Escape from Phuket Airport

@karenblumberg finally leaving the airport

I want to start with a disclaimer. This is based on the true story of one woman and her experience with the Phuket Sandbox. It is not the story of any other person who may have participated in or attempted to participate in the Phuket Sandbox. All similarities to characters and events in this particular saga are intentional if the character in the saga is named Karen Blumberg and the event is her plane’s arrival to Phuket from Frankfurt on July 3.

When the Phuket Sandbox idea was announced months ago, Karen and I immediately jumped on a plan to fly her to Phuket to meet up. To us, the Sandbox scheme seemed ideal: two weeks on Thailand’s biggest island, albeit during the rainy season, free to eat and shop wherever we liked in Phuket as long as Karen maintained a two-week reservation at a SHA+ hotel. It had been more than a year since either of us had traveled internationally, she from New York and me from Thailand. The Sandbox seemed like a good way to get her to visit without an onerous 2-week quarantine stuck in a hotel room, and we imagined that she would be free to do as she wanted once she checked into her resort. We thought that it would be best if Karen stayed at a hotel near us, so she booked into the Anantara Layan.

Like magic Karen received her COE (Certificate of Entry) almost immediately. But we started to have second thoughts about the price of the Anantara. So Karen looked through the list of SHA+ hotels and hit upon a resort in Bang Tao that boasted a two-week package costing US$400. So of course Karen switched her reservation to that place. She paid her deposit, took a pre-flight COVID swab test and awaited her flight date.

But when the plane landed at Phuket International Airport, Karen’s name was called out first on the flight, as she was listed as an “ASQ” passenger on her COE. “ASQ” is short for “Alternative State Quarantine” and, going by Karen’s COE, she had two whole weeks of quarantine in the Anantara Layan Resort looming before her even though she had switched her reservation to another place. It turned out that the other place had not been approved for the Phuket Sandbox program after all, but had failed to tell any of its unfortunate customers, so Karen had not thought to switch her reservation or change her COE pre-flight.

“How did she get into the country?” the intended resort’s reservation desk asked when informed of Karen’s predicament at the airport. They then agreed to refund the money Karen had paid. But the COE was a trickier matter. While immigration officials were fine with changing Karen’s COE to “Phuket Sandbox” from “ASQ” provided she make a new hotel booking (at an approved hotel this time), hotels were wary of making a booking with a passenger whose COE read “Anantara Layan” for fear of doing something illegal. They could not believe that immigration officials were fine with Karen changing her documentation. As a result, we were stuck in a true Catch-22, a traffic jam of bureaucracy if you will.

It looked like Karen could either be sent back to New York without seeing us at all, or be relegated to a pricey 2-week quarantine, or be stranded at the airport as the warring bureaucracies pushed and pulled against each other, a la Tom Hanks in the movie “Terminal”.

But luckily for us, the lovely people at Twin Palms were willing to book Karen after our assurances that we had secured an okay from Thai Immigration for Karen to enter Phuket. Also entirely coincidentally, because Karen was a passenger on the first Thai Airways flight from Frankfurt to Phuket since the pandemic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was at the airport. She alone was the person with the power to cut through the red tape jam, setting Karen free from the airport. “You are so lucky I am here!” she told Karen as she helped her fill out the necessary documentation to change her COE to “Sandbox” from “ASQ”. And with a stroke of the computer key, Karen was freed (as were all of the immigration officials sent to watch over Karen during her 5-hour ordeal).

After a post-flight COVID swab test result read “negative”, Karen was free to join us with her precious cargo in tow. It was this:

My sister Chissa set to baking a box of these biscuits immediately as a way to celebrate Karen’s release into the semi-wild.

The biscuits were delicious, as was the pie that Karen baked us a few days later.

Which is our way of saying, it’s all good now. Every night, Karen returns to her hotel to sleep, checking out of the hotel every morning to spend the day with us. At this moment, Karen is working on her third pie, with a mixed berry filling this time. We have run out of Cool Whip but still have the Haagen-Dazs vanilla hidden away somewhere in the freezer. Many more calories await us in the days to come.

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