Before we get into our COVID-19 lockdown story, we want to recognize that the inconvenience we are going through is very minor compared to those who are experiencing this horrible virus first hand. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who are suffering.
Emily has a medical background and began following the news about the COVID-19 virus the first week of January. At that point the virus was pretty much contained to China, but Emily had a feeling that this would spread rapidly. We were in Laos until mid-January, after which we went to Bangkok for a one-month stay. Emily had us buy masks once we got to Bangkok because of the high the pollution level at the time. Within a few days of buying these masks, a few isolated COVID-19 cases began to pop up in Thailand. Then a few days later all of these masks sold out from the pharmacies. Our time in Bangkok ended in mid-February, and at this point things still seemed to be under control and our travels were still on schedule.
We arrived at our next destination, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and at this point the virus was having very little impact on the country. During our month in Siem Reap we visited the Angkor Wat temples, went out to eat, and participated in a few volunteer projects. Our life was pretty much normal.
Beginning To Worry
But about half-way through our time in Siem Reap the spread of the virus around the world really started picking up. More and more cases were occurring in Vietnam, which was supposed to be our next destination after Cambodia. The Vietnamese government was starting to release messages about possible travel restrictions. At this point we had to choose one of four options:
1) Continue on to Vietnam and hope to arrive before the implementation of any restrictions.
2) Try to extend our visa for Cambodia so that we could remain there.
3) Try to get to another country (but which one?).
4) Return home to the US.
We quickly ruled out Option 4. The virus was not being taken seriously in the US at that time, and we would run the risk of being stranded at a connecting country if travel restrictions went into place while we were in transit. (Just ask the American tourists who were in Europe on March 12 about the chaos that occurred when America announced a confusing travel ban!)
Option 1 was to continue to Vietnam as planned, which we also eventually ruled out. We didn’t want to arrive at the border (on the day our Cambodia visa was to expire) only to find out we wouldn’t be able to enter. Boy, are we glad we made this decision. A few days later Vietnam announced they would be suspending entry by foreigners at noon on March 15. Our bus should have crossed the border in the early afternoon on that same day.
So now we had to choose between staying in Cambodia or trying to go somewhere else. One of the complications of staying in Cambodia is that it takes about two weeks to get a visa extension, and our time was running out. And although there were still relatively few cases in Cambodia compared to the surrounding countries, it was pretty evident that it would only be a matter of time before Cambodia got hit too. Also the heath-care system in Cambodia is not well developed. So we decided that we needed to look into our final option of trying to go somewhere else.
We wanted to go to Malaysia sometime later in our Southeast Asia travel itinerary to explore this country that is popular with expats. We had been praying for wisdom, and going to Malaysia now seemed like a good idea. Malaysia has a great health-care system, and most of the COVID-19 cases in the country at the time were directly related to one particular religious event. We found a cheap non-stop flight from Siem Reap’s small airport to Kuala Lumpur, which meant it would save us the hassle of trying to find a way from Siem Reap to the larger airport in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh.
We started getting nervous that our flight might be canceled a couple of days before our scheduled departure from Siem Reap. The number of cases in Malaysia was slowly increasing, and there were more and more cancelled flights appearing each day. Fortunately, we arrived in Malaysia without any problems. Just a few days after we arrived, everything changed.
The COVID-19 Lockdown
We spent one full day in Kuala Lumpur and then made our way to Cameron Highlands, a mountain resort north of Malaysia’s capital city. This is when the country implemented a complete 14-day lockdown (officially called a Movement Control Order). We experienced a short period of chaos as we tried to figure out what to do. Do we stay in Cameron Highlands for two weeks, or do we try to leave now while we still can? The hostel where we were staying said that they would remain open during the COVID-19 lockdown, so we decided to stay put. But then the next day, the hostel owner suddenly posted a sign in the lobby saying they would be closing. What!?!? They had just extended our reservation for the full two-week period!
Emily quickly got on Airbnb to see if there were any available apartments to rent. While waiting to hear back from an Airbnb host we decided to head to the bus station to check on availability of tickets out of Cameron Highlands. There were tickets on an afternoon bus for the next day, but the lockdown was supposed to start at noon the next day. We worried that the bus company might cancel the bus. But at the same time, we had nowhere to stay here! What do we do? And the ticket window at the bus station was closing for the night so we had to make a quick decision!
We checked Airbnb while we were at the bus station to see if the host had accepted our reservation request. What a relief to see the “Reservation Accepted” message! We left the bus station and headed back to our hostel. We needed to pack up and get ready to leave the next day.
What’s Next After The COVID-19 Lockdown?
So, here we are today, living in an apartment in the Cameron Highlands until the COVID-19 lockdown is over. (We just learned that the lockdown has been extended for an additional two weeks. Fortunately we successfully extended our reservation with our lovely Airbnb host). We are so thankful to have a place to live during this time. The apartment is probably our biggest since we became full-time travelers. Our host left a huge amount of food and supplies for us to have here. Only one of us is allowed to leave the apartment, and only to go to the grocery store. The weather here in the mountains is perfect (not that we can go outside and enjoy it, but it’s nice to have the windows open to get some fresh air.)
So far we are very impressed with how the Malaysian government is handling the situation here. They are actively working to increase the number of COVID-19 test kits to be on par with South Korea’s levels. The hospitals have plenty of capacity. And there has even been a team from the health department that has come to our apartment or called us everyday to check on us and our health!
Where do we go from here? Well, we’re not sure. We’re just taking everything one day at a time right now. Our top priority since we left home 18 months ago is our health and safety. We hope and pray that everyone reading this will also enjoy good health.
(We also describe our experience with the COVID-19 virus in video format: Our Covid 19 Lockdown Story)