A few days ago, I have finally returned to Southeast Asia after leaving the region last spring. This time, I chose the island of Phuket in Thailand. Phuket is a wonderful destination, and I have already written about it in this blog. But the main reason to come to Phuket now is the so-called Sandbox programme, which happens to be about the easiest way of entering Thailand with regards to Covid-19 restrictions.
Yes, there is also the Test & Go program set up by the Thai government, but I find it useful only if you need to fly to Bangkok or another part of Thailand. While Test & Go, at least on paper, is less restrictive than the Sandbox, it is not necessarily cheaper as you do need to spend at least 2 nights at the designated hotels that are fairly pricey. Basically, if you choose Test & Go, that’s fine, but I would like to go over the Sandbox a little bit as that seems to be the most popular way of entering Thailand at the moment.
There is a degree of preparation involved. You will need the so-called Thai Pass. It’s not a visa but rather a personalized QR code that you receive after submitting your vaccination status, 7-night SHA hotel booking, return ticket and a travel insurance with a certain limit that covers Covid-19. Typically, you get the Thai Pass 4-5 business days after application with all the necessary paperwork. Needless to say, everything is submitted electronically.
If it sounds like too much, it isn’t. I mean, I personally rarely book a hotel in advance for more than 1-2 days, but most people do, and there is a certain peace of mind in knowing where you would stay for your first week in Phuket. SHA is a designation of hotels that are certified to accept Sandbox visitors, i.e. you cannot book just any hotel. Fortunately, there are plenty of SHA hotels in Phuket for most budgets (the cheapest I saw was about $20 per night), so no issue there.
I booked my return flight with the 24-hr free cancellation, just to get the PDF file, submit it and then cancel as I would like flexibility in my return time. And your travel insurance is a good idea anyway, so you’d be wise to buy it regardless of the requirements.
The most important provision of the Thai Pass is 2 prepaid Covid tests, one for the airport and the other for any designated facility on the island for your 4th day of stay. Of course, you also need a PCR test taken 72 hours prior to your departure, so you would take the total of 3 tests. The first test might be free, depending on your country, but the 2 tests in Thailand will cost you about $60 each. What I did was take yet another Covid test about a week before my flight just in case – imagine your 72-hour pre-flight test comes out positive and you have hardly any time left to change your travel plans. Also, make sure if your flight consists of multiple legs, your pre-flight test is taken 72 hours before your last leg.
One of the drawbacks of the Phuket sandbox programme is that you cannot fly into Bangkok first and then get a domestic flight to Phuket. Instead, you have to book a flight that arrives in Phuket directly from a foreign country. Fortunately, Phuket airport is extremely well-connected with Europe and Asia. If you fly from North America, however, you might have to spend significantly more time and money for this flight than normally, alas – as I had to.
My flight was exhausting – San Francisco-Istanbul, then an 8-hour layover, then flight Istanbul-Phuket on a plane full of European and Russian tourists. I was worried that that plane would take hours of process at the airport upon arrival, but I was amazed at how well everything was organized. From the landing time till the airport exit must have not taken more than 30 minutes or so, and that’s with the document check, immigration, luggage collection and yes, the PCR test.
The best thing about the Sandbox programme is that you are basically free to roam around the island as usual while you are “serving” your 7 nights at the SHA hotel . The only exception is the first couple of hours while you are waiting for your first test result. During that time, you are asked to stay at your room. Personally, I wasn’t even aware of that and went for a walk right after checking in, but nobody raised any alarms. And once your second test is negative, you are free to travel anywhere within Thailand.
Now, the biggest concern, of course, is what if one of your tests is positive? Yes, it can happen, and there doesn’t appear to be a strict protocol for that except that you WILL be placed in a quarantine at the same hotel where you are staying, and usually for a larger amount of money per night. If you have actual Covid symptoms, you might be taken to the hospital. There are also so-called hospitels, which are some kind of hotel-hospital hybrids, but I have not met anyone who spent time in one of those. The key thing here is your insurance – if you are lucky, it will cover the cost of your quarantine, but more often than not, it would only cover an actual hospital stay, should the doctor decide it is necessary for you.
As you can see, getting caught with a positive Covid test in Thailand is indeed costly and inconvenient. But the good news is that you have a right to retest within 12 hours of your positive test to exclude a false positive. Also, my understanding is that the quarantine is now 7 days instead of 10, so that’s a bit of a silver lining. And if you are in Thailand for a few weeks or longer, you will hopefully have plenty of time to enjoy your trip fully.