The Pandemic Letters: Trapped Overseas

Trapped in Laos:
The Experience of Gal, an Israeli National

(View a 2022 update to the original)

Associate Editor Jim Weitz has compiled a collection of the experiences of several international travelers trapped overseas by quarantine protocols associated with the CCP Virus (COVID 19) Pandemic.

When I was very young and adventurous and backpacking for a short while in the Far East, I met a backpacker who had been travelling in the region for a very long time. She was fifty and regaled me with exotic and inspiring stories of her travels. “One day,” I promised myself, “I will travel like her.”

Since then, I have traveled in South America and Central America. However, the dream of a long trip in the Far East gradually faded with the practical realities of my life in Israel. Then one day, at the end of March 2019, while I was alone at home, I opened an envelope sent from a talented artist friend of mine. In it, I found a beautiful drawing of the Sinai Mountains accompanied by a note:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Suddenly, it hit me, “This year I will be fifty! The dream about a journey to the Far East – I have to follow my dream!”

So I called my husband, and without explaining too much I told him, “We will leave everything behind and travel for one year in the Far East.”

After a long silence that felt like an eternity, he finally said in an excited voice “Let’s do it!”

My eldest daughter, 13 years old, and my 11-year-old son received the news with great excitement. We resigned from our jobs, I as a hydrotherapist and he as a maintenance manager in a residential building. We took our savings, rented our house for the coming year, packed some clothes in two backpacks for the four of us, and in August 2019, started our adventure…

We flew from Israel to Bangkok, and after exploring Thailand traveled to the unforgettable countries of Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, and then, in February 2020, to Laos, from where we planned to enter China.

In the early days of the disease, the common assumption was that it would soon disappear. We decided to disconnect from the internet, extend our visa in Laos and enjoy our trip, which took us from north to south, starting first in Luang Prabang, then Nong Khiaw, next Moung Ngoy, also visiting some villages along the way: Vang Vieng, Pakse, the Pakse four-days loop, and Don Det. We fell in love with the country. Its tropical beauty, slow pace of life and the gentle and special people enchanted us.

But when we got to Don Det, we noticed that there were only a few tourists on the island, which was quite strange for that time of year. On the morning of our third day on Don Det island, as we were sitting in a local restaurant, we met a number of young backpackers from different countries. They were worried about the situation caused by the coronavirus. One of them said that he had to fly back as soon as possible to his country, because he thought that the airports would soon close and the government would impose a lockdown. They actually looked a bit panicked. We were a little surprised to hear this and hurried to catch up with news on the internet. Soon, we began receiving messages from worried family and friends calling on us to return immediately to Israel, before it was be too late.

I remember we sat on the banks of the Mekong River, in front of a wonderful jungle view, talking to our children about what was happening in our country and all over the world because of the coronavirus. Each of us expressed our opinion and feelings about the options we had: return to Israel or continue our journey.

Finally, we chose to follow our heart and continue our journey, knowing that we might have to deal with the consequences of that decision. We decided to begin the trip back north to Luang Prabang. It was clear that if there was really going to be a lockdown, that was where we should stay.

The next day we drove from Don Det back to Pakse. On our way we stopped in the old town of Champassak and from there continued on to Thakhek. We thought we would be able to rent a car and drive “the Thakhek loop”, a 475-kilometre, four-day loop, across the Central Laotian countryside. However, when we got to Thakhek, the town looked deserted. In one of the local supermarkets, the normally welcoming Lao people refused to sell us water and groceries. It seemed they were afraid of us as potential carriers of the terrible disease! Alcohol-based hand sanitizer and masks were sold everywhere. Many restaurants were closed, or open but empty of people. We traveled to several sites near Thakhek. From moment to moment we realized that it was better to leave that town, get quickly to Luang Prabang, find an apartment and get ready for a coming lockdown.

The trip to Luang Prabang, took many hours. We used local buses. There were moments when my husband and I wondered if we were doing the right thing for our family. Our youngest son is asthmatic and has many allergies, but in the Far East and in Laos in particular he felt much better. We looked at our children, they had fallen asleep. The journey was long and exhausting, but they seemed so peaceful and safe.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang, we rented a beautiful and large house. We met lovely locals, and expats who have lived here for several years. They were very nice to us. The period of lockdown has passed so quickly, and we are grateful that we could pass the time here. The simple life in Laos has taught us that it doesn’t really take much to be happy.

After the lockdown was over, we realized very quickly that the situation would remain complicated for a long time. We had to rent our house in Israel for another year, and thanks to that, we have been able to finance our stay in Laos. It is already clear that we will not return home this coming August.

The longing for friends and family has slowly turned into a sense of acceptance that it will take a long time until we meet again. Although the coronavirus has taught us that sometimes plans do not always correspond with results, we know that as long as we are healthy and together, it doesn’t matter where we are. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Now, we are waiting here until it is possible to travel safely again. We have not abandoned our plans to visit China, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. It’s still going to happen, one day …


About the editor/compiler:
James Weitz is the author Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He is also a travel writer. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in the Latin American and Caribbean section at the World Bank. His writings have appeared in print at the Mekong Review and in the online journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He is an Associate Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: The national flag of Laos. Public domain.