Living Overseas During the COVID-19 Outbreak - Hole in the Donut Travel

What it’s Like to Live in Thailand During the COVID-19 Outbreak

For the past 13+ years I’ve traveled the world to bring my readers stories about far-flung places. Eight of those years were spent traveling with no home base, just me and my suitcase, going from country to country and city to city. As many of my readers know, about three years ago I decided I wanted a permanent home base again. Frankly, I was tired of lugging around everything I owned. I settled down in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is located in the north of the country. Since then, I’ve continued to travel 4-5 months per year and returned home to rest whenever I’m not traveling. A month ago, that came to a crashing halt. Overnight, I was faced with the prospect of living overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Living overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak

Living overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here I am, picking up carry out food from my favorite coffee shop, Cozy Cafe.

My travel plan for this spring was to spend April in Spain, then go on to Switzerland and perhaps to the island of Crete before returning to Thailand for the rest of the summer. This fall I was thinking about a trip to Mongolia and Bhutan, and a return visit to Nepal to visit my adopted family there. Obviously, none of that is going to happen. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I’ve cancelled my spring travels and realize I may also not be able to travel this fall either. Americans residing or traveling overseas were faced with a decision: “do I stay or do I go?” A couple of weeks ago the State Department issued an alert, advising all Americans to return home or risk staying overseas indefinitely. Since my only home is in Thailand the decision was quite easy for me. This is as good a place as any to hunker down.

For the longest time, the number of reported cases in Thailand remained static at 50. However, the numbers began to climb about ten days ago. As of today there are 1,045 reported cases in all of Thailand. There have been rumors that the count is not accurate, that many people have died and their deaths were recorded as pneumonia, especially before people started to grasp what was really happening with the Coronavirus. Here in Chiang Mai they claim there are only five documented cases, but 274 suspected cases. No one seems to know for sure what that 274 number represents. As a result, most people are being very cautious.

The central government has been slow to take measures, instead leaving the decisions to regional Governors. In Chiang Mai province, the Governor ordered the closure of all gyms, spas, massage businesses, playgrounds, entertainment venues, bars, cock fights, boxing arenas, and tourist street markets about a week ago. At that point, I could still go out and walk around, as long as I practiced social distancing and wore a mask, but I had already decided to stay in my apartment as much as possible. I left only twice, one day to get cash at the ATM and go to the grocery store, the second time to pick up produce at the market.

Yesterday morning, the Prime Minister finally declared a national state of emergency. That meant all retail stores, malls, most service entities, and many other things were required to close. Restaurants were closed except for carry-out and delivery. Hotels remained open, but restaurants within hotels were only authorized to serve their guests. Grocery stores, fresh markets, banks, pharmacies, medical offices, hospitals, and gas stations remain open, as they are considered vital. People have now been ordered to stay in their homes except for picking up food or groceries, going to the bank or pharmacy, getting medical treatment, or helping family members.

I have to say that I’m going a little stir crazy, which has surprised me. As a writer, I spend loads of time alone and it’s never bothered me before. But I usually went out once a day, if only to have a cup of coffee in my favorite coffee shop. I think it’s more the idea that I can’t go out to a restaurant or meet my friends that bothers me. It’s a little like losing my freedom. It’s made me think about the conditions under which prisoners live, cooped up in cells…but at least they have daily human contact. Intellectually, though, I know it’s the right thing to do and that we’ll all get through this if we just hunker down.

So far, it’s the little kindnesses that have surprised me most. For example:

Although the World Health Organization says not to wear a mask unless you are sick, in Asia masks are commonly worn. While I’m not worried about catching the virus without a face mask, I do worry that Thais will look on me with alarm or even anger if I go around without a mask. Unfortunately, there were no masks to be had. I spent one entire day searching for one but they were completely sold out in every store I checked. I told one of my Thai friends about my predicament and the next day she handed me two high-grade N-95 masks.

I live in a serviced residence that provides cleaning and linens twice a week, and almost all of the year-round residents are over 60. Our housekeepers are all sweet young girls from Burma but I didn’t know if they had been briefed on what was happening and the extra precautions they should be taking. Were wearing masks and gloves? Were they using new cleaning rags for each apartment and using disinfectant cleaning products? If not, they could easily carry virus from an apartment where someone was infected into mine. Our management made all the requested changes within two hours. They really take care of us here.

No one knows how long this lockdown will last, but I’m prepared for the long run. I have enough rice to last me at least six months, so I’m definitely not going to starve! But I also have the option to order home delivery from my favorite coffee shop, Cozy Cafe, and their Thai food is scrumptious. I’m in touch with my expat and Thai friends via messenger, Line, and WeChat. My Thai friends message me whenever there’s new news about closures because they know I can’t read Thai, so I’m always kept abreast of the current situation. My expat friends, who are from all over the world, chat with me throughout the day. Every other day or so I’ll get a message to retrieve a bag that’s been left hanging on my front doorknob. Inevitably these little surprise packages contain slices of homemade cake, fruit, the other day it was a package of stone ground oats. I never know what it’s going to be. We keep each other informed and amused.

Deviate podcast by Rolf Potts, What it’s like to travel during COVID-19, reports from around the world

Deviate podcast by Rolf Potts, What it’s like to travel during COVID-19, reports from around the world. To listen to the podcast, click on the link in the paragraph below.

I agonized over whether or not to continue to publish travel stories on my blog and finally decided to stop for the moment. It just feels trite. No one wants to read about travel right now. But I do think that people might like to read what it’s like to be living overseas during the COVID-19 outbreak, so I’ll be your foreign correspondent from Thailand as we all move through this pandemic. And if you are interested in hearing more from other intrepid travelers who were on the road when the lockdowns began, you will be fascinated by the latest Deviate podcast by Rolf Potts, titled “What it’s like to travel during COVID-19: Reports from around the world.” Potts interviews a dozen or so travel writers/bloggers, digital nomads, and expats (including me) about our experiences in a variety of countries and the different reasons we chose to stay or go.

I have always believed that everything happens for a reason and I’m looking at this order to stay at home as an opportunity. It means I will have time to study and learn more about Buddhism, something I’ve always wanted to do. And more time to meditate and do Yoga. I hate to cook but I’ve be forced to do it, and as a result I’m learning that it’s not as hard as I thought it was.

My enduring hope is that all of us will emerge from this situation with a better sense of what’s truly valuable in life, and an understanding that caring for each other is the most important thing in life. Not material possessions. Not political differences. Not ethnicity or religion. Just the fact that we’re all one human family.

If you have any questions about the situation in Thailand or what it’s like to live here during the national emergency lockdown, leave me a comment below and I’ll try hard to answer your questions. Until then, stay safe and healthy by obeying physical distancing recommendations, wearing a mask, avoiding touching hard surfaces outside your home, and washing your hands obsessively.

What it’s Like to Live in Thailand During the COVID-19 Outbreak

50 Comments on “What it’s Like to Live in Thailand During the COVID-19 Outbreak

  1. Good morning Barbara,
    We met on the Viking cruise back in 2015- as my friend and I enjoyed our time on the Rhine we became aware of your task each day. I try to read your blog and have enjoyed them all. This one in particular answers my question – Where would Barbara be? My next question is – why Thailand?
    Keep on writing about life there. Glad to hear you are safe and healthy.

    • Hi Irene: Of course I remember you! You’ve turned out to be one of my most loyal readers and most prolific commenters. I can’t even tell you how much that means to me. Why Thailand? It’s hard to quantify. Years ago, before I ever visited Thailand, I had absolutely no interest in going anywhere in Asia. I came here the first time because one of my fellow real estate brokers married a Thai woman. They had an import-export business and she spent six months each year in Thailand and 6 months in the U.S. He said I should go to Thailand and let his wife show me around. So I did. The moment my feet touched the ground here, I felt like I’d come home. I could hardly stay away. From that time, I knew I would end up here. Still, I took it slowly. I wintered here for five years before settling permanently. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else. Sending you a big virtual hug.

  2. Loved reading this, Barbara. Could one of the bags on your door knob be from Clarene?…sounds like her m.o….lol

    • LOL, it most certainly was. She leaves me goodies all the time. And now that I’m cooking I can return the favor occasionally.

  3. Hello Barbara,

    Thank you for sharing your current experiences in Chiang Mai. I look forward to your blog as life progresses with Covid-19. Stay healthy and safe.


  4. Barbara, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece about the realities of life for you in Thailand, and in particular Chiang Mai, during the the Corona virus pandemic. It exudes calmness and rationality. I love the little kindnesses that you have been shown by friends and neighbors!! The ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ recommendations are, to the largest extent, being followed here and I think many of us who are usually more active have experienced some stir craziness. Many are trying to bolster spirits by daily thinking up new ways to continue to enjoy friendships with a little online fun with travel trivia, travel games and photos. So with more time on my hands to read, like so many others here, I would love to read more travel blogs from you in the hopes that one day soon this will all be over and the travel lovers among us can once again feed our passion to travel. At the same time, not forgetting others who are currently living a nightmare with their own illness or a family member or friend’s, hearing more about the situation where you live and what you’re going through would also be welcomed.

    • Hi Sylvia: Thanks so much for your comment – it meant a lot to me. I intend to continue writing about day-to-day life here in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps you’ve already seen my second story about the issue of whether or not to wear a mask. I also have a humorous story coming up about why there’s no lack of toilet paper in Thailand. As long as all my followers keep reading, I’ll keep writing, and I may soon start to add back in some travel pieces.

  5. Like you, we decided to stay in place where we are here in Mexico, not having a home anywhere made the decision fairly easy as well. We are currently on our 10th day of self-imposed quarantine, stay safe and ma we get to travel again soon.

  6. Thanks, Barbara, for the timely story of life in Chiang Mai! And like many of your readers, I would be happy to read new travel stories if you feel like writing them!

    Things are similar here in Bangkok–I miss going to museums, art galleries, and sit-d0wn restaurants. But at least there’s lots of good take-out food within walking distance.

    The main reason I’m here is for surgery to remove a tumor from my outer ear, and despite all that’s going on with the coronavirus, Chulalongkorn Hospital performed the Mohs surgery today. That’s a big relief. I think getting surgery now in the USA would be difficult to arrange. I go back to the hospital in three days for plastic surgery to repair the damage. Then there’s a followup appointment in early May. I’m only on a 30-day permit, which I trust can be extended, though will have to return to the USA in mid-May. I look forward to returning to Thailand when it reopens to tourists.

    • Hi Bill: Glad to hear your surgery went OK the other day, though it sounds like you had to have two surgeries instead of one. The Thai government announced yesterday that all Tourist Visas issued after March 1 are to be automatically renewed without penalties for overstays, eliminating the need to stand in long lines at Immigration. Wish I could have come as planned on the 30th to see you, but next time for sure.

  7. Barbara, thank you for your update on Chiang Mai and how you are coping. It was sad for me to leave so early this year, but now that I am home in Nova Scotia, I am glad to be here learning about a whole new way to live, thanks to the virus. Like you I am wondering just what path I should take for my blog writing now that my travelling days may be coming to an end. I’ll look forward to reading your future posts on life in Thailand. I am especially interested in hearing about the outcome of the forest fires.

    • Fortunately or unfortunately, wearing of masks in Chiang Mai has been advised for months, as it has some of the dirtiest air in the world. Currently fires are raging in the adjoining provinces, exacerbating an already dangerous level of pollution. Good for you that someone gave you 2 N-95 masks. In Bangkok we have been seeing masks worn by 95% of those out of their homes, and hats with transparent face hoods are now on sale. I hope that your visa status allows for long-term residence, because many frequent travelers are facing major obstacles. Take care and stay healthy.

      • Hi Stephen. Yes, I’m on a Non-Immigrant O visa with a retirement extension, so no problem for me to stay. This is my only home in the world, so I have nowhere else to go. Even if I did, I’d probably opt to stay here. The forest fires this year are absolutely out of control. I’ve never seen it this bad for so long. Fortunately, I think the government is FINALLY taking the problem seriously. They’ve now closed Doi Suthep National Park completely, and they’ve arrested several people for setting fires. Apparently, people living in the villages in the hills are now so badly affected that they are reporting people who set fires. Hopefully, once people become more aware of the dangers of the particulates, they will begin to get it under control. If not, I may have to consider leaving, which I really don’t want to do. But I have to consider my health.

    • Hi Betty: Glad to hear you made it home safe. The forest fires are absolutely out of control. There are currently 121 fires across Doi Suthep National Forest. The 2.5 particulate reading is in the hazardous range at least part of every day. I can’t open my doors or windows or the whole apartment reeks of smoke. The government announced two days ago that all of the fires were finally under control. The following day, several more were set. They’ve arrested several people who were caught setting fires. Yesterday they arrested yet another man who has admitted to walking down a path and using a cigarette lighter to set fires along the way. It’s madness.

      • Thanks for the update on the forest fire situation which seems to be getting worse. Hard to understand some people at times. What is this human infatuation with fire setting, I wonder. Hope you don’t chock on all that smoke. Must so hard on your lungs.

        • Hi Betty: The smoke is the worst I’ve ever seen it. Mostly, the burning is caused by poverty, corruption, and lack of education. Farmers burn their fields to remove the corn stalk stubble so they can plant three times a year. The major food processing corporation pushes them to do so, even though the government has now asked farmers to plant only twice a year. No doubt, there are incentives for officials to look the other way. Plus, there is apparently a mushroom that will only grow in ashes following a fire. This particular variety of mushroom can be sold for a high price, and that’s attractive to poor villagers. The combination of insufficient rain; tinder-dry conditions; and inaccessible, steep terrain in the national park has created a sort of perfect storm. However, this year it’s so bad that the hill tribe villagers are suffering from the smoke and have started turning in fire starters. Maybe this is a turning point.

  8. Lovely to hear from you, Barbara, and very interesting. Here things are very tough too. Will contact directly. Lots of love for now, that’s not contagious is sent this way 🙂

    • Hi Jenny: You’ve also been on my mind a lot, but I’ve been following you on Instagram, so I know you’re OK so far. Sending loads of non-contagious love your way as well. Love to connect via Skype one of these days.

  9. Hi Barbara,

    Very nice post….this is , indeed, a time of reflection and getting to know ourselves…..and observing the universe as our university. Lucky you having all the Thai food at your disposal. I am in San Miguel de Allende, MX, and really miss good Asian food.

    Keep safe,

    • Hi Paula! So good to hear from you and know that you are safe and healthy. As for Thai food…what can I say. It’s one of the main reasons I can’t stand the thought of leaving here. I’m totally addicted to it. xoxoxo

  10. Hi Barbara! Definitely different times here on the OBX. It unfortunately has caused true anger between locals & those being banned from entering. Some question why locals can leave and not be forced into quarantine when they return or at least tested. It’s sad to see the division. Me-I sit back and find the beauty in my own back yard. Stay healthy and stay in touch!!!

    • Hi Colleen: I have to say I’m quite sad about what seems to be happening on the Outer Banks. Good ole’ boy mentality seems to be in control. One Realtor from our previous agency, whom I used to consider a friend, has posted absolutely irresponsible things on Facebook – you may know to whom I am referring. Those who still think this is the flu, or can be compared to the number of people who die in car accidents every year, are absolute ignoramuses. The fact that locals still think it’s OK for them to go off-island and come back, as if they alone are immune, is absolutely astonishing. I hope you and Steven stay safe and healthy! Sending loads of love.

  11. I was very interested to read about how they are coping in Chiang Mai as my cousin and family live there. Lindsay is an Australian music teacher at the International School. He also sings and plays at various bars etc around the city. Maybe you have met him.
    Looking forward to hearing more about your living over there.

    • Hi Lynda. I’ve never met your cousin but you never know…this is pretty small place. I’ll be publishing a series of stories about living here during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some will be more serious, dealing with health issues. Others will be much lighter, as I take a humorous look at the differences between Thai and Western culture. Thanks so much for your support.

  12. Barbara – I have been reading you ever since I contemplated and completed my long trip 1 1/2 years ago. I have been wondering how bloggers and expats were doing around the world. I look forward to getting your inside view. Thanks for sharing and be safe!

    • Thank YOU Sharon. I’m doing very well and hope you are staying safe and healthy as well. I appreciate you letting me know that you’re a long-term reader. I so appreciate all my readers, and especially those who take the time to comment.

  13. This is great time to practice Budhism, and to climb up and down to the temple on the hill… when you’ll be free again to come and go wherever. It will be soon, we all hope. Be safe, I love your writing… Someday I’ll tell you my story, for I used to travel and write in Spanish.
    Love and light!

    • Hi Tara! Thanks so much for your wise comment. I went a little stir crazy the first week, but now I seem to have settled in to this new routine. And I really appreciate you letting me know you enjoy my blog – comments like yours keep me going.

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience in Thailand. In the U.S., we’re so focused on what’s happening here that I’ve wondered what’s happening else where in the world. Your post is a nice escape from this dreaded pandemic.

    • Thanks Al. I’ll be publishing more about what it’s like to live here during COVID-19. Look for a more humorous story next week! We can all use a little laugh, especially in these times.

  15. I have enjoyed your blog for years. Do keep safe. I would be interested in updates on things in Chiang Mai, from time to time.

    • Hi Charlotte. Thanks so much for your kind comment about my blog. I often wonder if I should stop publishing it, but then some article I write prompts loads of people I rarely hear from to comment. That’s what truly keeps me going!

  16. Barbara,

    I think I would like to interview you again given the changes. In Mexico, life is pretty much the same as what you described. We are on the 10th day of a stay at home lockdown.

    That was driven by the Governor and not the President. The Mexicans are slowly coming to grips with the gravity of the situation.

    • Hi Marc: Happy to do another interview. The government here sounds a lot like what you’re experiencing in Mexico, though they seem to have woken up over the past week or so. We now are living under a declared national emergency order, though the government STILL has not ordered an all-over stay-at-home order. The only people who are restricted from going out are those over 70 or children under 5, I think. Everything is closed, with the exception of essential businesses like grocery stores, fresh markets, pharmacies, medical services, gas stations, and banks. Restaurants can only do take-away or home delivery. Gradually, our cases are increasing – today we’re up to 1,722. All we can do is wait it out and hope the government decides to take this more seriously.

  17. I’ve been wondering how you’ve been during this world crisis of ours. Very glad to hear you are coping as well as many of us but you get the added treat of goodies on your doorknob!
    Which reminds me to make some brownies for my daughter and grandson and then drop them off on their doorknob! ?
    Stay well and I’m relieved to know you are in a safe place surrounded by kind people.
    I’ve been reminiscing on past travels focusing on Ronda, Spain earlier today. Such a beautiful place.

    • Hi Vivian: Ah, Ronda! I was due to be there in just a few days, but of course, had to cancel my spring travels. That’s OK. Spain will still be there when we can travel again. Glad to hear you are safe and sound and practicing social distancing. Take care xoxo

  18. Thank you, Barbara, for sharing what it’s like to be in a foreign country during this time. I also love your travel Blog and look forward to reading more in the future. You take me to places I’ve never gone and will never get to go.
    Here in Hillsborough County (Tampa) Fl, we’re to stay at home except for very necessary trips – food, medicine, doctor. I’ve discovered ordering on line.
    Take care of yourself.

    • Hi Virginia. I’ve also taken to ordering online. It’s not the same as being able to go to my favorite cafe and while away a couple or three hours, but it’s the safe thing to do at the moment. I hope we get out of this sooner rather than later, but I suspect it’s going to be a long haul. Take care, and thanks for your kind comment about my blog 🙂

  19. It’s very interesting to hear your perspective on the coronavirus outbreak from Thailand. Here in Washington state we have all been told to “Stay Home Stay Safe” as well.

    • Fortunately, Susan, you have an informed and enlightened Governor in Inslee. I find it astonishing what’s going on in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott is literally putting people in harm’s way. Ugh! Stay safe and well, and thanks for your comment.

    • And for you and your family Phil. I’m fine for now. We only have 32 cases in the province where I live, but even so I’m staying inside except to grocery shop or drop off laundry. Stay safe! xo

    • Thanks so much Lisa. Good to hear you enjoy my blog, because I’m really wondering these days if I should keep it going. Your comment helped a lot.

  20. Hi, Barbara:
    I had been wondering about you since it had been a while since you posted. I loved your article, your insightfulness and how personable and relatable you are. I do beg to differ, though, on one point. Many of us would love to continue reading your travel stories, since we can’t travel at this time. Reading about your experiences abroad while under quarantine and other travelers’ is also illuminating. One of the things that makes me so mad about this whole thing is NOT being able to go anywhere. In many ways, I think it would be much more exciting to spend the lockdown in Thailand than the US. Stay safe, healthy, happy and strong. Sincerely, Charlie

    • Thanks for your kind comment Charlie. I may start to add travel content back in at some point in the near future, but for now I’m going to focus on what it’s like to live in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic. You take care and be safe.

  21. Barbara thank you so much for this article I will continue to follow all your writings and I’m praying for your safety we are all one human family please continue to be safe as I know you will sending love and prayers your way

    • Thank you so much Julia. I just saw that Dare County decided to close down to anyone who is not a resident. Stay well. I wouldn’t want to lose you.

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