Military Living Reader Dale Esperante shares his experience on a COVID19 diverted Asian cruise with his wife, Melita.
About 50 years ago, as an 18-year-old airman at Ellsworth AFB, SD, in the dead of winter, I decided to escape the frozen north. I filled out my Air Force “Dream Sheet” listing Vietnam as my number one choice of assignment, followed by the Philippines. I figured my chances of getting Vietnam were pretty good thinking that not too many of my peers would volunteer for it. To my surprise, the Air Force decided to send me to the Rock–Andersen AFB in Guam. Though disappointed, I later appreciated the decision not to send this naïve 18-year-old to a war zone. Ever since I’ve promised myself that someday I will see Vietnam under better circumstances.
On 6 Feb 2020, that dream came true as we sailed from Singapore on Norwegian Jade’s 11 Day Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Hong Kong cruise. Onboard, a fellow traveler asked us if we’d heard the news that the cruise is no longer culminating in Hong Kong. Surprised and puzzled, we headed straight to Guest Services. There we found that the itinerary was indeed changed due to news of recent travelers in mainland China, including Hong Kong and Macau, were found to have tested positive with the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID19). Thus began our adventure as victims of a COVID19 Diverted Asian cruise.
Guests of this cruise were given 30 minutes of free internet access in order to change flight plans to get home. Instead of a flight out of Hong Kong, we prepared to book a flight out of Singapore, our new final port. In addition to the free internet, we were given a free satellite phone call to contact airlines, if necessary.
A long line of guests on the first day hoping to get help in rebooking flight plans. Photo courtesy of Dale Esperante.
I should have expected a problem with any airline departing Hong Kong. Months ago, we booked a return flight from Hong Kong-MNL-SFO via Philippine Airlines (PAL). A day before leaving Singapore for our cruise, we received an email from PAL canceling our flight from Hong Kong. With help from the concierge of the Fairmont Hotel, we were able to make a free long-distance call to Travelocity. Travelocity confirmed the cancellation and made a request to PAL to refund the cost of the flight from HKG-MNL-SFO. The hotel concierge allowed us another free call to contact EVA Air for a flight home via HKG-TPE-SFO, which we managed to procure. At that time, we had not received any communication from the Norwegian Cruise Line that Hong Kong was no longer our debarkation port, and that we were returning to Singapore to end the cruise.
After a day at sea, we reached Laem Chabang, Thailand, where the ship docked for two days. During breakfast, the Cruise Director made an announcement that everyone must disembark immediately, and their passport must be screened at the request of the Thai immigration officials. Another announcement was made asking all those who had recently visited China, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, to report to a specific location. After the immigration officials completed screening our passports, the Norwegian staff collected our passports for safekeeping. Some travelers made a fuss and questioned this unusual procedure. They were told that the passports would be returned one day before we ended the cruise in Singapore. Some suspected that this procedure was designed to prevent passengers from curtailing their vacation to head home before being cleared as virus-free.
Melita, as we enjoy an evening at sea. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
After clearing immigration, my wife and I decided to take it easy and stay close to the ship. We browsed the souvenir stalls in the terminal. Some passengers indulged themselves with a foot or whole-body massage offered by the locals: $19 for an hour of foot massage, and $28 for a whole-body massage. Others arranged to go on an excursion through Norwegian or through a local agency. A local shuttle bus offered a scheduled round trip service to Pattaya Beach for a reasonable fee. The beach is about a 40 minute-drive one way from the cruise terminal. I decided to just use the terminal’s internet café to cancel our HKG-TPE-SFO flight.
I had to pay $3 for 3 hours of hot-spot internet, with a free beverage included. I spent two hours using the internet, sitting among other passengers and crew members of the ship. I couldn’t cancel the HKG flight because of an “error message” every time I tried, so I decided to take care of it when we got back to the Singapore airport and planned to ask the EVA airline staff for assistance.
Upon returning to the ship, the cruise’s staff used a thermometer gun to check our temperature. Anyone having an elevated temperature had to be cleared by the ship’s nurse. Some folks who wore headgear (hat, bandana) ended up seeing the nurse because of their elevated temperature. After uncovering their head and waiting under a shade, their temperature returned to normal, and they were cleared to proceed back to the ship.
Emerald Buddha Temple at the Great Palace, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo courtesy Dale Esperante
On the second day in Thailand, we joined an excursion to tour Bangkok’s Great Palace and see the Emerald Buddha. I was awestruck by Thailand’s palaces and temples. I have seen many other countries’ royal and religious edifices. I have seen Versailles, the Vatican, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace, Germany’s palaces and castles, St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and Catherine the Great’s Palace, Beijing’s Forbidden City, Japan’s palaces, castles, and temples, etc. But Thailand’s Great Palace and Emerald Buddha left an impression on me as the most gilded and ornate I have ever seen. Thailand is a must-see if royal and religious architecture is your thing!
Dale and Melita at the Big Buddha on Koh Samui, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Dale Esperante
We were happy with the Thailand tour. The next port-of-call is Sihanoukville, Cambodia. After reading and hearing the reviews of the city and the immediate area, we decided to stay put. We spent the day on board, working out, joining games, dining, resting, and dancing. Returning excursion passengers told us they were disappointed by the local tour because Sihanoukville is still in a construction phase, so it was dusty, dirty, and way behind in the projected completion of modernization.