Moving to the place your heart resides is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Take inspiration from these lionhearted ladies who went off the beaten path and dared to go to their dream destination amidst the challenges brought by a pandemic.
The pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Most of our plans — big or small — were put on an indefinite pause. However, some people won’t let uncertainty affect them. That's how it was for business development analyst Yama and content creator and visual artist Shammie.
Despite being strangers, the two share a connection: Thailand. While Shammie decided to stay there for good after inevitable circumstances, Yama decided to leave it to start fresh elsewhere.
Deciding to make the move
Shammie, who was previously based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shared that she was in the middle of travelling across Southeast Asia when the peak of the pandemic hit. She was in Bangkok at the time when the lockdown was imposed in March last year. She explained that instead of a “full lockdown,” Thailand imposed a strict curfew to control the situation.
“It just didn’t make sense to head back home with the situation and the world changing by the day,” she said.
She said she’s glad she ended up in Thailand because she’s been travelling to the country for years prior to the pandemic. She only had a tourist visa but since terms for tourist visas kept changing during the pandemic, she decided to get a longer-term visa “for peace of mind.”
She spent the majority of the lockdown in 2020 couchsurfing with friends. And while it was fun and exciting, she later decided to secure her own place.
“I currently live in Koh Phangan, an island in the south of Thailand. I moved here last September 2020 after months of not having an individual living situation,” Shammie shared.
She decided to move to Koh Phangan from Bangkok because the cost of living is much cheaper. However, she also noted that, compared to Kuala Lumpur, “the quality of living” in Bangkok is “so much better.”
On the other hand, Yama, who is Thai, always finds her way back to her home country despite constantly moving to other countries for varying reasons. Her first two moves, in Japan and the U.K., were for her studies. Those were relocations that were carefully planned. However, moving for work was something she didn’t expect she would do — especially in the middle of a pandemic.
She has been living in Taiwan since November 2020. She chose it because she’s of Chinese descent and felt like it wouldn’t be hard to adjust. Her boyfriend is also Taiwanese so she felt comfortable knowing that there was someone “who can help and deal with problems” and help her feel less homesick.
Yama shared: “As a student, I always wanted to move and explore new cities, meet people from around the world, and gain lots of cultural experience. However, I never imagined that I would move abroad for work. If I told myself 10 years ago that I would be working in Taiwan, I wouldn’t believe myself. I usually live my life well-planned but moving abroad this time surprised not only myself but also my family and friends.”
As someone currently in her late 20s, she started reevaluating her career choices two years ago after not seeing growth in her previous work environment. However, after deciding to make a big move to meet her goals, the pandemic happened.
“At first, I planned to wait until the pandemic was under control,” she said. “But as time passed by, I felt terrible because I already made a huge decision in my life but I ended up having to wait and be stuck in the same place.”
After waiting for six months, she decided to just wing it and finally “carry on with the moving process”.
“Taiwan has very strict rules and seems to be able to control the virus so I wasn’t worried about moving there,” she explained.
Navigating through a new start
Meanwhile, since moving to Thailand in the long run was not in her plans at all, Shammie shared that not having any of her belongings (besides the one she already traveled with) was the biggest challenge. It really meant “restarting life again and again.”
“There are also challenges with purchasing Thai insurance which has great coverage but has limitations of payment via Thai bank accounts/credit cards which were very hard to acquire during the pandemic,” she shared. “Now that we’re in the third wave lockdown, we have some leeway to acquire bank accounts but it isn’t easy, We don’t exactly have direct instructions on how to do so.”
She also shared that rules for foreigners staying in the country — from documentation to other immigration policies — kept changing day by day or week per week, which added another hurdle.
In the first few months of her stay, she found herself moving from place to place before settling in Koh Phangan in September last year. Having a “base” allowed her to at least find a sense of security and stability in a foreign country.
On the flip side, Yama’s departure from Thailand to Taiwan was a lot smoother. She said that it was a lot easier to get a working visa and find an apartment because not many people are flying abroad.
“I’m not sure if this is related but Taiwan is very safe and it claims to be Covid-free so I feel like I’m lucky to move here during this time,” she said. “Taiwan doesn’t ban domestic travel, too, so I get to travel to many places here and it’s not so crowded.”
Despite this, not everything’s rainbows and butterflies, especially during her first few months in the country. While she thought that learning the traditional Chinese language, since she is of Chinese heritage, in Taiwan would be great, starting from scratch and not being able to communicate well at first was actually a pain to deal with.
She shared: “I couldn’t speak Chinese at all when I first arrived. I had to be in quarantine for 14 days then and I can only order food through the delivery apps. The city I live in is not the capital city and most of the restaurants offer menus only in Chinese. I had to use Google to help me translate, but it’s not that accurate and I couldn’t get the food I wanted.”
Aside from this, securing a bank account, a phone line, and more was frustrating because the documentations are all in Chinese. She’s grateful that her boyfriend, as well as her company, helped her with the basics. But she felt bad about having to rely on them all the time and realised that being fluent in the language is the way to go. That’s why she’s now taking language classes in university, hoping that she’ll at least be able to handle small errands without anyone’s help while she learns.
Would they have decided differently?
Looking back at her experience, Shammie concluded: “I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon. Although once my visa ends in October, I may renew it and move to the north of Thailand or Bali for a change of scenery.”
She said that there are many factors that still uplift her spirit when reminded of her decision to move despite the ups and downs of settling down in a different country during the pandemic.
Apart from the affordable cost of living, accommodation, food, and convenience, she elaborated: “Thailand has been the safest country to reside in during the pandemic. Koh Phangan only had a breakout this April 2021. We currently have 12 active cases here, but it seems to be under control as we are on curfew for the third wave lockdown in the country.”
As for whether or not she’ll change circumstances if given the chance, Shammie shared:“Honestly, no one is really certain of anything. None of us tourists or locals are able to plan any major life changes, let alone plan for a way forward. So we are all living month to month — with each of us having completely different ways of making a living.”
Meanwhile, Yama said: “I plan to work for my current company for around one-and-a-half to two years and then start to do something on my own. I don’t plan to stay here for good. I might base here or in Thailand and fly back and forth if ever.”
She also shared that taking the leap as early as she did already proved to be a good decision given the uncertainty of the pandemic’s end.
She acknowledged that moving has its risks not just health-wise but also other practical matters. However, if there’s an opportunity to do so, especially considering there’s still no end in sight, it’s still worthwhile to consider moving. That’s where good planning, as well as looking at how each country handles “strict disease screening procedures”, comes into the equation.
These two women — one who has her point of origin in Thailand and the other making it their new home base (for now) — prove that those determined to start anew can’t be stopped, not even by a pandemic.