On March 12, the WHO organisation declared COVID-19 as a pandemic and the world quickly started shutting down. I had been in Malaysia for a week. I had already been in Chiang Mai where the first case was declared a week into my month stay in January. No bother, direct flights were cancelled from China and we carried on as normal. When I reached Vietnam in February schools and Universities were shut down already because of coronavirus but everything else was operating as normal. By the end of February I spotted my first sign that things were changing – a temporary hand washing structure had been put up at the bus station in Ho Chi Minh City. Still, no need to panic.
On arrival at Penang Airport in early March, thermal scanners were set up and we were handed a medical form to complete. I’d filled these out previously when entering Australia during Swine Flu. I thought you’d hand them to Customs on the way out, Immigration officers very rarely in my experience collect these. I hadn’t had time to complete mine as it was handed to us as we were disembarking the flight and thought I’d have time to complete it at baggage claim. Immigration were collecting, there wasn’t anyone behind me so I suggested I filled it out there and then. He instead asked “Have you been in China recently”, “no”, “ok, you can go”. Remember this was pre-pandemic announcement. I’m sure within days the process was tightened and made much more efficient as that is how I’ve experienced life in Malaysia since.
We’re in unprecedented times. No government knows what to do or what is right. There isn’t a handbook, they’re all making it up, whether it’s backed up by scientific knowledge or not. When the pandemic was announced the Foreign Commonwealth Office advised British nationals against all but essential international travel. They also strongly advised that if you live in the UK and are currently travelling abroad to return NOW. Panic ensued. Do I start booking flights? Do I return to the UK? Do I return to a country which is already having daily cases in excess of Malaysia has had in total? Malaysia had just started going into it’s second wave though, yep, the first wave had already been had and quashed. A religious festival had taken place in early March with 16,000 attendees, and one person had the virus. Boom. The first cluster was born. Every day (translated to every 10 minutes), I would check the news. Tracing had immediately started, I can’t remember the stats but remember being impressed that within a few days 11,000 people had been traced and tested that were linked to the gathering. That’s something Malaysia has kept up since, contact tracing, test, quarantine. A Movement Control Order was put into effect on the 18 March. Do I go home now? The MCO was only for two weeks – let’s see what happens. Almost 11 weeks later, there’s still a Movement Control Order in place and I’m still here.
To be honest just getting back to the UK was going to be a struggle. There was an interstate ban on travel across Malaysia (still is). All internal flights were grounded, the only alternative as stated on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website is that I would have to get a taxi the whole way to Kuala Lumpur – 400 km’s. However, to get a taxi I’d have to get a letter from the Police granting me permission to travel interstate so I can show it at every roadblock we hit along the way, adding to that all taxi drivers have to be back home by 10pm, and I dread to think of the cost! Then there was the small issue of actually getting on a flight. I haven’t tried, but have read the comments on a wonderfully useful Facebook group of fellow travellers ‘stranded’ in Malaysia. Flights are advertised, paid for, cancelled. Sometimes not cancelled until you’re en route to the airport. Some have been cancelled once you’re air side, and technically the borders are closed so you can’t come back into the country. Some unfortunate travellers slept in the airport terminal for days on end. At this moment in time there are still only flights via Qatar, no direct flights back to London and with that amount of time to be travelling and to be exposed was a great concern of mine. Then what do you do when you get back to London? There have been no checks or medical forms to complete, quarantine wasn’t a requisite although I personally would have placed myself in self quarantine for 14 days (+ a few extra just in case). Officially my parents ages are in the category that the UK government deem “at risk” and the only alternative of somewhere to live was 270 miles away – how would I even get there? In hindsight, it’s not far from Durham maybe Mr Cummings could have given me a lift… Anyway, as you can gather, I chose not to go through all of that and try and wait it out where I am.
On entry to Malaysia tourists are granted a 90 days social pass visa. Whilst other ASEAN countries have announced amnesty stays till the end of June or July for those that have expired visas, Malaysia announced that tourists with expired visas can stay until the MCO is lifted and then we have 14 working days to leave, or 30 working days to request an extension (which doesn’t sound as easy as I thought it might be). The current phase of the MCO is set to end 9 June, my visa runs out ummm tomorrow… if they don’t extend it’s looking more likely that I will have to return to the UK as every other country in the world still has their borders shut to tourists. Except for Cambodia – they’re re-opening the border soon – if you have a $50,000 health insurance certificate and a medical certificate showing you have tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours which can cost between £50-£150, not forgetting having to get Police permission to travel interstate to get to the airport. When you arrive in Cambodia you will be taken to a quarantine centre to be tested again for COVID-19, you will stay there until the results come in, if you test positive you stay in their designated quarantine centre at your cost, if you are negative then you can leave but have to be re-tested on the 13th day. On top of all that I still haven’t managed to figure out how you even get a visa to get into Cambodia as Visa on Arrival and e-visas have been suspended. Then where do you go from there once your 30 day visa has expired? It’s certainly not an easy option, I’m not sure it’s meant to be.
I hope I’m not speaking too soon, but to date I haven’t regretted my decision to stay. I am very grateful to have the means to stay here. I’ve been staying in a lovely high rise apartment, I still have work that’s keeping me occupied and my current Tinder boyfriend has been with me the whole time as he (un?)fortunately came to visit me for a week during which Malaysia locked down, oops.
As at today, with a population of 32.3 million Malaysia has 7,819 confirmed cases and 115 deaths in TOTAL, no deaths for 9 consecutive days. I think that speaks for itself as to why I haven’t regretted my decision. Although this week there was a spike in numbers as a few new clusters were identified … but the key is that they have been identified and quickly! Every day, as in the UK, there is a daily news brief. Here it is led by Dr Noor Hisham, the Health Director General, who has been recognised as one of the top three doctors worldwide handling the pandemic. He has a very calming demeanour when talking about the facts and figures and explaining why regulations are needed and quite frankly I have a little bit of a crush on him. I haven’t heard or read one bad thing about him in the news or on socials. Imagine that?
So how has it been here? The MCO was essentially a lockdown, except officially it wasn’t called a lockdown. Everything closed, except for supermarkets and pharmacies, not much different to other countries around the world. There was no government approved exercise per day, in fact if you were caught out for a jog by the police then you were fined and summoned to court. The army rolled in on the second week and set up roadblocks to check where drivers were going. To be honest I expected that to be a lot more dramatic and I was up bright and early, sat on my balcony watching the main road expecting to see tanks rolling down the strip. Nothing. There are roadblocks but as I don’t drive I haven’t seen them. As the daily cases started to drop from the average of 150-175 people (cases, not deaths..), Malaysia divided into red and green zones. Some zones were absolute no-go areas. Where clusters were identified in foreign workers camps or apartment blocks then the whole area was closed off. No-one in, no-one out, barbed wire surrounding the area and the army patrolling until the virus was under control. A state was declared a green zone once there were zero cases in 14 consecutive days. We got to 10 consecutive days, then a case was confirmed, but we finally reached green. Fingers crossed it stays that way. Early May and the MCO became a CMCO – a conditional movement control order, which meant restrictions were being lifted. Malaysian government said they needed the economy to get going again. 9 out of the 13 states refused to lift the restrictions saying it was too early, legal action was threatened, Penang was the last state to adhere and even then it wasn’t well publicised that places were open.
Borders are still closed to tourists, Malays can return and special pass holders but have to undergo 14 days mandatory quarantine. Incoming passengers board buses from the airport to hotels, room service only with no interaction with the staff – for example bin bags are collected from outside the room every morning, food ordered is left outside the door etc. 46,859 have returned to Malaysia since April 3rd.
Interstate travel is still not allowed. The government announced the MCO a couple of days before it started, thinking this would be a two week thing many Malays headed back to their hometowns and villages. Whereas students stayed in their University accommodations. Once the CMCO was announced there were four days Malays were allowed to travel interstate to get back to their homes and families but they had to apply in advance through an app and it had to be approved. Then a day was allocated to each state so not everyone was travelling on the same day. All university students were tested for COVID-19 before allowing them to return home. People without police permission were turned back. This continued as a rule as the upcoming Hari Raya festival which marks the end of Ramadan is a popular time to balik kampung – return to village. Malays were encouraged to stay at home this Hari Raya, do not travel unless it’s essential and only with approved police permission. Over 1,000 fines were made on the first day and warnings across the media that those that escaped unnoticed may not be so successful trying to get back. The second day all interstate travel was stopped, regardless of whether you had permission or not. Apart from desperately wanting to explore the east coast of Malaysia these situations don’t effect me as a tourist however I’ve found it very interesting to compare how the rules and regulations are being set here compared with our home countries.
So from May 12th you could now have more than one person in a car, shops and malls could open, restaurants and cafes got ready to re-open for dine in’s, people went back to work, all of course with social distancing measures put in place and the guideline of Standard Operating Procedures were published. We could even get a Grab taxi now – only two passengers allowed and masks are mandatory in the car.
Penang has gradually been opening up over the past two weeks, we’ve had a wander to the local shopping mall a couple of times, more so as a means of exercise and lifting the sense of cabin fever. Security take your temperature at the entrances to the mall – although at one mall on our second visit they had installed a new shiny thermo machine that you stand in front of which takes your temperature – technology these days! Masks are advised to be worn in public but not mandatory. Shops have a limit to how many people they can have in store at one time, your temperature will be taken again and you get a squirt of hand sanitiser and you need to record that with your name and contact telephone number in a book, or scan a QR code on your phone. Restaurants operate in the same way except for them half of their tables have been taken out so the distance between each is 1.5m, there are crosses on the seats or tables where people shouldn’t sit. Cashless transactions are encouraged.
Bars, entertainment centres, close contact sport, gyms, swimming pools, parks, beaches (I think…), places of worship, tourist sites and the all important everyone seems to need – barbers and hairdressers are all still closed.
For us, our outings are only to the mall and the odd trip to a restaurant in George Town with a post food walk round the ghost like streets otherwise 99% of the time we are staying in the apartment still. With my ever increasing OCD anxiety tendencies I’m ok with it. Whilst places are still closed anyway. We didn’t rush out the door as soon as restrictions started lifting and it still took us five days to leave the apartment to visit the mall for the first time. Even though there had been more than 14 consecutive days without a case on the island we were still a little apprehensive that we would come across crowds like the first day of summer in UK parks and beaches, but there are very little crowds. I’m not sure whether that is because of a high % of Malaysian compliance or that we are amidst various religious holidays but especially in George Town with the closure of borders since March, with the lack of international and domestic tourists that once crowded Instagrammable streets, George Town has become a ghost town.
What happens now? As we all adapt to the ‘new normal’ in our countries, we are patiently (me sometimes anxiously) waiting for the announcement as to whether the MCO will be lifted on 9 June. I am beyond grateful to have been able to stay in a country where in my opinion the government and people have acted and responded to the pandemic quickly, efficiently and without resist or any major upset. Sure there have been incidents but there wasn’t any panic buying or protests or fear or anger inducing reports from the government or press. I haven’t made any decision of where to go if it does lift, except for maybe the immigration office to beg for an extension, because currently, there isn’t anywhere to go except home. Whilst restrictions are being lifted in many cities and countries around the world, borders aren’t. How we travel is going to change and whilst I’m itching for an adventure, it’s too soon. Many countries are creating travel bubbles and finalising their new entry requirements – pre-boarding COVID-19 tests, health insurance, quarantine, what country you’re travelling from, so it’s just wait and see what happens I guess. Kinda goes against my whole planning personality but hey, we’re all learning new skills during this time, right?!
Stay safe x
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