Couchfish: Southeast Asia’s new borders

Couchfish: Southeast Asia’s new borders

And you thought Koh Kong was bad

Just a quick note regarding my Couchfish-hiatus. I’ve badly put my back out—this post is coming at you from a well and truly horizontal position.

Back when we started Travelfish, independent travel in Southeast Asia was all about the borders. Where could you cross? Where couldn’t you? This travel intelligence was one of the most valuable—and fastest devaluing—currencies in a travellers’ wallet.

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Was there still a $2 “handling fee” at Koh Kong? Was the Laos/Cambodia crossing open? What was the cost? Was it still by boat? Which of the Laos crossings had visas on arrival? Was it still more costly for Canadians? How much more for Canadians? Why were Canadians charged more? The Lonely Planet Thorntree (RIP) was awash in this stuff.

These are mostly figments of the past. Today borders are fixated not no much on your little blue (or purple or green or whatever) book, but instead on what has been jabbed into your body. When were you jabbed? I hope it wasn’t too long ago, as that’s a no-no in some cases. Which country jabbed you? What brand of vaccination did you get? Where was the vaccine manufactured? The answers to some of these questions, sometimes all of them, matter.

A map of selected crossings, from when I used to draw my own maps. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It isn’t just the shot though. You’ll mostly need a PCR or rapid-whatever before you get on your flight, and some among those that are letting people in at all might require a quarantine of some length upon arrival. It varies. Perhaps another PCR test (or two). That varies too.

Then you’re free to roam right? Sort of. Please read the small print of your entry requirements.

While you’ve got the magnifying glass out, you may as well also check the small print on your travel insurance, as you’ll mostly be needing to be well versed on that too. Well, maybe, depending on the country, and the value of your coverage will need to cover medical care for Covid, up to, you guessed it, a variety of levels, depending on the country. And don’t forget to check that your home country doesn’t have a “do not travel to” warning for where you’re headed, as that will invalidate your insurance coverage.

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Ok, so you’ve got that all sorted right? You’re fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine, within an approved vaccination window. You’ve had your pre-flight PCR test (or rapid-whatever). You’ve got your approved and of sufficient value travel insurance. You’ve even got a plane ticket. Refundable I hope.

Well done you.

Did you book a whole row? You might need three rows—depending on which country you’re flying to. You do know that if someone sitting near you tests positive you might end up in quarantine too? At the risk of repeating myself, this is dependent on where you’re flying to. Worth keeping in mind.

So what happens if somehow, en-route to your final destination, you have close contact (the definition of “close” varies) with someone who is positive, or, worst case, test positive yourself?

Well, one, two, three, all together now, “it depends”.

Almost there, just three PCR tests. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

You will be quarantined, perhaps at the hospital, or a hotel, or somewhere else. Until, well, it depends. Until you are better? Until you test negative? Test negative with what? Well, it depends.

So, lucky you the Patron Saint of Covidness was busy ruining someone else’s trip and you’ve got all the way through. You’re free!

Sort of.

You will need to download a track and trace app. There are a few different ones, yes, they vary by country. Some even have more than one. You will need to register and have it on all the time (or not—it depends). This will allow the authorities to get in touch and quarantine you if you have close contact with a positive case. Or not—as, you guessed it, track and trace varies somewhat between countries and sometimes within different districts of the same country. If you’re concerned about privacy, I strongly recommend you do not read tracking app privacy policies (when available). It might give you hives.

Just open the doors and come in. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Once you’ve got the app(s) and have registered, don’t forget to also have a hard copy of your vaccination details. This is useful for when your phone is flat, or if a paper record is required—this is sometimes required—it varies.

Ok, you’re now free to go and enjoy your holiday right?

Well, sort of. Don’t forget to keep your phone charged, and bear in mind that in some locations (it varies) if it is determined you were vaccinated outside a set period (which may differ from the rules at the international gateway) you may encounter difficulties. You may (it varies), be tested on the spot. But don’t worry, if you do test positive, there might be ambulances on hand to whisk you straight off to quarantine at a hospital.

Quarantine can. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I haven’t gone into the nitty-gritty of quarantine upon arrival, as that varies, and is dependent not just on the country you are arriving in, but also your nationality, where you are coming from, and (in some cases) where else you have been in the last two weeks.

You’ve got the Covid T-shirt by now, right? It reads “it varies”.

Back in the day, now and then they’d be a rash of stories about a “Southeast Asia visa”. Most often it featured Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. It never really got legs in a big way, but if there is something Covid19 has really highlighted, it has been how useful an ASEAN-wide uniform approach could have been. Not just for tackling the virus in the first place, but also, for now, managing the first tentative post-Covid19 footsteps out of the virus’ shadow.

I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Instead, for those willing to jump through the hoops above (or some version of them), they’ve got a near-endless variety of rules and regulations to keep in mind. The thing is, all of the above is just today’s take. A week from now, they could all be different. A few weeks ago the rules for flying domestically in Indonesia changed three times in a week.

How do you plan around that? The simple answer is many won’t. Clearly, some will for sure, and save a few horror stories, Thailand’s recent re-opening seems to have come off relatively smoothly.

Does that mean we can expect similar from the neighbours? Well sort of, maybe, but you know, it varies.

I think I’ll wait for the next train. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Southeast Asian vaccination star Cambodia is reopening with no quarantine for vaccinated travellers. Neighbouring Vietnam meanwhile has its eyes on the third quarter of 2022 for a full re-opening (the “Live Fully in VinPearl” campaign is quite limited and props up a vile company). Singapore has a few very specific travel lanes, the one from Indonesia is one-way. Indonesia, well your guess is as good as mine, but it has been suggested to me that Bali may be seeing its first international flights in February 2022. Yes I know, Bali’s airport opened to international flights in October, but it seems that was for a purpose other than international flights with passengers on them actually landing at the airport. Malaysia looks to be thinking about it. Finishing on an optimistic note, Burma, on the cusp of civil war, bandied a mid-2022 re-opening around today.

I don’t know about you, but things seemed easier when the biggest question was if you’d need to slip the Cambodian border guard at Koh Kong $1 or $2 to get through.

Bad jokes aside, while Southeast Asia never made much headway on the uniform visa thing, it did have a pretty porous border system that made it relatively easy for many (though not all) to flit between countries. Mainland Southeast Asia trips that in the early 90s were three months in Thailand, became five months in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by the end of the decade. A rising tide raises all boats and all that.

The curveballs keep coming. Photo: Mark Ord.

The thought of doing something like this now, putting aside the issue of the responsibilities of taking a holiday during a pandemic, is not all that appealing. Each time you need to cross a border—be it by flight, or, when they eventually open, by land—chances are you’ll need to run through the whole process again, paying attention to whatever the rules are for the new country you are heading into. With this process comes the risk of a prolonged and very unplanned stay.

So, this is why yet again, I find myself at the longer tourist visa shelf. Yes, it is great that Cambodia, one of the most vaccinated countries in the region, is about to open. But in doing so, they should also be opening a new page in their tourism book. One with a six-month tourist visa.

All of the above are reasons to stop all but the most determined from country-hopping. Add to the pile, but in a good way—and prolong the stay in a fantastic country with a far longer tourist visa.

It has been too long. For everyone. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

PS: If you’re thinking “but what would I do in one country for so long”, here are a few itineraries to get you started:

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.