The past few months have been a crazy time for everyone around the world. For those travelling like myself, things seemed to escalate rather rapidly. So I’m here to share my story of what backpacking Asia during the Coronavirus outbreak was really like …
Similar to the 5 stages of grief, my experience backpacking through Vietnam and Cambodia during the beginning of the outbreak has been a process. Let’s hop into it!
Flying from Australia to Vietnam, through Singapore:
I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 16th. I was a tad concerned about flying from Perth to Hanoi, as I had a connecting flight in Singapore. By that time, Singapore was hit badly by the virus with the number of cases skyrocketing each day. I had been to the airport before but it was different this time around. Almost everyone I saw was wearing a mask, the airport was dead and both my flight to Singapore and Hanoi were empty. I’m talking only a handful of people on the flight, empty!!
This was the first time I saw stations set up where airport officials were taking temperatures of people passing by. At this point my biggest concern was getting into Vietnam because I was just getting over a cold and was worried my temperature might be slightly above normal. Luckily, all was good and I made it past immigration upon landing in Hanoi.
Travelling from Hanoi to Saigon :
During the beginning of my travels through Vietnam I had a few concerning thoughts. Hanoi was quite close to China – where the worst of the outbreak was at that time. Those brief moments of concern were quickly drowned out by more denial. “Surely it won’t go on for much longer”, “It’s not that serious”, “Vietnam seems to be handling it well so I’m fine”. Those were just a few thoughts that took over whenever the topic came up.
Besides the Hanoi night market being closed, I had heard schools were closed already in Vietnam so my original plan of teaching was cast aside. I came into the country with a 3 month, multiple entry visa so I planned on travelling for a bit and reassessing when the schools opened. Other than that, things didn’t seem to be too unusual or concerning. Everything appeared to be carrying on as usual.
With the idea of backpacking Asia for a few months in mind, I did some of the typical touristy things like visiting Ha Long Bay. After speaking to our tour guide on the boat, he told us that he’s never seen it so empty during high season. There were only a handful of boats at the port, whereas there’s usually hundreds around.
I’m not going to lie, it seemed like a tourist’s dream. There weren’t many people around and every other traveller I spoke to seemed to have the same mentality. We didn’t think much of it because we assumed people were too scared to go to Vietnam at that time because of its close proximity to China. With an abundance of people wearing face masks, taking temperatures upon boarding our boat for Ha Long Bay and having to wear a face mask when we got off the boat to cycle around, we assumed the country had things under control.
Things started to escalate when I arrived at Phong Nha and really noticed how the virus was affecting tourism in Vietnam. Busy spots were empty and not a single hostel dorm room was full. At this point, the schools had been closed for a few weeks already and were said to continue staying closed for weeks to come.
Vietnam to Cambodia:
Since the schools were still closed, I planned to travel to Cambodia with my new friend Lucy. She wanted to spend her birthday on the Cambodian island, Koh Rong so we were in a bit of a time crunch to get there. We took a night bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh and continued on to Koh Rong from there. We must have crossed the border just a DAY or two before the land borders were closed.
Still in denial about the situation, it really didn’t feel necessary to stop travelling at this point. We would see some people were wearing masks but those who were would take them on and off, defeating the purpose of wearing one to begin with. Eventually we heard from someone we met in Hoi An who was put into a quarantine in the North of Vietnam. We were happy we left Vietnam when we did but were still in denial.
When things started to get worse …
Our island time was seldom interrupted by the news so we continued to Siem Reap, taking a 13 hour overnight bus there on March 12th. We checked into our hostel and immediately noticed things seemed more serious. We were given a notice to sign in regards to how we were feeling. It also asked if we had come into contact with someone with the virus and hand sanitizer was everywhere in sight.
I started to hear from others who were backpacking Asia that they were cutting their trip short and going home because their government had advised them to. The wheels started turning and I wondered when the same would happen with Canada.
At this stage in the game I was waking up every morning to countless messages from friends and family at home. I know they were just concerned for my wellbeing but at the time it was so annoying. It felt like every day was automatically off to a bad start, being bombarded with horrible news.
Lucy and I found ourselves singing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me” and making jokes about the situation. We wanted to stay so badly and hated the thought of our time spent backpacking Asia getting cut short. Little did we know what was about to happen …
By March 14th my cousin who works as a travel agent in Canada notified me of some changes. The government sent out a statement calling all Canadians abroad to come home.
It was frustrating because it seemed as if Asia had been dealing the virus quite well. Meanwhile, I knew if I returned home I’d be living with my parents, have no job, no car and no independence.
Asking other Canadians about their plans:
With this new information at hand, I started to reach out to other Canadians I knew who were backpacking Asia as well. Most of them had returned home or had flights booked. Most of the friends I was travelling with were from the UK and weren’t receiving the same sense of urgency to come home from their families. So I took all of this into consideration over the next few days.
The calm before the storm …
Trying to make the most of the time I had in Siem Reap, a few of us went to the circus there on the night of the 16th. Aside from the temperature check before entering, it was a nice escape from virus talk.
By this point I was trying to make sense of everything going on. I was angry because while I was still not sure of what I was going to do, it dawned on me that my plans were ruined. I was no longer going to be able to go to Laos because the possibility of being stuck there. It was also annoying thinking that I probably wouldn’t be spending my 25th birthday on a Thai island as I originally planned. It was truly a bummer.
The bargaining started when I booked a flight to Bangkok on March 17th. I told myself that once I got to Bangkok I could either go home from there or continue backpacking Asia with other travellers I had met, starting in Thailand. I had a feeling I should come home at this point and my cousin reached out to me again with an emergency fare through Air Canada to get me home.
Decision time …
As I told my cousin to book the flight home I couldn’t help think about all the what ifs … “If only I had left on this trip earlier and would’ve had more time to travel”. “If only I had met these friends earlier”, “If I get stuck in Thailand, would it really be that bad?”. The list went on and on.
I’m sure everyone else who was backpacking Asia was going through the same thought process. Deciding to go home wasn’t easy for anyone. Ultimately I knew that things were going to get worse before they got better. I couldn’t handle waking up to the stress of deciding whether or not to continue travelling.
I’m coming home …
While I’m no stranger to crying in airports or on airplanes, this time hit differently. As I hopped in my Grab and said bye to some amazing people I was luckily enough to spend the past month with, the tears were flowing.
The 12 hour flight from Tokyo to Canada was filled with a rollercoaster of emotions. From having a weird person beside me (a story will be coming soon), to thinking about how much things will suck at home, it was rough.
I landed in Toronto March 18th and was honestly shocked by the ‘precautions’ they took at the airport. Beside a sheet with information about quarantining and a sign at immigration, nothing else happened. No one was taking temperatures or asking questions about where I had been. It was shocking that in such a dire situation, it didn’t seem to be taken that seriously?
Let the quarantine begin:
As soon as I walked out of the airport into the dark and cold weather, I couldn’t help but cry. I wasn’t where I wanted to be. All of my plans were forced to change because of this virus. I felt sorry for myself and for everyone who was experiencing a similar change of plans.
The first few days of my quarantine were tough, only being allowed in one room of the house. Not being able to cook my own meals or have my independence was annoying to say the least. I knew that I was doing the right thing coming back but I was still sad about being home.
After a few days of settling in at home I came to accept what was going on. I’ve been keeping myself busy with exercise, art, working on my writing, among other projects. It’s also helped to contact old and new friends.
If you’re struggling to keep your mind off things, there’s so much you can do from home! Check my latest post for 15 travel related to do while in quarantine.
I’ve also realized that if I had continued to travel a few things would’ve happened. I’d get stuck somewhere with little resources to go around during a pandemic. I would also be continuing to contribute to the death rate by not staying home and putting others at risk.
While this situation is bigger than all of us, I’ve found some comfort in the fact that we’re all in this together.
So what was backpacking Asia during the COVID-19 outbreak really like? Quite frankly, it was so strange. I’ve never experienced travel like this before and I hope we won’t have to again!
Although I won’t be travelling until the virus has been resolved, I’ll be posting new content and upcoming blogs on my Instagram. Make sure to give it a follow and check out my Tik Tok (@spellboundtravels) as well, while you’re at it!
I hope everyone is staying safe and thanks to all of the frontline workers who are risking their lives to help everyone else each day.
Until next week!