Top: Daungjai Aesara and Tamas Toth.
The day he steps foot out of state quarantine is the day he will propose to her. But for now, showing her the ring via video call and setting their Facebook status to “engaged” will have to do.
Such is the story of Daungjai Aesara, 28, a teacher in Prachinburi, and her Hungarian fiance Tamas Toth, 30. They are one of the many tales of love separated by the coronavirus pandemic worldwide, of relationships suddenly bereft of union by unprecedented disruption to international travels in recent memory.
“He said if he knew it was going to be like this, we would’ve gotten married before flying back,” Daungjai recalled with a laugh. “He already showed me the ring via video call. He offered to mail it over, but I said it would be strange to send a ring by DHL!”
Thailand shut its borders in March and later eased the ban in October, but travel restrictions that vary from country to country, the amount of required paperwork, the costly mandatory 14-day quarantine, and the risks of flying during the pandemic in general continue to keep many pairs of lovers half a world away.
Always a cosmopolitan society at heart, Thailand has never been a stranger to interracial dating. There are so many of them affected by the pandemic that a community was formed to lobby the government for a more lenient border policy for couples, including those who hadn’t tied the knot.
The group, called Love Is Not Tourism, collected 5,000 signatures for its petition and submitted it to the Prime Minister’s Office in August.
The petition was forwarded to the foreign ministry. Just two months after, in October, the first group of non-residents was allowed into the country.
Existing Only Online
Despite the partial reopening, however, it’s still a common experience for long distance couples to miss an entire year of married lives, and even their child’s first year.
New dad David Ball only got to spend time with his young daughter Araya “Lily” Ball for three months after her birth when he had to fly back to the United Kingdom in March. He was stranded there by the border shutdowns as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc in Britain. David hasn’t been able to come back to his family in Thailand since then.
“We video call every day. I constantly tell Lily that the man on the phone is her dad,” David’s wife, Thai national Benjawan Srireuang, said.
Rungrudeerat Haluzan, 43, fought back tears on the phone as she talked about the first year of marriage to Slovenian Carlo Haluzan, 50 – almost completely lived via video call.
“All of the first year of our marriage is gone,” she said. “Instead of getting to be together, getting to start a family, going out to eat together, there’s none of that. Instead we call each other about how much we miss each other, tears in our eyes.”
Although it is now technically possible to enter Thailand, many travelers cannot shoulder the financial burden or the time needed away from work for their 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
Some countries, like Australia, also ban their citizens from traveling overseas in the pandemic, with few exemptions. The policy means there is no reunion on the horizon for Trissida Chwiwat, 32, and her Australian boyfriend Simon Bagnall, 35, who flew back home last February.
“I asked him outright, ‘What about us?’ And he said very firmly, that no matter what, he would wait for me, however long it takes,” Trissida said. “I knew then that he’s the one. I’m not afraid anymore.”
But travel isn’t always guaranteed in countries that do allow overseas journeys, either. Finnish national Thomas Mikael Holmberg, 50, and Orapan Pumthong, 34, learned that the hard way. Orapan, a shopkeeper in Suphan Buri, said her visa application has been rejected three times so far.
“The last time, they said they didn’t believe that I’m his girlfriend. The embassy just said it was at their discretion,” Orapan said. “If I wasn’t his girlfriend, why would I ask for a visa three times, and use so much money? I’ve done all that they asked, and all I got back is tears.”
Challenge for LGBTs
The whole situation is even trickier for same-sex couples.
Since Thai laws do not recognize marriage between LGBT couples – as highlighted so often by gender equality advocates – there is no way for them to present marriage certificates when applying for visas to visit their better half abroad.
Charoen “Jerry” Singkaew and his British boyfriend Andrew Hutchinson have been dating since 2015. The pair was trying to meet in a country in Europe where the pandemic’s tolls weren’t as terrible as the U.K. and travel was more convenient. But Charoen’s Schengen visa application was declined due to the lack of a marriage certificate.
“As we are a same sex couple, marriage isn’t legal in Thailand so that prevented us from doing that,” Hutchinson said in online messages. “If it was an option we would have been married now.”
The two run a YouTube channel. Their new videos about visiting Koh Tao were filmed in September, the last time the two saw each other.
“Although we’ve been together for five, six years, the Thai law won’t let us meet because we don’t have any legal or family ties. So now we’re stuck,” Charoen said.
Transgender woman Sompop Maliyam, 36, and her longtime Canadian-American boyfriend Joseph took the pre-emptive solution to this problem by marrying in August – via a Zoom call with a Utah county clerk.
Sompop said they went through with it not only to solidify their 13-year relationship, but also in a bid to facilitate Joseph’s flight to Thailand. However, since the marriage wasn’t recognized in the kingdom, their effort almost ended up in vain.
After a flurry of calls to various government agencies, Sompop was able to explain her situation to the Thai embassy in New York. Luckily, one employee there was sympathetic to her plight. Her husband soon flew to her in October on a business visa.
Sompop said her legal status shouldn’t have been up to debate in the first place, and if COVID-19 proves anything about humankind, it is the urgency of why same-sex marriage should be finally endorsed under Thai laws.
“The problem is, I’m male. I’m already married in the US, but Thailand doesn’t recognize that. Thailand says they accept LGBT rights, but not really,” she said. “It felt like handcuffs.”
Sompop added, “Thailand is ready, the citizens are ready, the LGBT community are ready, but the people in charge are not.”
Break It Or Make It?
Alas, with the global epidemic ripping into tatters well-made plans and promises, not every couple can last till death do them part.
The difficulty of long distance relationships, the uncertainty of not knowing when they can meet again, and the stress can prove too much – even the founder of the Love Not Tourism group ended her own relationship during the pandemic.
“Long distance love is hard, but long distance love during COVID is twice as difficult,” Thepsawarin Tapienthong said.
A 30-year-old Thai woman who asked to go by her nickname “Nunny” said she was dumped unceremoniously via text by her British stockbroker boyfriend in November. They had been dating for four years. He had found someone new, and promptly blocked all communication with Nunny.
The stockbroker, she said, lost his patience because of Thailand’s stringent anti-coronavirus measures.
“He would demand to know why he needed to quarantine in Thailand, if he already got tested for COVID to fly. ‘If Thailand is still closed like this, Thailand is stupid. Thailand is a tourist country,’ he kept saying to me. But it’s not like I can do anything about it,” she said.
“He chose someone that was close by, someone he could physically go see,” Nunny went on. “His friends and I are surprised that he gave up this easily because of COVID. Everyone had told me he was the one.”
Other couples were able to overcome their distance and reunite. Phonrat Wisetphongphan, 27, was elated when his Japanese girlfriend Yumika, 25, closed the distance and moved to Thailand after half a year apart.
“Of course, the first thing I did was to hug her,” Phonrat said. “A phone call isn’t the same. Seeing the other person eating via video call and sitting down together to eat is a completely different feeling.”
Making the reverse move, Wanthana Phongphan, 27, moved to Tokyo to be with her husband Hidemi Noto – after being apart for 11 months of their first year of marriage together.
The long-awaited reunion with her husband, Wanthana said, made her suddenly bashful at their first meeting. “I became so shy. It felt like I had had a long time online boyfriend, but now he had physical form. It was like meeting him for the first time again.”
Whether they have reunited, are still apart, or have broken up, interviewed couples all had tips to offer for people currently in long distance relationships.
Wanthana and Noto kept up with the news in their partner’s country – Wanthana read COVID updates in Japan, while Noto stayed informed on what was happening in Thailand. That gave them daily things to talk about, as well as practical, helpful reminders for each other.
Taking an interest in each other’s daily activities is also important. Remind each other if there’s a class coming up. Remember the other person’s schedules so a call can be arranged smoothly. And if the COVID situation in your country is better – say, your partner can’t leave the house at all – try not to make each other so jealous.
“We never know when the next time we’re going to see each other is,” said Swedish national Przemyslaw Walkowski, who’s dating a Thai woman in a long distance relationship. “But we are doing the best we can and we keep communicating about our daily stuff and talking about our problems.”
“So keep talking with your partner and you will survive COVID.”
It’s worth noting that women interviewed for this story all agreed one one thing: being ngon – a Thai habit of giving someone the cold shoulder due to being mad or pouty – is self-destructive in a long distance relationship with a foreigner.
In fact, it only causes more arguments, since the partner is far away and cannot read one’s body language.
“Thai women, sometimes we want to stay silent instead, and be like Detective Conan, sleuthing on social media,” Daungjai said, referring to a popular detective anime. “In this situation, there is literally no other way for him to know if you’re upset. Being ngon doesn’t work.”
And finally, even when apart, keep validating and encouraging each other in your relationship. Daungjai said that she felt immensely secure in Tamas’ decision to change their Facebook status to engaged.
In the status update, he wrote in two languages: “There is no ring, just a promise. Covid keeps us apart, but my promise is stronger than any metal known to mankind!”
Are you in a long distance relationship during the pandemic? Is your romance taking a hit due to the virus? Do you have stories you want to share? Write to us!