I've recently returned to the US after spending 2 months in Malaysia. It had been 1.5 years since I last traveled internationally so I was looking forward to embark on this trip.
If you had asked me last year if I'd be willing to spend 2 extra weeks of my vacation and pay out of pocket to quarantine for 2 weeks in a hotel just to travel back to Malaysia, my answer was 'no'. That was with the expectation that things would be back to normal one year into the pandemic. However, 2021 is showing that Covid-19 will still be with us for awhile and most countries will not be lifting travel restrictions anytime soon.
I could wait till Malaysia no longer requires quarantine to travel back but given how things are going around the world and how people are behaving, I wasn't optimistic that anything will change in the near future, which is why I decided to proceed with this trip.
This pandemic travel experience was certainly very different from all my previous trips, with masks, PCR tests and quarantine being the new norm. As such, I'd like to share how it was like traveling to Malaysia during Covid-19 and my hotel quarantine experience upon arrival in Malaysia.
Preparing for the trip
There were no direct flights between Maldives and Malaysia, and the connecting flights weren't operating daily either. I wanted to use my airline miles to redeem for the flights so I had the options between Qatar (42,500 AA miles) or Silkair (17,500 Krisflyer miles). I opted for the longer and more 'expensive' route on Qatar (via Doha) as I wanted to avoid the 11-hour transit at Changi airport.
This is an extremely helpful resource for all individuals who plan to travel to Malaysia during COVID-19. The admins constantly update this page with all the latest information and answer questions on a voluntary basis. Many travelers also share their travel and quarantine experiences on this page. I was able to find all the information I needed to prepare for my trip by checking the Announcements and using the Search function.
These are no longer required effective May 1st but at the time of my travel, all individuals traveling to Malaysia were still required to sign a Letter of Undertaking and Indemnity (LoU) and obtain a Letter of Approval (Entry Permit) from an accredited Malaysian Mission (i.e. Embassy or High Commission). I sent 2 emails to the Malaysian Embassy in Washington DC requesting for the Entry Permit but did not receive any reply. I figured out later that it was probably due to the fact that my flight to Malaysia was originating from the Maldives (instead of the US), so I sent another email with all the relevant documents to the Malaysian High Commission in Colombo (nearest embassy to Maldives) and received the reply and signed Entry Permit on the same day.
COVID Test and MySejahtera App
At the time of my travel, a pre-departure PCR test was optional. Travelers with an approved PCR test are required to quarantine for only 7 days, while travelers without a PCR test are required to quarantine for 10 days. These rules have since changed and a negative PCR test is now required to enter Malaysia. Since the cost of doing a PCR test in Maldives ($150) was almost similar to the cost of 3 extra days of quarantine (RM150 x 3) and a PCR test in KLIA (RM150), I decided to opt for the PCR test upon arrival and quarantine for 10 days.
All travelers entering Malaysia are required to install the MySejahtera App (contact tracing app in Malaysia). I installed the app, activated and registered my information on the app before I left the US to make sure I had everything set up before departure.
Standard Package vs. Premium Package
We had the option to choose between a standard package or a premium package for the quarantine hotel. The main difference between the standard and premium package is the ability to choose the quarantine hotel before arrival. For standard package, the hotels are randomly allocated and we would only find out where we would be staying upon arrival. I didn't really care about the premium package but I did consider the premium package at Hilton PJ to earn some Hilton points for the quarantine costs. However, after calculating the amount of points I would receive (25,000) as compared to the incremental cost I'd have to pay ($250), I decided it wasn't worth paying extra just to earn those points.
Traveling during the pandemic means packing a bit more 'COVID-essentials' and items that may be useful during quarantine. Some of the things I packed and found useful were disinfecting wipes, KF94/Uniqlo masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, travel kettle, HDMI cable, snacks, detergent, and dish wash liquid.
At the Airport
During check-in at Male airport, the airport staff requested for my LoU and Travel Notice. The check-in process took some time because even though everyone was flying to Doha, the final destinations and entry requirements were different for all passengers. The check-in agents seemed familiar with the different documents required for each country. As you can see above, there weren't any social distancing at Male airport.
I had a 3-hour transit at Doha airport before my flight to KL (and hubby's flight to Dallas). We headed to the Qatar Business Class lounge to take a shower and had some refreshment before our flights.
Doha airport was busy but not crowded with plenty of space for social distancing. All alternate seats were also blocked. I saw a few Chinese travelers who were suited up in PPE but they weren't on my flight. Boarding in Doha airport was a lot more organized and the staff reminded us to maintain physical distancing while standing in line. Since Malaysia is still not really open to foreigners, I was surprised to see a good number of non-Malaysian passengers boarding our flight. As usual, I waited to board last and had a quick chat with another Malaysian aunty from UK who was also traveling alone.
For the Doha to KL flight, I was seated at the front section of economy right behind the business class section, which had less passengers and was quieter. The flight was probably only 30% full and everyone had a full row for ourselves. Once again, I made myself comfortable with my economy lay-flat seat and slept through majority of the 7.5 hour flight. As much as I'd like to try out the Qsuites business class, I'm sure glad I didn't waste those extra miles this trip as I got an empty row for myself in each long-haul flight.
We were provided with a hygiene pack that contains a mask, gloves and sanitizer. I also wiped down my seats and surrounding area with the disinfecting wipes I brought, and was comfortably double masked with KF94 and Uniqlo masks. I was already used to wearing a mask in-flight at this point and had no issues falling asleep with masks on.
This trip was my first time traveling on Qatar Airways but I'd say Qatar did not cut down on their in-flight services at all and everything felt like a normal pre-pandemic flight, with the exception of face mask being required throughout the flight. The cabin crew were dressed in protective gears and had to request some passengers to wear their face mask properly because some people just can't follow instructions.
As our flight departed at 2.10am and I had already been awake for 22 hours at this point, I dozed off before the flight took off. I was half awake when they served the egg sandwich snack and didn't end up eating it. An hour before landing, breakfast/lunch was served and I had the vegetables noodles with youtiao. Knowing that it would take some time to get to the quarantine hotel and before I get to eat again, I made sure to eat up and fuel up before landing. Overall, I've been happy with the meals served on all Qatar flights.
Arrival at KLIA Airport
Step-by-step guidance upon arrival at KLIA (for Premium Package)
Our flight landed at 2.25pm and I was off the plane by 2.35pm. The disembarkation process wasn't any different than usual and it was quicker since the flight wasn't full. The airport was clearly very empty as I walked from our gate to the Aero Train area. I found out later that there were a total of 20 international flights that were scheduled to arrive KLIA on that day. A quick tip here is to connect to the free wifi in KLIA as you are walking to the Aero Train area as you'd need internet to use the MySejahtera app.
Scan QR code with MySejahtera app
The were a few people huddled around the Aero Train area where we were supposed to scan the QR code using the MySejahtera app. There was also a staff stationed at this area helping confused passengers on how to fill out the information on the app. The app prompted me to fill in my flight details, seat locations, IC, passport, and hotel address. Since I wasn't sure which hotel I was staying at yet, the staff helped me out by entering KLIA's address.
I screenshot the screen showing my red status, showed it to the police, and was allowed through the Aero Train area to proceed downstairs to board the bus to the main terminal. The Aero Train was not operating due to Covid so everyone had to get on the bus to get to the main terminal. I was the first to board the bus and had to wait for about 10 minutes for the bus to fill up. Social distancing weren't required on the bus but I'm glad most people kept a distance away from each other.
Multiple Stations at the Main Terminal
I arrived at the main terminal at 3pm and was 'welcomed' by multiple stations that were set up before the immigration counter. The very first section splits passengers between those who have a negative PCR test result and those who didn't. I didn't do a PCR test before arrival so I followed the signs for no PCR. I provided my passport, boarding pass, and travel history, then proceeded to the COVID-19 test station where they did a nose and throat swab. The swab tests were done quick and I didn't feel any discomfort. I then provided my signed LoU and made the RM150 payment for the PCR test by credit card at the next station before proceeding to the immigration counter. I was done with all the stations and cleared immigration by 3.25pm, pretty quick coz I didn't have to wait at all.
After clearing immigration, we were asked to wait before collecting our baggage. This is where they gather passengers who are taking the standard package in groups as we will be boarding the same bus to the quarantine hotel. I've heard others saying that they didn't know which hotel they were going until the bus arrived at the hotel, but I overheard the staff telling another traveler that we would be going to KIP Hotel Kepong.
Collect Baggage and Board Bus to Hotel
After waiting for about 20 minutes, we were ushered to the baggage claim area to collect our luggage and proceed to the designated airport exit to wait to board the bus. The staff provided all the information and instructions only in Malay, and one of them happily asked me to help explain what she said to another Japanese guy.
A frontliner sanitized all our bags prior to loading them onto the bus and our bus left the airport at 4.30pm. All in all, it took about 2 hours after arrival to go through all the arrival procedures and leave the airport. Not bad at all, and big thanks to all the frontliners.
Our quarantine hotel was located about an hour away from the airport, but the journey took slightly longer as we hit rush hour traffic. Inter-district travel is restricted in KL so our bus passed a roadblock shortly after leaving KLIA.
Hotel Quarantine at KIP Hotel Kepong
Our bus pulled up at the 'glamorous' hotel loading bay at 5.45pm and all the hotel staff were decked out in PPE waiting to check us in. A staff came onboard asking all of us to stay seated in the bus until our names are called. As you can see from the photos, there wasn't a lot of space at the loading bay so they didn't want all of us crowding the area while we wait to check-in. While we were waiting in the bus, the staff unloaded all our bags and lined them up on the side. They started the check-in process with the senior citizens, pregnant ladies and family with kids. I was seated at the first row on the bus and was next in line to check in.
I provided my passport and IC, and was informed that the cost of my 10 days (9 nights) stay would be RM1,400 ($340). I was expecting to pay RM150/day so I was happy that it was RM100 cheaper. After making the payment with my credit card, I was provided with my room key and few pieces of paper with QR codes, which includes the QR code to join the Whatsapp group for our quarantine batch and also to fill out a health questionnaire on Google Sheet.
I then collected my luggage and took the service elevator up to 11th floor. Up to this point, I wasn't impressed by the hotel's exterior, and the hallways made it feel like I was in an apartment instead of a hotel. A chair was placed beside every door which was used for all our meal deliveries. I had a quick look of the hotel surrounding before stepping into room 1123, my 'home' for the next 10 days.
I made it to my room at 6.15pm, feeling relieved that I can finally take off my mask and get some rest after traveling for 33 hours. My first impression of the room was actually pretty good, much better than the exterior. It was pretty spacious, had a floor to ceiling window which can be opened slightly, ample table space for me to work on, and the bathroom had a walk in shower and a large sink. I was slightly disappointed about not getting a king bed initially but was actually glad to get 2 single beds because I could easily swap beds halfway through my stay without having to change the bedlinens myself. The room was considered clean, but I spent the first half an hour in the room wiping down and disinfecting every corner of the room before settling down.
Set-up for Comfort
Since I was going to be confined in this room for the next 10 days, I made a few minor tweaks to set the room up for a comfortable stay. As I was going to be working throughout quarantine, I brought a HDMI cable to connect my computer to the TV for a 3rd screen. It took awhile to locate and reach the HDMI port behind the TV but I managed to set it up after some persistence. I moved the desk back slightly as it was too close to the TV. The chair was stained and grossed so I placed my packing cube over it. I made the right corner of the desk the 'kitchen' area as it was right next to the fridge. I also brought dish wash soap and sponge to clean my utensils. As I was going to be traveling for an extended period, I brought laundry detergent to hand wash some clothes in the hotel. The hotel slippers I brought from Conrad Maldives came in handy with the wood floors.
My room was stocked with a carton of bottled water, 3 extra rolls of toilet paper, a full bag of toiletries (i.e. shampoo, bath gel, soaps), and a bag of coffee, tea, creamer, and sugar. There was a fridge and a kettle in the room. In general, the amenities provided were sufficient and we were able to request for more via the Whatsapp group chat. There was also a phone in the room where we could call the front desk if we needed. Few items I wished the hotel had provided were lotion, conditioner, hairdryer, and iron.
The hotel had free wifi but it was very spotty. I complained about it on the first day and the hotel did try to fix it but it still wasn't good, especially during the day. Thankfully most of my work calls were in the middle of the night when the traffic is lower so I survived 10 days with the slow internet.
Our quarantine cost includes 3 meals per day, a total of 26 meals starting with dinner on Day 1 and ending with breakfast on Day 10. All meals were placed on the chair outside my room based on the following schedules:
Breakfast: 7am - 8am
Lunch: 12pm - 1pm
Dinner: 6pm - 7pm
The staff would sometimes knock the door after delivering the meals but they weren't consistent. However, the hotel staff would send a message in the Whatsapp group after all meals had been delivered.
Overall, the meals were decent and the portions were more than enough for me. I usually skipped breakfast because I'd rather sleep. All lunches and dinners came with lots of rice, 2-3 dishes, and almost always include some sort of curry, which I'm not complaining because I haven't had any curry in the States.
The hotel allowed online food order from GrabFood or FoodPanda between 4pm-6pm as long as they are halal food (no alcohol or pork) but I didn't see the need to order anything. The food provided by the hotel was good enough for me.
We were provided with a yellow 'biohazard' trash bag everyday for our garbage. I didn't want to be wasteful so I'd keep my leftovers in the fridge for 1-2 days before consolidating them into a trash bag and left them outside my room for the staff to collect.
Hotel Staff Service and Communication
As mentioned above, we were given a QR code at check in to join the Whatsapp group for our quarantine batch, which the hotel staff used for all communication. I was in the 39th batch with 10 days quarantine group. I can't remember exactly how many people were in our group but I think it was at least 50. Our group included a group of employees who returned from an offshore windfarm in Taiwan so they were a lot more active in the group since they knew each other. As you can see above, the hotel staff were very responsive to all sort of questions and requests, including random request to 'talk along the corridor' and complaints about the smell of the veggies.
A lot of information about the quarantine do's and don'ts were also provided in a laminated leaflet in our hotel room.
Daily Health Update and COVID Test
On day 3, the Health Ministry people came by and gave me my quarantine wristband, a thermometer, and hand sanitizer. We are supposed to check our own temperature daily and complete our daily health update on MySejahtera app.
I also received the results of the PCR test I did in KLIA on Day 3 via the MySejahtera app. All is good with a negative.
In addition to the COVID-19 tests I had done upon arriving in KLIA, I was required to do another test on Day 7. All of us who were quarantining for 10 days were ushered to another room where we took turns to get our test. For this 2nd test, they did only the nose swab. A negative PCR test result from this 2nd test is required before I'm allowed to exit my quarantine. I was relieved to received the negative test results on Day 9. =)
10 Days of Isolation
Most people will think that 10 days in quarantine would be boring but I beg to differ. In fact, I really enjoyed my quarantine and could easily do more if I had to. The biggest part was having work to keep me busy. I was working US time zone and since I had nothing else to do, I worked through the night and slept in the afternoon. Besides, 10 days of solitude was priceless. Here are a some things I did during my quarantine:
And more work
Enjoyed the view of Batu Caves from my room
Drank an average of 3 liters of water per day and built my own quarantine trophy
I had packed my bags the night before and got ready early for the check-out announcement. At 10am, we were informed that check-out would begin and were asked to stay in our room until the hotel staff knocks on our door and bring us to the lobby. The hotel staff knocked on my door at 10.40am, did a quick inspection of the room, and one of the hotel staff helped to bring my bags to the elevator. We were finally allowed to use the main elevator instead of the service elevator. I also finally saw how the hotel lobby looks like.
There were a few desks set up at the lobby to assist us with the check-out process. I first returned the room key and the hotel staff confirmed that no additional payment was needed. Next, the Ministry of Health staff provided my Annex 17 Discharge Letter, I paid RM150 for the 2nd PCR Test, had my blue wristband removed, and obtained the interstate travel approval from the police. The hotel staff also presented my prize, a 2D1N stay voucher for the Fun Contest at check-out. With that, I was free to go out and about!
Bro came to pick me up from the hotel and we celebrated the completion of my quarantine with a local meal at a nearby restaurant.
My return flight from Malaysia to US was booked last June. Even though our travel plans had changed multiple times since then, I held on to this booking and was glad that there weren't any major changes or cancellations for these flights. I used 35,000 Delta miles to redeem for the flights from KL - Incheon - Atlanta - Huntsville, with the long-haul flights on Korean Airlines.
As for my domestic flight from Penang to KL, I booked a separate ticket on MAS only 1.5 weeks before departure as I wanted to make sure that the flight will not be cancelled.
Interstate Travel Approval
As I had to travel domestically from Penang to KL to board my flight, I had to obtain an Interstate Travel Approval from the local police station. The process was fairly easy and the police only asked a few questions about my job, not really for the approval but more so because they were nosy. I brought along copies of my US Green Card and my flight itinerary just in case. I was asked to provide this letter upon check-in at Penang airport.
Negative COVID Test
The US requires all air passengers flying to the US to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 3 days before departure. The US accepts either an Antigen test or a PCR test. I paid RM216 and made an appointment to do a PCR test at BP Healthcare 2 days before my flight, and received the results the next day around 1pm. I only needed to provide my negative PCR test result once upon check-in at KLIA. The US immigration officer did not ask for my PCR test result when I arrived in Atlanta.
Malaysia is still restricting Malaysians from exiting the country and require approval through MyTravelPass or relevant supporting documents to exit the country. As I am a Permanent Resident of the US, I did not need to apply for any additional approval to exit Malaysia. All I had to do was to present my US Green Card to the immigration officer.
I must say my overall experience had been a positive one and Malaysia has done a great job coordinating and managing the entry into Malaysia and all the quarantine arrangements. Big thank you to all the frontliners for making it possible for Malaysians to travel home safely.
Traveling during a pandemic was certainly a very different experience than all my pre-pandemic travels. The constantly changing travel requirements made it difficult to plan ahead and required a lot more flexibility. Now that I've completed my journey safely, I'm glad to report that everything went as smooth as it possibly could for me. I am incredibly thankful for the ability to travel internationally during these trying times and spend quality time with my family.
We don't know how much longer this pandemic will be with us, but I'm hopeful that we will all be able to travel freely again and spend more time with our loved ones.
I was fully aware of the risks I'd be taking to travel during a pandemic so this decision was made based on the following thoughts and considerations, with the main objective of spending time with my family:
- My parents and grandparents are not getting any younger. My dad's condition (physically and mentally) has been deteriorating slowly after his 2nd stroke and my grandma is getting more forgetful, so I wanted to spend more time and make memories with them while I can and before it's too late.
- I've read too many real-life examples in the Malaysia Quarantine Support Group (crowd-source Facebook group that provides useful info for people who are traveling to Malaysia during COVID-19) of people who had to travel home last minute because of an ailing family member or for a funeral, like this guy. This day may come one day but I don't want to wait till that happens to travel home.
- There is no restrictions for Malaysians to travel back to Malaysia at any time as long as I adhere to the entry and quarantine requirements. In fact, with the interstate travel ban in Malaysia, it's more possible to travel home from overseas than from another state.
- I earned a 4-week sabbatical with my promotion last year and figured this would be a good time to use it while tagging on some vacation hours that I needed to burn.
- The COVID-19 situation was better in Malaysia than the US earlier this year (cases have increased since I left).
- The quarantine cost in Malaysia is considered reasonable as compared to many other countries, and there is no mandatory quarantine coming back to the US.
- I wasn't able to get vaccinated yet prior to my departure but I made sure to follow all SOPs and CDC travel recommendations to protect myself and others.