Editor’s note: Ms Rebecca Dengler’s final report about her 6 months of research and teaching at SKU is posted on the Internships/Final Reports page.
Five weeks ago, I suddenly had to leave Savannakhet and Laos. Due to the COVID-19 situation all over the world, borders were being shut, flights cancelled, and schools and universities closed.
I had been staying in Laos for six months already. In these six months of my Erasmus+ Mobility between the University of Education Karlsruhe and Savannakhet University (SKU), I started to learn the Lao language, conducted research for my doctoral studies, and taught English methodology and activities to some of the English teaching staff at SKU. My actual plan was to stay there for eight months in total. However, my plans, as well as probably everyone else’s in 2020, had to be changed.
After the virus spread more and more in Germany and in other European countries and travel regulations started to change all over the world, my parents, my German university, and my supervisor, Dr Isabel Martin as well as the International Office in Karlsruhe recommended that I should fly back to Germany before travelling would become impossible. Team X had already left Laos a few days before me, after having been strongly advised on Sunday, 15 March, by Prof. Martin to book the next flight home.
First, I really wanted to stay in Savannakhet even in the Corona situation. I was not ready to leave. However, after many people suggested I go back to Germany and the situation became more serious in Laos, I finally made the decision to return. It took me several days to make this decision. An important factor that helped me to decide eventually was the information from Prof. Martin that the Erasmus Board had just announced that all Erasmus+ projects could be extended by one year now, on account of the situation. Four mobilities in our own project – Lao colleagues visiting PH Karlsruhe in the summer term – had already been postponed. This meant that I would now at least get the possibility to go back to Savannakhet and continue my research later.
Until Wednesday, 18 March 2020, when I decided to book a flight back to Germany for the following Monday, 23 March, I did not know that this would be my last week in Savannakhet. Once I had decided to leave, several farewell parties were organised very quickly. On Thursday night, the Faculty of Linguistics and Humanities, with their Dean Dr Phetsamone Khattiyavong, organised a farewell dinner for the Japanese volunteer teacher, the American volunteers, and me. We were invited to have dinner in a Sin Dat restaurant. “Sin Dat” is a barbecue you can do yourself. It is cooked on a grill over a bucket of hot charcoal in the middle of your table. It is a great food for sitting, talking, and spending time together. This meal was a lovely opportunity to talk to the people from the Faculty of Linguistics and Humanities I had been working with. However, at that time it still did not feel like I was leaving – and saying goodbye still seemed very unreal.
Friday, 20 March, was the last day the university in Savannakhet was open for everyone. Laos also started to close institutions to prevent the spread of the virus in the country, although at that time there was no officially reported case in Laos yet.
However, I also noticed that the Lao safety precautions and testing possibilities were limited. Two weeks before I left Laos, I had to shortly cross the boarder to Vietnam to renew my visa. When I entered Vietnam, my temperature was measured and I had to fill in a health form. On the way back to Laos, I did not have to fill in anything and there was no temperature check.
I think that the safety precaution to close schools and universities was no overcautious measure, because there might have already been many people bringing the virus to Laos, who were not tested.
Editor’s note: These would have been travellers, thousands of Lao people returning to Lao P.D.R. on two weekends before the shutdown who had been working in Thailand, and so-called “rich people”, i.e. Lao citizens who had had the means to travel to Europe (France). How many of them were quarantined or quarantined themselves to protect others we do not know.
This last day when the university was open gave me the possibility to arrange a last class with my teacher-students and round off our course as well as possible under these circumstances. After a short review and evaluation of the course, I handed over some certificates and German chocolate.
The participants will receive their real certificates after an official evaluation and report about the class.
After the class, the Vice-President of SKU, Dr Bounheuang Nichaleun, held a small, official farewell lunch for the Japanese volunteer and me . In the evening I met some of the teachers from my class for a farewell dinner. It became more and more real that I was about to leave Laos soon. However, I felt not ready yet to leave Savannakhet.
At that time my plan was still to leave Savannakhet on Monday morning. However, on Friday, the day of my last class and farewells, I found out that Thailand was about to change their immigration policy two days later, Sunday, 22 March, as from 00:00 a.m. This new policy required all people travelling to and transiting in Thailand to show a health certificate certifying that a) one would pose no risk of being infected by the Coronavirus Disease and b) one would have a health insurance policy that would show a minimum medical coverage in Thailand of USD 100,000 covering the COVID-19-related illness.
Even only for transit in Thailand, after 00:00 a.m. on 22 March 2020 these documents had to be shown upon Check-in. On Friday night and on Saturday morning, with the help of many people, I found out that no hospital in Savannakhet or Vientiane would sign the health certificate that had been published on the website of Thai Airways.
My health insurance for the stay abroad, as well as almost every other German health insurance, could not confirm to cover up to USD 100,000. This meant that on Saturday morning I realised that my only opportunity to leave Laos for Thailand without these documents were almost impossible to obtain. My only chance was to cross the border to Thailand before midnight.
My original plan was to meet a German friend from Vientiane and fly home with her. So I had to get to Vientiane, meet her, and hope to get a flight from there to Thailand that same Saturday. At around 9 a.m., Ms Lanta Ketoukham kindly and promptly arranged a university van to drive me to Vientiane quickly. We left Savannakhet at 12 p.m. This meant that within 3 hours I had to clear my whole apartment, pack my suitcase, and call my friends to come quickly to say goodbye before I had to leave. Luckily, I could leave some of my belongings with friends in Savannakhet and I got help to pack everything. Without their help, it would have been impossible.
On the 7-hour drive to Vientiane I just hoped that it would still be possible to get a flight to Bangkok that same night.
Thank God, my friend and I were able to get standby seats on a flight to Bangkok and did not have to pay a lot of money. We could just change our flight from Monday to Saturday. In Vientiane, Thai Airways could only provide us a flight to Bangkok and no onward flight to Germany. They told us to standby again in Bangkok and see whether we could get a flight. We were so relieved to be able to enter Thailand two hours before midnight – and we got the last two seats on that airplane…
In Bangkok we got through immigration with special safety precautions, but without difficulty. We stood by for two flights to Germany that same night. Since there were so many people waiting in the queue before us, we could not get a seat before the Check-in for the two flights to Munich and Frankfurt was closed. For the immigration into Thailand we therefore had to book a hotel, so that was where we went. I was so happy to have my friend with me and not to travel alone.
Taking a taxi to a hotel in Bangkok at 2 a.m. in the morning is not that scary when you are not alone. We fell into the beds in the hotel, I wrote a quick message to family and friends and Prof. Martin to say that I was in Bangkok, and then we rested to gain strength to go back to the airport the next day to standby for new flights.
On Sunday, 22 March, we were able to get two seats on a flight to Frankfurt. We did not have to pay additional costs because we had bought a ticket for Monday and they just changed the date for us. Many other people we met at the airport had to pay between 1,000 and 5,000€ to get a flight that day. We were so glad that there were still flights to Germany, especially after we saw the announcement boards in the airport. We could see that most of the flights had already been cancelled.
On the overnight flight to Frankfurt we were finally able to relax a bit because we knew we would be in Germany soon. However, we were still quite tense because so many people from different countries were so close together in the airplane for such a long time. We knew that the risk of getting infected by the virus during the travels was very high. Therefore, we tried to be very careful by wearing a mask all the time and washing and disinfecting our hands regularly.
The real relief came after being picked up at Frankfurt airport and not developing any symptoms over the next two weeks in quarantine at home. This meant I did not bring the virus to my family’s house.
Now I am staying with my family here in Germany and I continue to work on my doctorate and start to evaluate the data that I already gathered in Laos. Since I could not stay the whole eight months in Savannakhet, I could not conduct all the research I wanted to. As soon as this crisis is over, I hope I can return to Savannakhet to continue my research at SKU and to see all the friends and colleagues again, who I could not really say goodbye to because I had to leave so suddenly.
I hope you stay safe and healthy during this difficult time and stay home to protect your family, yourself, and many other people.
Text by R. Dengler, editor’s notes by I. Martin
Photos by L. Ketoukham, R.Dengler, S. Inthichak & T. Liepvisaynavang