Travel tales from the time of Covid (part 2)

So when I left you yesterday we’d just landed at Phnom Penh airport apart to start the convoluted process of entering Cambodia.

First step, avoid rampage of pasengers giving no thought to social distancing as they barge their way off the plane towards immigration.

We are shepherded towards immigration but the usual path is impeded by a temperature checkpoint and a 5 lane queuing system leading us to an initial document check station. As I stand in line I note with interest that despite visa on arrival currently being suspended, there are still a line of staff manning the counters – no idea why?!?! Obviously just another of the many times when the only answer to that question is “because it’s Cambodia, stupid!

The queue provides comedy interludes as a group of Japanese scrabble through bags searching for various documents whilst bickering ever louder as the required paperwork eludes them. You might be pleased to know that this searching, scrabbling, bickering charade continues throughout the airport journey and onto the magical mystery bus.

Further entertainment comes from observing people play queue jumper as they try to weigh up which is the fastest line, dodging back and forth, twitching as the line 3 across moves forward one but someone else jumps in that line before they have chance.

Meanwhile I wait patiently, head in book as my queue slowly shuffles forward. Near the front are two women having trouble as they haven’t purchased the mandatory insurance and are instead trying to get through on their much superior but not welcome health insurance (I have my own theories on why this is the case but am not putting them in writing here – walls (& blogs) have ears!)

Suddenly an English speaking official appears to mediate and immediately discovers that one of the women is a “VIP” who is hurriedly stickered as such and allowed to pass without the insurance golden ticket. The other meanwhile, is offered a connection to the official’s wifi hotspot in order to purchase said insurance on the spot.

Thankfully I pass the document check unquestioned – the requisite words my name, “negative” & “PCR” and the date and time of the test circled carefully on my COVID cert. Papers back in hand, I pick up my backpack and shuffle off to hand over my hard earned cash on deposit for my upcoming prison sentence.

Another painless (apart from the fact my bank account was $2k down) process completed and I go through to another document check. Documents again deemed to be in order I’m shepherded towards a rather grumpy immigration official who refuses to make eye contact with me, mutters for me to remove my mask for photo purposes then stamps and confiscates my passport (it gets returned to me after my quarantine period is over) before pointing onwards to baggage collection.

Unsurprisingly, as the previously described process had taken a while to complete, the bags are all off the belt waiting for us to collect. I take a quick bathroom break (any opportunity to take the mask off at this point is welcomed with open arms) then pile my bags onto a trolley and head off into the unknown.

Arriving almost at the point where the customs and health check would be carried out I come to a halt behind a line that I can see is snaking some way in front of me. It’s at this point that I suddenly remember that I have to have another COVID test – I’d somehow managed to totally blank out this horror since landing in Phnom Penh.

Now bearing in mind that there are currently an average of only 6-10 flights a day landing at Phnom Penh Airport and on this particular day my flight landed with a more than 4 hour gap between the one landing before us and the next one landing, anyone want to hazard a guess as to what time the COVID testing team chose to take their dinner break?

Yep, you guessed it, the line I was standing in was the result of said dinner break and so we stood waiting, in some cases patiently and in other cases not (the guy behind me who paced back and forth endlessly whilst muttering ever louder) for our torturers (the reason for the use of this particular noun will become clear shortly) to finish their rice and soup (no Cambodian meal is complete without these two staples).

I used the time to take a seat on the end of my trolley and read more of my book and eventually the line started moving. I quickly progressed forward until I reached the zigzag around barriers bit where I once more encountered the scrabbling Japanese. At the head of the line they were unceremoniously shoved to one side to find their papers and I was ushered forward to my booth for COVID test number 2 in less than a week.

First stop was document check, my health certificate was scrutinised, a form was completed, my name and DOB were both verified, a vial was labelled and then I was conducted onward to the actual torture chamber.

As I sat on the chair facing away from my persecutors I glanced at the notices in front of me. A poor quality print of a picture of someone sitting with their head so far back their Adams apple was pointing to the ceiling was next to various printed and handwritten signs with English words and their Chinese equivalents on. Around 60% of the flights currently arriving in PP daily are from mainland China and my guess is that these signs have gradually appeared to aid the Khmer/English speaking testing staff communicating with the large number of Mandarin & Cantonese speaking arrivals.

Swab in hand the tester instructed me to put back my head and open my mouth and I duly obliged. The throat swab was taken so quickly that I barely felt it and foolishly marvelled at how much less intrusive it had felt than the UK one as we moved on to the nasal passages.

And on that point, Holy Crap is the phrase that first springs to mind. Having had a mildly uncomfortable experience of this form of testing back in that Leicestershire Garden Centre car park, I thought I knew what I was in for, How wrong could I be. The swab was unceremoniously bodged into my nostril and just when I thought it could go no further the tester twisted and tunneled deeper in what I could only imagine was an attempt to find an escape from said nasal cavity via my eye socket. Tears sprung from my eyes, the taste of blood entered my throat and I silently prayed I’d survive this ridiculously simple form of torture the health authorities of Cambodia had unwittingly developed. The only saving grace in the whole procedure was that thankfully he only invaded one nasal cavity not both (sadly, this is a fact that would come back to torment me at a later date).

Once dismissed from the torture chamber I wandered away somewhat stunned, sniffing tentatively underneath my mask and swallowing to taste yet more blood, and shortly found myself in line for the magical mystery bus. My bags were loaded on and I followed them and took my seat in the middle of the bus. Loe and behold, shortly after I sat down my Japanese scrabbling friends arrived and made a meal of getting themselves and their stuff onto the bus (& yes this did involve more squirrelling deep into their copious bags though this time for god knows what as we had no documents left to give).

Eventually, after a lot of counting of heads by yet more hazmat suited officials we headed off out of the airport and onto the unknown destination that would be my home/prison/quarantine station for the next 14 days.

Thanks to the very informative Facebook forum I mentioned yesterday, I had a head full of horror stories concerning some of the destinations the mystery bus delivered people to in the past and so I opened up my google maps, crossed fingers, toes and everything else and tracked our journey into the city. A couple of horror destinations averted I allowed myself to feel a slight sense of relief. However, I was also slightly concerned as we also weren’t heading to any of the better options I’d read about either and so I eventually just sat back and let fate do its thing.

We pulled up outside the Olympia Mall – a relatively new mall complex on the site of the city’s Olympic Stadium and a quick glance led me to another magical mystery bus and a group of people hovering under a sign for The Olympia City Hotel by Dara. And thus the mystery was solved – this was to be my prison/home for the next 14 days. While waiting for the 1st bus to depart I googled the hotel and found it to be pricey but nice looking from the pics and though past experience has led me to be extremely sceptical about hotel photos on websites I breathed a tentative sigh of relief.

Well, it appears my lovely readers that I have even more to say than I anticipated. A sneaky peak at the word count just now has made me realise this is already creeping towards a 1500 word post and so I’m going to sign off for now and make you wait for tomorrow to find out how the hotel panned out and how I managed the whole quarantine experience.

Thanks for reading so far, hopefully see you back here tomorrow for part 3.

S x

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