Chaos and Confusion: My Journey to Bangkok During the Pandemic

At Frankfurt Airport, two Chinese passengers wearing protection suits buy drinks from a vending machine. They were denied from boarding a flight to Bangkok for a lack of coronavirus test certificate and health insurance.

BANGKOK — My flight was about to depart Gate Z 66 from Frankfurt to Bangkok on Sunday evening when the staff announced that they needed someone who could speak Thai and English.

I volunteered. It turned out that the airline wanted to inform two young Thais that they could not fly back to Thailand, despite having made it to the very gate for their plane, because they do not have the health certificates and permits issued by physicians and Thai embassy in Germany.

They were yet another casualty of the Thai government’s draconian border policy that effectively shut out its own citizens overseas, despite the leaders’ insistence otherwise. Health certificates are near impossible to acquire in many European countries, where physicians are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of coronavirus cases.

So what we have is stress, chaos, and uncertainty for passengers.

One of the Thais barred from boarding the plane in Frankfurt was Tanakorn Thiangram, a 18-year-old native of Chonburi province. He couldn’t speak English or German, so I was asked by a Lufthansa staff to explain to him why they can’t allow him to board the plane.

Passengers at Frankfurt Airport.

I told him that because he didn’t have a medical certificate and the permit from the Thai Embassy in Paris, he cannot continue his journey back home.

It was 9pm local time, just 15 minutes before boarding time. Tanakorn puts his mother on video call with me. His mother, who is based in Nice, France, was visibly stressed and tried to plead for help.

I told her there’s nothing that I could do and that she needs to call the Thai embassy first thing on Monday for assistance. She said she has been trying to call the embassy since Friday, but to no avail.

The mother asked me to inquire with Lufthansa ground staff whether Tanakorn could purchase a ticket to fly back to Nice or Paris instead or not. The answer was no. France is shutting down its border to prevent itself from being further exposed to coronavirus.

Tanakorn looked lost and upset. I told him the airline will pay for his accommodation for a night, but after that he’s on his own.

Just meters away from Tanakorn was a fellow Thai stranded nearly 9,000 km away from home. Waeodao Koedklang, 24, is leaving Germany after spending three months with her German boyfriend in the city of Neumarkt, a three-hour-drive from Munich.

Waeodao managed to obtain a medical certificate from a hospital next to the airport but she didn’t have a fit-to-fly permit – which does not involve checks for coronavirus – from the Thai Embassy in Berlin. Airline staff told her she couldn’t board as well.

Tanakorn Thiangram and Waeodao Koedklang

Again, I was put on a video chat with her frustrated German boyfriend who speaks Thai. I told him there’s nothing I could do to help, and suggested he may try to convince Lufthansa staff instead.

“Why can’t Thais return to Thailand? I don’t understand,” Waeodao, who is from Loei province, asked me.

“Prayut should resign,” Tanakorn said after I identified myself as a reporter to him and asked if he has any message to convey.

I apologized to Lufthansa for having to endure the unpleasant situation of turning passengers away. I told them the fit-to-fly certificate is no proof that I or any other Thai passengers have not been infected and thus pointless.

(Fortunately for Waeodao, she got to board the plane at the last minute after her German boyfriend was able to obtain the Thai embassy permit and showed it to the airline staff.)

Some twenty Chinese and Taiwanese passengers, clad in spacesuit-like outfits, were also turned away from the same flight because they have no coronavirus tests certificate and hefty medical insurance as required for foreigners entering Thailand. The order came into effect Sunday, about three days after it was issued.

As a result, flight LH772 had only twenty passengers on a plane that can accommodate over 500. A flight attendant told me the return flight from Suvarnabhumi to Frankfurt is fully-booked, however, as Europeans are scrambling to return home before a possible continental lockdown.

Soldiers Deployed

Ten hours later the plane landed on Monday afternoon local time. I walked a dozen steps off the plane and was greeted by a locked glass door with three airport staff asking for papers.

I presented my papers and asked a staff member what will happen if one doesn’t have the required papers. She said the passenger will then not be allowed to enter through the locked glass door.

Asked how a Thai national can be refused entry to his or her own country, the official said she doesn’t know. This is all she has been instructed to do (fun fact: Section 39 of the Thai Constitution explicitly outlaws any attempt to bar Thai citizens from returning to their homeland).

Soon all passengers walked through a thermo-scan at the near-empty airport and then asked to download an application and fill in an online form.

Questions include not just which country one has visited, seat number, address, phone number but whether one has diarrhea, abdominal pain, rash, headache, sore throat, shortness of breath, vomited or other conditions. Biometric fingerprints are waived due to infection concerns.

Interestingly, the Thai government wants to know your income level and the lowest bracket starts with 20,001 to 60,000 US dollars per annum.

As I approached a Health Control Counter and received a stamp of approval from the Public Health Ministry on the back page of my passport, a public health officer was busy instructing two soldiers in uniforms.

The health official told me the airport has to enlist soldiers to “handle” passengers who are unhappy about the processes, or unwilling to cooperate after being denied entry.

The official said on Sunday, one male European passenger was prevented from entering Thailand after he somehow landed at the airport without a virus-test certificate and health insurance.

The passenger got very upset and had to be manhandled away after causing a scene and refusing to cooperate, the official said. Some Thai passengers were agitated by the new rules as well, he added, therefore the need for soldiers.

I asked the officer how the new requirements for Thai passengers make any sense when the medical certificate is not a virus-free certificate and whether this just adds more stress and burdens the passengers and everyone involved? There was no answer.

No official bothered to tell me to self-quarantine for 14 days at home, either. But I am doing that right now anyway.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the gate number at Frankfurt Airport.