"But Phil, you're retired, you have time and money. What's stopping you going back to England for a few weeks - or maybe even months"
This well-meaning 'advice' is regularly getting dished out to me on social media whenever I express discontent at the way Thailand is handling the pandemic or contemplate the fact I haven't seen my family since September 2019.
When it comes to explaining why the idea is a non-starter, I'm not sure where to even begin.
The true cost of going
Firstly, Thailand is currently on the UK's amber list (and that could change to 'red' at any moment given the direction we're going in here) This means I would need to self-isolate somewhere for 10 days upon reaching Birmingham. There would be no train rides to go and see my folks who live about an hour out of the city. There would be just me, the four walls and time standing still.
There would be two (or is it three?) pricey Covid tests to arrange in advance, and I can just imagine the socially distant pleasures of getting on a plane in Bangkok and transiting in Amsterdam, given all the restrictions that have become part and parcel of everyday life.
I suppose if I were to go back to England, it would make sense to get vaccinated at the same time. If the media reports are to be believed, you can turn up without appointment at any clinic, supermarket or petrol station and you'll be well looked after by a kindly nurse with a syringe and a steady hand. Then of course you are faced with the lengthy wait between doses. Where are you going to stay for weeks on end if your family has no room at the inn? And even if you strike lucky and there's a childhood box-bedroom available or a camp-bed in the attic, there is still such a thing as overstaying your welcome.
Last but not least, there's the small matter of getting back into Thailand, with the 'Phuket Sandbox' seemingly the only expat entry option available. That would mean organising insurance, hotel accommodation, documentation and worse of all, having to deal with foreign embassies abroad. Yes, I know it can all be done; but that doesn't mean I want to do it. And who's to say the Phuket Sandbox itself isn't beyond collapsing at some stage?
There is also the human side of things. Once my 10-day quarantine period was over and it was deemed safe for me to meet up with my parents, would two elderly people, with underlying health issues, be comfortable coming into contact with an unvaccinated son? My Father especially, is terrified of catching the virus. He hasn't set foot in a shop or supermarket for 18 months. He waits in the car while Mother (bless her!) does a quick circuit of Marks and Spencer.
And then there's my wife.
Folks on social media suggest going back home for several months and thus be apart from my wife, as if it would be the most natural thing in the world to do. Frankly, it makes me question what sort of married relationships people have out there. Perhaps I'm one of life's worryworts or I've watched too many movies, but I might never see her again. The world is so crazy at the moment, you can't rule anything out.
Past experience has taught me
I'm no stranger to stressful trips back home. Generally, past trips have gone well, but sometimes they're not all cream teas, ploughman's lunches and strolls along the riverbank.
Long-term expats will no doubt recall the great Bangkok floods of 2011. I'm hazy on the details but unseasonably high rainfall had filled up the northern dams and reservoirs to bursting point, and the only way out was to open the sluice gates and run off the excess millions of gallons of water into the Gulf of Thailand via Bangkok's canal network.
As Bangkok's canals and rivers overflowed and struggled to contain the tide, some residents living in the danger zones were lucky and others weren't. Pictures appeared daily in the Bangkok Post of weary homeowners baling out their living space, now under three feet of stinking, dirty canal-water. The human suffering was palpable - and the ordeal seemed to go on for weeks.
My wife and I lived in a house next to Klong Samrong. The water run-off from North Thailand was on its way and would hit our neighborhood in several days. We moved furniture upstairs in preparation for the worst. The biggest problem was that I had booked and paid for a trip to England and was due to leave the following day. How could I possibly leave my wife to face this situation alone? But she was adamant that I continue with my plan - so I flew back to the UK. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make.
And so it began. The daily routine of waking up at my brother's house, logging on to the net and checking the Bangkok Post and its scaremongering headlines. Then waiting until late afternoon to make a Skype call to my wife to get an update on the situation. At one point she was entering our house through a side-window because the front and back doors had both been blocked off with sandbags. All I could do was nod, sympathize and make appropriate noises from thousands of miles away. It was a miserable time. I look back at the photos and the weight of despair is etched into every line on my face. I felt so helpless.
Needless to say, I don't think I enjoyed a single second of that trip home.
The eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (just a year before in 2010), was a stark reminder of how suddenly and without warning, the world can change.
This time, my wife and I were thankfully not separated and were on holiday in the UK together, but the memories are still stressful to look back on. The volcanic eruption and ensuing airborne dust meant that Europe had no choice but to completely shut down its airspace. Our Emirates flight back to Thailand was cancelled until further notice and we didn't have a clue when we'd be able to return home.
To compound matters, my wife had recently started working for a large Japanese company in a management role and was eager to impress her new bosses. The last thing she wanted was to extend her European jolly beyond a fortnight. Her guilt level was understandable, given she worked with a bunch of colleagues who neither had the time nor money to travel abroad, but would've loved the opportunity.
We made the best of things by taking a short side-trip to The Cotswolds, but despite being in one of the most scenic parts of Middle England, I could sense my wife's anxiety. She put on a brave face but the fact she should have been back at her desk in Bangkok constantly played on her mind.
To add a footnote to the two stories above - not to mention a huge sigh of relief - once the volcano had stopped showing off, we were able to board a Bangkok-bound flight six days later than scheduled, and a year later, our house managed to survive the Bangkok floods and stay dry.
The memories of those 2010 and 2011 trips will live with me forever though. And although you can never guarantee a trouble-free holiday anywhere, you can always minimize the risk. We are living in times where the world can change in a heartbeat and that's why at present, the notion of going home sounds almost ridiculous - and certainly not worth the gamble.