed.
July 6: I begin the arduous process of calling around to find a Covid19 testing center and a place to get my Fit to Fly issued. Within the course of the week I make close to 30 phone calls trying to find a place to get tested without symptoms and receive the results within 72 hours.
July 7: I receive an email reply from the Thai embassy saying that while students are now allowed into the country, the embassy is still waiting for the policy from Bangkok on how to proceed. Would I please continue to check the website for updates?
July 8: I contact AAinsure about getting my Covid19 insurance policy covering 100,000 USD.
July 13: I hear that people need to mail in their passport in order to get a COE stamp put into the passport after getting their Covid 19 test and Fit to Fly. How on earth am I to do that and get it back in the 72 hour time?
July 14: Desperate for information, I contact the embassy again, asking if they could give me a list of what students need. I find information later on other Thai Embassy websites. Jumping the gun, I contact my university, asking for the correct papers. The problem seems to be that it is not clear if the specifications on those websites are for students who already had visas or just for those without. Exactly what do I need? Worry and fear continue to circle my heart. It seems like a giant fist is clenched around me. I start contacting hotels about ASQ. I am now aiming to leave July 7 instead of July 9. This makes sense to me since I would have 4 working days before my departure, rather than leaving on a weekend and risking not having Covid testing places open or sending back results. ASQ hotels are getting full, fast. If I want one for those dates, I need to get it, even if I don’t like the price.
July 15: Frustration. I need to know what papers I need from Payap. When I try to contact the embassy, they only reply saying I need to apply for a CoE. I KNOW that. Could you tell me what I need to have in order to apply? The application for CoE is not yet up for students, but I need to prepare my papers. The date I was hoping to apply by was July 17. My insurance is not finished yet. I contact them to see where it is. The company is overloaded with requests and is working on it as fast as possible. I contact my travel agency. Rather than change my Eva air Flight to match the dates I need my Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ), I get my travel agency to reserve a Qatar flight without paying for it. I can now reserve my ASQ for arriving in Thailand August 9, leaving August 7. Now the decision remains—to I try to keep this ticket? Will commercial flights be allowed? Or should I let it go and get a repatriation flight. No repatriation flights are scheduled yet for August. I stay up late, communicating with the ASQ hotels about payment details.
July 16: Relief. I am able to talk with a live man at the Chicago consulate. He refers me to another number, a man who is extremely helpful and friendly. He is surprised that I got his phone number, since it is usually for emergencies. I ask him what papers I need. He says if I already have a visa, all I need is a letter of confirmation from my university. Nothing else. He says to call him any time I have any questions. I am comforted beyond words. Later that day, I’m struggling again, feeling heaviness, fear, worry. I cry out to God. Five minutes later, my phone rings. Its my boss. It seems I mislaid the keys for a company van and they can’t find them. I rake my brain for any clue where they might be. It seems like one more thing on top of everything I’m wrestling with. God, why this now? Can’t you tell me where they might be?! Something as small as this—if you could just tell me where I left those keys, I feel like I could trust you more with this whole Thailand thing.
July 17: Still struggling with a cold/allergies/cough that started way back in June. Praying for healing. Waiting for insurance papers, papers from my university, and for the application to be available for students. We go camping at the lake overnight and I take the night to relax and try to forget everything.
July 18: I suddenly remember where I probably put the keys. I text my boss and tell him. They are found! It feels like confirmation that God really does care!
July 20: Early in the morning I receive the certificate of enrollment from my university. The application for the CoE is up and ready for me to apply, but I do not have a repatriation flight. Now they are saying, buy a repat flight, and get your ASQ before applying. After you get the CoE, you can then get your Covid test done and fit to fly. Also, the CoE is emailed to you. No stamp in the passport. Things are being streamlined.
July 21: I call the Consulate in Chicago about applying since I have no repatriation flight yet and no August flights are available. He tells me to go ahead and put in any flight itinerary when it asks for a repat flight. This way, he says, I would be in the system. I apply that afternoon. I do not have my insurance letter yet, but there is nothing on the application that asks for it. After submitting, I feel a tremendous relief. Finally, something is done. I do receive an email a few hours later, telling me I needed to submit proof of insurance. I contact the insurance company again to see what is happening.
July 22: I stay up during the night communicating with the broker of the Thai insurance company, replying to questions about my health and arranging payment. I then fall asleep and miss checking my email for one last one in which I could have received the paper I needed.
July 23: Insurance letter stating I am covered for Covid19 received and uploaded. Now waiting for the flights to be released. I contact a friend about arranging for my school tuition to be paid, since I feel like I might need a receipt of payment as proof that I am enrolled for this next semester. I upload a picture of the receipt to my application as well.
July 27: flights for August released! I reserve a flight without paying through Hanatour which coordinates the Korean Air flights.
July 28: Early morning I am able to upload the flight documents to my CoE application
July 29: Waiting all day. My imagination runs away from me and I review all sorts of scenarios in my mind. After 5 that evening, I receive my CoE, and scare my mom half to death with my yells. She thinks something is on fire somewhere. I immediately pay for my Korean flight.
July 30: One of the hardest days. I contact the place that had told me several weeks ago that they could give me a Covid 19 test. I need to make an appointment. They tell me this time it is not possible to do it there without any symptoms. I crash. After calling several places, Pratt Regional Medical Center tells me that I can do it there with a doctor’s order. But I have no doctor. After calling several clinics to see if they could take me, I am still at a dead end. Finally, I contact a friend who works as a nurse at a clinic. She tells me that they’ll take me there as an outpatient and give me the doctor’s order. Pratt says they can give me the Covid test that has results between 24-72 hours. I end the day exhausted.
July 31: I head to my friend’s clinic. The nurse practitioner there sends the doctor’s order to Pratt. She also gives me a physical for my Fit to Fly certificate. Bring the papers down next week, 72 hours before you fly, and we can finish everything up for you, she says.
August 3: Monday morning I head to Pratt. Before they test me, they ask, are you staying in town for the results? What, I ask? Doesn’t it take 24-72 hours? Oh, they say, the doctor said that you need it 72 hours before you fly, so we’ll give you the Bio-Fire test, which gives the results in about 2 hours. (This is the test usually allowed only for first responders and emergency personnel.) In that case, I say, can I come back on Wednesday? The 72 hour window is not open yet. Sure, they say. I walk out, relieved but a little shaken. This would be helpful since I would not longer have to worry about the results coming in too early or late. But how often will my plans be changed? Once I reach home, I tell my dad I am not sure what to think about, since I don’t think I have anything to worry about right now.
August 4: Another monkey wrench. The Fit to Fly certificate has to be signed by a doctor, not a nurse practitioner. There is a chance that they would let it go, but I am not about to take chances. I call around. My friend at the clinic makes an appointment with their “mother clinic” where there is a doctor. This clinic is about 45 minutes away in McPherson. My appointment is for the next day.
August 5: Covid test taken. Extremely uncomfortable and undignified. We shop at Walmart and a second hand store while waiting for results. I go back to pick up the results. They are negative, but the paper says nothing that it was done with RT PCR testing method (even though it is that method). I ask about it, and soon there are a group of people around me, discussing this. They say they can’t change it. Finally, I call the embassy and miracle of miracles, talk with a live person. He assures me its ok, that as long as I have the results in the 72 hour window I am fine. I shed tears of relief. The head lab tech is very kind and wishes me safe travels. Later in the afternoon, I go to McPherson for my Fit to Fly certificate. All goes smoothly.
August 6: Wrapping things up. Final goodbyes. No more monkey wrenches, even though I am still a little nervous about my Covid Test.
August 7: I leave home at 5 AM in the morning. I am no longer emotional at all, and although I shed tears the evening before about leaving, I am too much on edge to even realize what it means to be leaving home again. My flight out of Wichita to Chicago is on time, an answer to prayer. I get to ride first class, for the first time in my life. This is because my ticket to Chicago was bought using credit from a canceled United flight. I am very grateful for the first class seat since it doesn’t take long for me to get off and get my luggage. I wait in a long line to check in to my Korean flight. This is where my documents will be examined for the first time. I am amazingly calm at the counter. They ask me questions about my visa, and some of the other documents, but only scan the Covid test. Once I get my boarding passes, I grin all the way back to my gate. It actually WORKED! The flight to Seoul is rough with hours of turbulence. My seatmate and I become good friends. Both of us are/were students, and she is a recent new Thai believer nervous about going home to her family.
August 8: My flight lands in Bangkok. I am one of the last ones off the plane and herded through various checkpoints by people in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). My papers are inspected several times, I am given an ASQ tag, moved from place to place. There is no way I could leave if I wanted to. Soldiers are on guard, as well as immigration police. It is probably close to an hour by the time I get through all the health checkpoints and immigration and out the door where my ASQ driver waits for me. Once we reach the hotel, I am checked out thoroughly again and do some paperwork for the hospital that is in charge of my quarantine. I get to bed around 1:30 AM Sunday morning, tired but grateful. I will be in this hotel quarantine for the next 14 days. (below: waiting at the airport for inspection and the view from my quarantine hotel)