I’ll admit — I was a little concerned.
I’d been planning a trip to Thailand and Malaysia for a few months with Candace Bushnell, the creator of “Sex and the City” and fashion designer Nicole Miller — for the ultimate girl’s trip. We were set to stay at the exclusive five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort outside of Chaing Rai, catch the Elephant Boat Races on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok before heading to the Desaru Beach Resort in Malaysia for a few days. I’d been looking forward to it ever since my seasonal affective disorder set in around the first week of January.
And then the coronavirus spread like wildfire — first infecting China, then quickly spreading to 48 countries, including most of Southeast Asia.
But, after deliberating, and doing our own research, we decided to not abandon our travel plans. Nicole’s husband, a notorious germaphobe, even signed off on our plans, despite the fact that we’d be traveling over their wedding anniversary — Leap Day, Feb. 29.
“I’ve never been, and I really want to go,” Nicole said.
Besides, the virus is now everywhere.
China is no longer the “greatest concern” in the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak — as the focus shifts to the “rest of the world,” the World Health Organization said Thursday. The death toll has surged in Iran and Italy, while three cases of unknown origin have emerged in California and Oregon.
The virus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, has spread since December to more than 82,000 people across the world, and the death toll has now reached 2,800.
As for me, I travel for a living. I was going to cover elephant conservation in Thailand, the opium trade in the Golden Triangle and other stories I would pick up along the way. I could either face this outbreak head on — or figure out another livelihood.
So, Candace, Nicole and I decided to take a leap of faith, but be practical.
Nicole’s husband Kim had bought so much disinfectant and face masks that she ended up making Candace and I carry packages so big we could’ve cleaned the entire state of Rhode Island. Candace brought us all cotton manicure gloves and I … took advantage of their largesse.
We had been set to fly to Bangkok with Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong. But the outbreak stopped those plans — even some dogs in Hong Kong are testing positive for coronavirus. We eventually booked Japan Airlines from JFK to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Japan had 226 coronavirus cases (with one death), but most of those were linked to the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The country not only seemed like it was containing the spread, it’s also the cleanest country I have ever been to, so it seemed like our safest bet.
“What if they close Tokyo when we’re coming home?” Candace mused. “Maybe we can go back by Emirates or the Middle East?”
“The virus is in the Middle East now as well,” I said.
“Ah well,” she said.
We met up on Monday at the Lufthansa lounge in JFK and boarded the plane soon after.
We quickly worked out a system:
- Before entering a train station or airport, put on mask and gloves.
- Wash your hands at every opportunity — and seal the deal with a schmear of Purell.
- If on a plane, when you get to your seat, whip out the wipes and the Lysol bottle and get to work disinfecting every surface near you (airplanes have never been so clean — especially if you happen to sit in a seat occupied by me, Candace or Nicole).
- Turn off air blower/fan (that helps spread germs).
- Have a drink and relax — in my case, via a pharmaceutical.
- If you have to go to the bathroom, bring wipes and Lysol and repeat disinfectant steps.
In Tokyo, while we waited for our connecting flight to Bangkok, the notoriously busy Narita airport was empty. Air travel demand has cratered since the outbreak of the coronavirus as many people are opting to stay home and airlines like JetBlue are waiving cancellation fees for customers until March 11.
In fact, the flights from NYC to Tokyo and Tokyo to Bangkok were half-full. On both legs, we boarded within 10 minutes, and the planes took off early — something that has never happened before.
While Japan’s coronavirus cases are directly linked to the Diamond Princess, which was docked in Yokohama, there was, disconcertingly enough, notices for a flight to Daegu, South Korea — the center of a recent outbreak.
The people in the airport were all wearing masks — an eerie dystopian vision — and airport workers furiously scrubbed every surface with disinfectant.
As we boarded our flight to Bangkok, every Westerner was asked, “Have you been on Diamond Princess?” before being allowed to board. (American Diamond Princess cruise passengers had been flown home several days earlier via cargo ships in what was dubbed the “Coronavirus class flight from hell”).
Just to make sure, before we left the gate, the pilot made an onboard an announcement saying, “To protect our crew, all flight members will wear face masks for the duration of the flight.
“Anyone who was on the Diamond Princess cruise must tell us now. You can not be on this flight.”
Six nerve-wracking hours later, Candace, Nicole and I arrived in Bangkok … which was also relatively silent. We checked into our hotel, and the next morning went shopping.
The upside to the coronavirus — and there is always an upside — is that Bangkok’s notorious traffic during what should have been high season is, for once, manageable. Hotels are at 40 percent occupancy, creating great deals at hotels and in stores, and the rail system is not nearly as crowded. There are currently 40 known cases of coronavirus in the country.
The next day, on our way to Chiang Rai, a man not wearing a mask actually coughed on the plane, and I thought there was going to be a riot.
We are currently still in the Golden Triangle, and tomorrow we leave for Bangkok. There is a low-level stress about the illness. Face masks are always at hand, and we’ve used so much Purell I’m thinking of buying Pfizer stock, but … we are living our lives.
The thing is: The virus is everywhere. We could get it just as easily if we stayed home at this point — except with our hypervigilance, I believe our chances are lowered (I doubt I would be this hyper vigilant in New York City, although we all should be at this point).
In the meantime, we are committed to being responsible travelers and seeing the world while we still can before going home.
If we can get home.