My Experience Traveling Southeast Asia During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the world quarantines and panics, travelers across Southeast Asia watch closely to filter hype from fact and weigh whether to compromise between their lives and their trip of a lifetime.

An ominous sunset on a Bali beach as the Coronavirus pandemic inches closer to the island of the gods

Today is March 13, 2020 and the coronavirus has officially been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.  A state of emergency has been declared in several states in the US.  Italy and China’s borders are closed.  And the death toll rises.  Passengers and travelers around the world are canceling flights and travel plans for fear of catching this potentially deadly virus.

Amidst all of this, I write this just before boarding a plane to fly from my home base of Bali, Indonesia to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a weekend trip. 


I’m a traveler and nomad that’s been wandering the world, living the dream, for a few years.  “Living the dream” until now that is.  Being settled in Southeast Asia, having to make flights for “visa runs”, and being thousands of miles from my own country and support system seems like a precarious position with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or is it?

I’ve seen questions and comments across social media ranging from warnings not to travel to Asia or anywhere else, to reporters wondering how backpackers in the region are changing their plans and inquiring about what things are like “on the ground” here in Southeast Asia.

Here is one traveler’s perspective on wandering during the Coronavirus Outbreak of 2020

To be quite honest, Bali, my home base, is as nice as it’s ever been, with just a few fewer tourists.  Sure, the local pharmacy started selling N95 masks from 3M (mostly purchased by ex-pats), and there are far fewer (exactly zero) Korean and Chinese tourists in sight at my local haunts.  Besides that, life on Bali is the normal, enviable travel dream.  No self-quarantines.  No toilet paper runs.  No random flu checks.

Now, I assume some might respond to that with a little doubt, skepticism, and quite possibly even a bit of dismissive disapproval. Some might say my judgment is clouded by the rose-colored glasses of travel – so let’s look at the facts.


While California currently has a cruise ship sitting off its coast holding as many Coronavirus victims as all of Portugal, guess how many reported cases have popped on Bali – just one.  As of one day ago an elderly British tourist died here on Bali, infected by the Coronavirus

If we look a bit wider, how many Coronavirus cases do you think Indonesia with its 17,508 islands has reported to date?  Exactly 2 ill and 1 death.  Up until early March, Bali was Coronavirus free.

Taking it a step further, how bad do things look in my next destination, Malaysia?  88 cases. 0 deaths.

So, while friends and family back at home in California panic and hoard toilet paper and shun the idea of travel to Asia “where the virus started”, I’m enjoying coconuts and surfing, safer from COVID-19 than I would be back in my home state of California and the US in general.

What is the point of all this?  What are my takeaways?

#1: Don’t get caught up in the hype, get caught up in the facts.  If you do fall victim to the hype, you will wander with the masses as they pass opportunities and irreplaceable experiences, and you may miss opportunities to mitigate the risks that they’ll eventually fall prey to.

#2: There will always be risks, general risks.  Some risks are worth canceling everything for – but – if you are sacrificing what you want for fear of that risk, be sure that exchange is based on reason and sound logic.


As the western world scrambles to hoard and plan for the oncoming COVID-19 epidemic, I’m closer to the epicenter, “safer”, and happier.  If that isn’t a reason to wake up from the hype, I don’t know what is.

THIS ISN’T THE FIRST TIME TRAVEL HAS BEEN RISKY

I’ve been traveling the world somewhat continuously for nearly 3 years now.  I was here on Bali by chance when the volcano  Mount Agung erupted some time ago and I also arrived before the Coronavirus started making waves.  I’ve also been here through the growing epidemic – from when the first cases in Wuhan were announced, to the point that travel was restricted for Chinese nationals (to both the US and Indonesia), to now when the virus has caused the borders to Italy to shut and triggered a state of emergency announcements and emergency funding in the US.  I’ve passed through other Southeast Asian countries and chatted with digital nomads here in Bali, in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Korea, and Japan, and even China.

Now, I’ll chat with you and share – what is it like to be a backpacker and traveler wandering the world during a global virus outbreak?

MY LIFE HERE ON BALI: BEFORE AND AFTER THE CORONAVIRUS

Here on Bali, life goes on.  The first confirmed coronavirus case and death in Bali happened just over two days ago, and other than that I have yet to see anything.

From the start of the pandemic in Wuhan, both the ex-pat circles on Facebook and the local news outlets were constantly checking in and asking the pertinent questions.

Have there been any incidents?

How is it transferred and how likely are we to get it?

Where can we buy N95 masks?

What countries are safe for visa runs?

Though the average “eat, pray, lover” or escaping surfer might seem to be in their own oblivious bubble, from day one everyone started asking the right questions, sharing, and fact-checking (with a slight bit of trolling in between).

Offline here in Bali, nearly nothing changed.  Traffic was a bit lighter as the normal heavy Chinese and Korean tourist population all but disappeared.  Local restaurants and coffee shops were still filled with long-stay Europeans and vacationing Aussies.  The Balinese celebrated their holidays of Galingan and Kuningan as they normally would.  I continued my daily life of writing, surfing, going to a local gym and hanging out in between, just as I normally would.

No recommended self-quarantines.  No hospital overloads.  Nothing.

————-

On a wider level, many of the travelers here on Bali not-so-guiltily took advantage of the crisis outside of Bali.  With airlines taking a huge brunt of the economic hit prices tanked, and we loaded up.  $200 flights to Hawaii and $30 flights to the normal Southeast Asia hotspots were too tempting and budget-friendly to pass up, so we got them while the getting was good.

But there are two sides to every coin.

THE UNKNOWN AROUND THE CORNER: WHAT’S IN STORE FOR BALI AND SOUTHEAST ASIAN BACKPACKERS?

I sit here in my smug little Bali bubble fueled by sunshine and coconuts as the rest of the world preps for doomsday I can’t help but wonder…will the Bali locals and ex-pats make it through this pandemic lucky and relatively unscathed?  Or are we simply watching an inevitable wave roll slowly yet powerfully towards us, bound to hit in due time?

I don’t know the true answer, only time will tell.  However, I do remember back to December last year when I arrived back on Bali after a rigorous stint of travel.  I was beaten down a bit and recovery, and my immune system was definitely in the dumps. The experience that followed in that next couple of weeks made me seriously question what life would be like if an epidemic (like the spread of COVID-19) hit Bali.

During that health dip and the ensuing recovery period which lasted maybe 5 days, I felt like garbage.  I went to the gym and surfed like normal but simply felt like I couldn’t perform.  I had a hard time breathing, and I had a slight cough at night.  I dismissed the symptoms as seasonal allergies, common for me when I switch continents after long stays.  The kicker, is I almost never get sick. I can think of one time in the last 20 years I’ve been sick, and it lasted 8 hours.  I don’t stomach bugs or food poisoning.  I’ve never even stayed in a hospital overnight.  So, when I recovered and realized I was actually “sick” for the first time in a long time it made me reconsider things – how bad was this flu, and how bad could it get?

Just a day after I recovered and those thoughts hit, all of my friends here on Bali started coming down with the same flu.  The same symptoms, just magnified to the point that many had to stay home, sick.  Every ex-pat I knew had it, whatever it was, and it hit hard with a bit of the “Bali belly” stomach bug on top.  It hit fast, and it hit hard.

So, what’s the point of this?  Do I think we, here on Bali, already experienced coronavirus?

No.  Absolutely not. 

The point that struck me was how quickly such a simple illness spread through the community and how hard such a simple sickness hit.  I immediately wondered how things here would pan out if something worse came through.

I should have been careful what I wondered because something worse is here.  Now, I wonder if COVID-19 does make a grand debut on Bali, will my little paradise become a prison of a quarantine zone?

Time will tell.

PREPPING FOR THE LONG TERM: HOW I’M PLANNING FOR THE RISK OF COVID-19 AS A TRAVELER IN SEA

As optimistic as I am and happy to be traveling I am, I’m not foolish.  Before flying to Malaysia, I made the necessary arrangements here on Bali.

Travel insurance was the first step, but that is something I keep continuously.  Thanks to the travel insurance, if things get bad here on Bali, I’ll only have to stay on the island for a maximum of 10 days.

In my apartment here on Bali I’ve planned for the possibility of being stuck inside, locked away for a week plus on an island. I’ve stocked up on water – 25 gallons of purified water, enough for 25 days if used sparingly.  No one drinks water from the tap here, we have it delivered, so if a quarantine hits that will be the most important thing to have.  Second, I stocked up on staple, shelf-stable foods (rice, lentils, oats) line the back of my pantry, just in case I’m not allowed to go out or food stocks run low. 

I restocked my first aid kit, filled with a little of everything, just in case supplies generally run low – broad-spectrum antibiotics, key anti-parasitic meds, stomach bug meds, and a few other commonly used meds when traveling.  These aren’t for the coronavirus, just stocking up on things for normal accidents so I don’t have to go to places like hospitals or pharmacies where the virus is likely to pass through.

And that’s it.

But to be honest…I’m actually out of toilet paper.  Thankfully, the Southeast Asian “bum gun” & water jet sits trustily next to all of my toilets


But Bali isn’t the only place in Southeast Asia with nomads, and many other places are more extreme.  So, how are travelers and nomads from other places fairing out?

HOW ARE OTHER TRAVELERS AND NOMADS REACTING TO THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

A healthy feeling of concern is the most common sentiment among backpackers and nomads right now. With destinations on itineraries being upgraded as potential COVID-19 outbreak centers, and even the countries we’re in either experience cases or next to hotspots, we’re all busy trying to ask more of the right questions.  Facebook groups for nomads, specific to each country, are abuzz with “should I still come” questions, and the “yes” or “no” response is varying widely based on location.


A blogger friend based in Seoul, Korea commented that things are miserable and the quarantine is heavily in effect.  She also warned that if other nomads can get out of their area before quarantines hit or reach the scale of Korea and China, do it as soon as possible.

Another friend posted some fun-looking pictures of her trip to Hong Kong that had all of the rose-colored glory of a true Instagrammer. When I reached out to check on her she replied that Hong Kong was feeling increasingly tense because of the nearby outbreaks and at some points felt like a ghost town.

Another friend traveler friend in the Philippines, actually a local visiting home, expressed her anger that local ports were still accepting Chinese tourist ships, placing the locals at risk.  While a local Filipino mayor banned all traffic in or out, he was “harassed” by the president into allowing Chinese vessels to still dock.  My Filipino traveler friend ultimately advised against traveling to the Philippines right now because of the inadequate response, and I’m indefinitely canceling my Siargao surf trip accordingly.

At the end of the day, as optimistic and carefree as most travelers, wanderers, and digital nomads are, we’re paying close attention to this one, watching intently, and taking it seriously where need be.

…but we’re still going to take advantage of the cheap flights.

For now, I’ll just view this as another adventure in traveling.

BUT, NOW I’M HEADED TO THE DENPASAR AIRPORT, THE WORST PLACE TO BE…

As I gloat about the comfort and safety of my little Bali bubble I have to come to grips with the fact that in a few hours I will be boarding a plane and passing through one of the worst places to be during this pandemic.  An airport.  Any airport. 

The hundreds of travelers from unknown places, half committedly following WHO guidance and naturally touching everything along the way is the biggest risk of my travels.  Even my next destination of Malaysia, with heavy Chinese heritage and the social ties to China that come with it, pales in comparison. 


But there’s a bright side to this.  I know what I’m going into.

I know that the airport is the highest risk area I’ll pass through.  I know the virus isn’t airborne.  I know that 70%+ alcohol kills the virus.  I know that social distancing is essential.  And I know that rubbing my grubby hands all over my face is one of my biggest risks.

Additionally, thanks to the availability of data, I know high the risk of exposure is based on my destination – Malaysia is much safer than Korea, and many states in the US and Europe, at this point.

This is all extremely useful and empowering information.

Just like any risky travel situation, once I understand the specific risk I’m up against, I can go in well-armed.  This is exactly why I’m comfortable traveling right now.


TRUE PREPPING FOR TRAVEL RISKS: FOCUSING ON THE EFFECTIVE MEASURE THAT I CAN TAKE

I can’t control everything, or even much when I travel, but I can control how I respond to and manage risks.  Falling prey to sensational social media posts based on thin facts is disempowering and worthless. On the other hand, diligently taking measures to make myself safer is exactly what adventurous travel is about – whether it’s during a world virus pandemic or by hiking into the Patagonian backcountry. Risk is risk, regardless of the flavor. The approach to mitigating it appropriately is always the same

The empowering facts above allow me, as a traveler, to understand the risks and reduce them as much as possible.  Global virus pandemic or not, that’s how I always travel.  If you’re ever traveling adventurously, that’s how I recommend you travel too.

So what does this “risk mitigated travel” look like during the Coronavirus outbreak?


Yesterday I picked up three disposable N-95 surgical masks made by 3M.  One for the travel and flight in.  One for the time in Malaysia.  One for the flight out.

I keep a spray bottle with alcohol (70%) and tissues on hand to wipe everything routinely – from my airplane seat to my computer and cell phone.  Everything gets cleaned.  If I have to rescue a baby from a burning building, the little guy (or girl) is getting a full wipe down before we run out of that burning building together.

Zinc lozenges are on hand and constantly consumed.  Zinc prevents the growth of the virus, and keeping these in my mouth in high-risk zones (airports, public spaces) isn’t a guarantee for protection, but my goal is to mitigate as much risk as possible.

Finally, travel insurance.  On the off chance that I do catch the virus, I will likely be fine, as I’m a fit, 36-year-old with no pre-existing issues of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or anything else.  This doesn’t fit the profile of victims dying from the virus.  However, mandatory time in the hospital if quarantined will hit the budget very hard.  Additionally, I would have to pay out of pocket for treatment and the mandatory 14-day quarantine that many countries (US, Singapore, Israel, Italy, etc.) are instituting for those exhibiting symptoms if they decided to hold me. Proper travel insurance is my last, and most robust safety net.


A NOTE ON TRAVEL INSURANCE AND THE COVERAGE IT POTENTIALLY BRINGS: CONFIRM THE COVERAGE AND LIMITATIONS OF YOUR TRAVEL INSURANCE POLICY NOW

If you are traveling and covered, that’s fantastic, but you’re not done yet.  Whenever you’re traveling and an abnormal risk pops up, whether that’s the risk of altitude hiking through the Himalayas or the risk of a fast-spreading virus, I urge you to contact your travel insurance provider to ensure your covered and review the terms and conditions.

For instance, I’m currently covered under Safety Wing for general travel insurance.  However, when a specific country or region receives a Category 3 (or 4) travel notice from the US State Department for the virus, it is no longer covered by my plan.  On the day of writing this, China, South Korea, and all of Europe currently fall in this category.  If I’m already in the country, I’ll have 10 days’ coverage before I’m longer covered in that country.  However, if the country I’m in gets categorized as Level 3 Safety Wing will arrange a political evacuation, as long as I file within that 10 days.  Understanding this coverage and how to use it is an essential safety net in mitigating risk, during this or any other risky event – Your travel insurance may or may not cover you the same way, so I encourage you to contact them now to be sure, before the need to use it arises.

Traveling during the pandemic, and treating the situation appropriately all boils down to the risks, understanding the risks, and reacting to the true risks without giving in to the hype.

MY AIRPORT EXPERIENCE DURING CORONAVIRUS & MY MALAYSIA EXPERIENCE DURING CORONA VIRUS

**Check back, as I’ll update with a play by play of the experience traveling through airports and Southeast Asian countries during the Coronavirus outbreak

KEEPING PERSPECTIVE: RISKS ARE EVERYWHERE WHEN YOU TRAVEL.  KNOWING THE RISKS YOU CAN, AND CAN’T, HANDLE IS KEY

Before the Coronavirus here in Southeast Asia, and specifically on Bali, life was the kind of paradise I thought only existed in dreams.  “Indos”, especially the Balinese, are some of the most smiley and welcoming people I’ve met in all of Asia.  It’s hard not to get sucked in.  Life is simple here.  Everything is unofficial, there are beaches and beanbags everywhere, and life all happens on motor scooters (and just as slowly too).

Sure, calamity happens now and again on Bali.  Back in December of 2018 (when I first arrived), Mount Agung erupted, again, disrupting travel and causing earthquakes that some worried would lead to tsunamis – and the same happened in January, February, March, April, May and June 2019.  The media and news went haywire with talk of canceling flights due to ash and risk of tsunamis – but here on Bali, you wouldn’t have been able to tell there was anything wrong.  Of course, we occasionally checked our earthquake and tsunami warning apps, but for the most part, life went on.  Nothing bad came of it.  We assessed the risk, did what we could, and let the rest be…and everything turned out just fine.

Funny, for every country I’ve gone to that has some extreme risk or recent event associated with it, the media tends to be saturated with warnings against going, and hype about the dangers, but, on arrival, the places are nothing less than charming.

I went to Sri Lanka just after the Easter Bombings and had one of the most amazing adventures of my life driving a tuk-tuk around the country.

I wandered through Cairo on a layover just days before the latest terrorist attack.

I wandered through Colombia against the advice of friends and family who were worried about the drug trade – and I can now say that Colombia is one of my favorite countries in South America.

What do these statements have in common?

  1. I had a wonderful time
  2. Nothing happened

Once again I find myself in (and returning to) a dream destination against the advice of friends and family.  The difference now is that I’m already here when this “threat” is supposed to be here.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not advising that you travel right now (although I would and am, due to the cheap flights), and I am not advising that you ignore the CDC  and World Health Organization warnings.  I am asking you to keep a level head, assess the risk for what it is, and react in a way that suits you, not in a way that hypes up and perpetuates false, sensationalized rumor.

If you travel adventurously, there will always be risks.  Be conscious of this, and let it stop you only when the reason is appropriate for your situation and needs.

THE POINT: EDUCATE YOURSELF, ACT ACCORDINGLY, BUT DON’T LET LIFE PASS YOU BY

At the end of the day, whether or travel or not during the coronavirus outbreak is a very subjective question, and the answer will (and should) vary widely from person to person.

To find your own answer, research the facts, listen to reputable information sources, and act accordingly.

Travel bloggers, your friends from social media, and even the news cycle aren’t the most trustworthy and objective – not even me. 

The best you can do is educate yourself, make the best decision possible for yourself, mitigate risk accordingly, and avoid perpetuating panic-inducing rumor.  If we can all stick to those simple concepts, we’ll make it through this “pandemic” as best as possible. All of us.


In the meantime, I encourage you to dig into source information and better understand the real risks of the situation and add some sanity and validity to the healthy conversations we should be having as travelers and global citizens.

The following are my favorite resources I’ve seen shared for coronavirus information and I encourage you to use them heavily:


At the end of the day, arming ourselves with accurate information and mitigating risks where possible is the best we can do. 

Hopefully, I’ll see you on the road sometime in the future after the pandemic subsides.  Let’s just make sure we wash hands before the introduction.

Good luck