BANGKOK — Two Thai exchange students were dancing the tango to Latin beats and visiting a lake at Argentina’s southernmost tip when they were told to drop whatever they were doing, pack their bags, and head back to Thailand.
It was in April, and the coronavirus pandemic that began in Asia has spread to South America, shutting down domestic and international borders. Thanakorn “Spain” Jongwattanaudom, 17, and Pimthichar “Naai” Kummuang, 15, would end up on a journey spanning almost two months over a distance of 24,000 kilometers – most of the time without stopping overnight for a rest due to travel restrictions.
“I was crying, since my eight months with my host family ended so suddenly,” Thanathorn said in a recent interview. “I think of them as my real family. I was their son.”
Thanakorn and Pimthichar were part of about 128,000 Thai nationals repatriated since the coronavirus struck the world in January. But while most of the returnees’ experiences involve bureaucratic nightmares and boarding a flight back to their homeland, for Thanathorn and Pimthichar it was an epic overland journey like none other.
Together they traveled on buses and ferries – all local airports were shut down – passing through some of Argentina’s most far-flung regions before they could fly home. And since they were foreigners, Thanakorn and Pimthichar were not allowed to stay the night in any Argentine province.
The two teens were placed in Argentina earlier this year by AFS, a popular foreign exchange program. Pimthichar was studying in the world’s southernmost city of Ushuaia. Thanakorn was put in Tolhuin, about 100 kilometers away.
Thanakorn said he “became like the fourth son” for host parents Mario and Javier, who had three sons Hector, 18, Jose, 16, and Theo, 5.
The family often did home renovations or played hockey and volleyball at the local sports club or drove to Lake Fagnano together.
The blooming friendship with his adopted Argentianian family was cut short on April 12, when the Thai Embassy in Buenos Aires told him to leave immediately for Thailand. Devastated by the abrupt farewell, Thanakorn quickly packed a few mate cups and bombilla straws to remember the family.
He left at 3am Sunday on a bus packed with about 50 other exchange students – Thanakorn was the only Asian – to link up with Pimthichar in Ushuaia, who received a similar notice to leave.
The bus set off, straining against the harsh winds of the Southern hemisphere’s approaching winter.
‘Just Land and Sky’
Thanakorn and Pimthichar traveled on the bus north into Chile, then around noon boarded the ferry at the narrowest water crossing in the Strait of Magellan at Primera Angostura.
The students waited, shivering in the cold air as the bus was disinfected, before pulling through into Argentina again.
Their first day of the non-stop journey clocked at around 566 kilometers in Santa Cruz province, near Rio Gallegos city. Two drivers rotated every several hours as the students caught whatever sleep they could.
“As far as the eye could see, there was just land and sky, going on forever,” Pimthichar recalled parts of her desolate bus ride.
The phone signal was almost absent, and as the journey pummeled north, both Pimthichar and Thanakorn wept. She felt disappointed that her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had been cut short, while Thanakorn felt a real sense of separation in having to leave his host family.
They traversed through Chubut and Rio Negro provinces in their second day of nonstop travel April 13, clocking about 2,300 kilometers so far.
After another rough night on the bus, the students approached Buenos Aires at 9:30am April 14. Weary and bus-worn, the students had completed a non-stop journey of 3,246 kilometers in a little over two days. Thanathorn had spent about 3,348 kilometers by car, including the first leg of his trip.
To compare, the distance between Los Angeles and New York is 4,501 kilometers, and a driving route from Luang Prabang to Singapore through Thailand is 3,190 kilometers.
But their troubles were far from over. Thanakorn, Pimthichar, and the handful of other Thai students were put in an indefinite quarantine at a hotel by the Thai Embassy staff, who worked frantically to find a flight home for the returnees.
The students were told they could not set one foot outside the hotel until it was to get on a flight home. No one knew when that would happen.
“We kept getting false hope about when we would be able to get home, whereas the German students went home soon after,” Thanakorn said.
Wait and Wait Some More
The diplomatic staff did not only have to struggle with the mass cancellations of international flights, but also navigated through rigid and nearly impossible criteria set by the government in Bangkok.
Requirements include fit-to-fly certificates issued by local doctors at a time when many hospitals were already overwhelmed. Some flights were secured, only to be cancelled later.
The students didn’t have any laptops with them. So they entertained themselves by walking as far as the lobby, and gazing out the windows at Buenos Aires citizens who at that time were not practicing social distancing yet. The country soon counted over 10,000 cases, mostly in the capital.
“We played cards and anything we could get our hands on since we had literally nothing left to do,” Pimthichar, who had become used to snowboarding and hiking in Ushuaia, added, “We couldn’t get any fresh air, either.”
Finally, after 34 days inside the hotel, the Thai students were able to leave on May 18.
Packing their bags at 3am, the students rushed to catch a Latam flight from Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires to Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The group was joined by a Thai chef and students evacuated from Uruguay. From there, they flew across the ocean towards the Netherlands.
Although they were relieved that they found a flight that would bring them back to Thailand, that part of the journey was ironically the most dangerous for Thanakorn and Pimthichar.
“This was the scariest part. No one was practicing social distancing and the plane was fully packed. Everyone was kissing in the airport, and there seemed to be no fear of the virus,” Pimthichar said.
“But the Thai embassy people told us to be very careful, wear masks, and wipe anything we touched with alcohol,” she continued. “We were told that if one of us was careless, we could infect and endanger our 50 other friends.”
Some slept, some stayed awake through the whole flight out of paranoia. Upon landing in Amsterdam, the students rushed out of the plane and into the arms of Thai embassy employees who were waiting for them with a care package that included face masks, Dutch candy, and a box of chicken krapao with rice, topped with a fried egg and nuggets.
“It tasted like the best krapao I had ever eaten in my life,” Pimthichar said.
There and Back Again, Hopefully
The final push was a Royal Dutch Airlines flight at 5:30pm the same day, destination: Bangkok. Pimthichar and Thanakorn recalled it was practically an empty flight, with only 50 people onboard.
Finally, on May 20 at 9:30am, their 38-day journey spanning about 23,982 kilometers – or about 60 percent of the Earth’s circumference – came to a relatively happy ending. The group went into quarantine and were released without anyone having contracted the coronavirus.
Today, Thanakorn and Pimthichar are back at their Thai schools, their exchange program having been gutted.
“I really feel like my personality has changed. I think I’m a lot stronger and more decisive because of the journey,” Pimthichar said. “I feel so small, and the world is so huge and far.”
In his Bangkok home, Thanakorn has brought back a piece of South America with him. To cure his heartache, he picked up a habit of sipping mate through bombilla straws and occasionally cooking chipa baked cheese rolls and reviro fried dough.
Both of them said they hoped to be back when the world returned to normalcy.
“There’s still so many places I haven’t gone and I want to go to them all, especially back to Tierra del Fuego,” Pimthichar said.
“I will make it back to my host family one day, but it might take a while,” said Thanakorn.
Argentina has recorded up to 1.4 million infection cases, with at least 39,305 fatalities, as of publication time. The grim figures are a far cry to Thailand, which counts about 4,000 total cases and 60 deaths.