For the past few years, I've made it a point to travel home at least once a year. Obviously, that didn't happen in 2020. We were all hoping that things would be back to normal by 2021, but unfortunately, this year is showing us that COVID-19 is not going away given how people are behaving, and we will just need to learn to live with it.
As such, in April/May 2021, I made the decision to travel back home to Malaysia for 5 weeks to spend time with family. As Malaysia required a mandatory quarantine upon arrival, I figured this was a good time to use the 4-weeks sabbatical I earned last year and tagged on some vacation hours for an extended period of time-off from work.
15 Apr 2021 - 19 May 2021: Penang
The many levels of COVID restrictions in Malaysia are so complicated and the use of similar terms certainly didn't make it any easier (even the Prime Minister couldn't get it right). I'm thankful that for the majority of my stay, Penang was under CMCO, which allowed us to fit in a few family outings. There were no restrictions on inter-district travel. Those lasted until May 10, when a nationwide inter-district travel ban was reinstated and dine-ins were banned. My stay was also prior to the Delta variant surge in Malaysia, when the daily case count was much lower than what they are now.
P.S. Our activities were in compliance with all applicable SOPs at the time.
Apr 15 (Thurs): Finally made it to Penang at 8pm after a detour through KL. Thanks to twin bro and SIL for picking me up from the airport. Twin bro and his family traveled back from KL to Penang in January prior to the interstate travel ban and have since been staying in Penang. This turned out to be a good decision as we were able to spend a lot more time together during my home trip.
Apr 18 (Sun): Took the kiddos to the Countryside Stables in Balik Pulau to see, feed and ride horses. Gotta expose these pandemic-city-kids to some countryside experience. This pandemic gave us the opportunity to discover new places like this that are close to us.
Bravest kid award goes to the Xuan. He was the only one who dared to pat the pony/horse and was chilling and enjoying the horse ride. Qing's expression cracks me up, she was obviously scared and at some point angry, but at least she didn't cry or whine. =P
Apr 30 - May 2 (Fri - Sun): Treated the family with a 3D2N staycation at DoubleTree Resort Penang. Booked 2 rooms with 9,000 points/room/night. Both rooms were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite with balcony (rooms 621 and 622) and were next to each other (but not connected). This was my 2nd time staying at this hotel and I was also upgraded to the same suite for my previous stay. One thing to point out is that the hotel very quickly opened up a parking spot right in front of the hotel for us and reserved that spot for us for the rest of our stay when they saw dad arriving in a wheelchair. =)
I had informed the hotel that we're celebrating grandma's birthday so I was happy to see these in the room when we checked in. Those balloons came in handy for the kiddos.
Glad we had 2 suites with plenty of room for everyone (during the day).
As Gold and Diamond members, we were welcomed with this nice little goodie bag that includes some candies in our rooms. Gold and Diamond members benefit in this hotel include daily complimentary tea/coffee for 2 (3-4pm) and daily evening cocktails for 2 (6-7pm), respectively, at the Axis Lounge.
We also received the Doubletree signature choc chip cookies at check in.
Another benefit for Gold/Diamond members is the daily complimentary buffet breakfast at Makan Kitchen. To accommodate the reduced capacity at the restaurant, guests were given 3 breakfast time slots to choose at check-in. The buffet options were more limited compared to pre-pandemic and no self-service for the buffet to keep things hygienic.
The 'mahjong professors' enjoying the staycation...lol!
The hotel has a cool kiddo pool with slide and splash areas but the kids weren't quite interested in them. There was also a Kids club but we found out it's only for 4 and above.
This small little sand pit beside the pool was the kids' favorite. It was small, shaded, filled with real sand, and the hotel provided those cool trucks for the kids to play.
Since most of the residential and club pools have been closed due to the pandemic, this was a good opportunity for the kids to enjoy some pool time. The duck and french fries floats were provided by the hotel.
The kids had a good time and burned lots of energy out in the sun.
While the kiddos were napping in the afternoon, the adults took the opportunity to go enjoy some good Korean food at Home Cook Korean restaurant in Tanjung Bungah.
For dinner, we drove to Golden River restaurant, which was located 5 min from the hotel for some good local food.
Random selfies. I was happily standing out in the sun with my mask and sunglasses, and suddenly realized I'd better get under the shade to avoid weird tan lines on my face...lol! Thanks again to DoubleTree Resort Penang for the warm hospitality and a wonderful staycation for our family. Will certainly hope to return again the next time I go back. =)
May 9 (Sun): Celebrate niece's 3rd birthday celebration at home with steamboat.
These photos pretty much sums up the love-hate relationships between these trios...lol!!
Also celebrated Mother's Day with all the mothers in the house. =)
It’s been a long time since all 3 of us have been home at the same time to celebrate Mother’s Day so this was definitely a special one, especially in the world we live in today.
Apr 19 & 20 (Mon & Tues): Coincidentally, I was back just in time for grandma and grandaunt's vaccination appointments. They are both in the over-80 category so they were one of the first few in line for the vaccination (after essential workers). Since I didn't have to work, I was able to accompany them to the vaccination center and helped with the paperwork/procedures. Once again, thanks to all the frontliners for a smooth vaccination process.
May 10 & 11 (Mon & Tues): I was also the designated driver for their 2nd Pfizer vaccine appointment 3 weeks later. We celebrated completing both doses of vaccines with a $0.25 McD sundae cone. =P On a side note, it was heartwarming to see many children/grandchildren accompanying their parents/grandparents to get vaccinated, and doing what they should to protect their loved ones and help the country get through the pandemic.
Some other random things I did this trip...built a shelf for grandaunt, renewed my passport and IC, made Lu Rou Fan for the family, had 2 hair cuts, and got a new glasses.
Other than the few outings above, I stayed home for the most part to spend time with the family. Also met up with a few close friends in our homes/garden to be safe.
And of course, spending time at home with the kiddos means lots of kiddo pics....
Helped to pick the twins up from day care once
Playtime at the playground before they closed it towards the end of my stay.
These kids have sooo many toys, I hijacked their toys to build my own 'towers'. =P
Selfies with the kiddos. I had the most photos with Xuan because he's the only one who always entertains my selfie requests, while the girls always ignore me. =P Yes, I wore masks the entire time I was around people, including families, throughout this trip to protect myself and people around me. This is because I didn't want to 'waste' 2 weeks being sick given the limited amount of time I have on this trip.
Based on our observations so far, this boy is getting more and more like twin bro. Nice boy, gentle, calm, innocent, and gets bullied by the sister...lol!!
While this girl is a total opposite of the brother. She's cheeky, whiny, hyper, smartly 'manipulative', dramatic, and bullies the brother...hahaha sounds like me!
Kiddos when they are just chilling and hanging out (not fighting).
May 10 (Mon): As mentioned above, a nationwide inter-district travel ban was reinstated and dine-ins were banned starting May 10. Glad we did all the outings earlier. =D
May 17 (Mon): The US requires a negative test to enter so I did a 'walk-through' PCR test for RM200 at BP Healthcare 2 days before my departure. Received the results the next day and thankfully it was negative.
May 19 (Wed): After 5 weeks at home, it was finally time to say goodbye. Due to the restrictions on the number of passengers allowed in a car, since it was a work day, I bid goodbye to everyone at home and mom dropped me off at the airport.
My MAS flight from Penang - KL was booked only 10 days before the flight. I redeemed the flight for 7,900 Enrich points + $10 taxes. Thankfully, it wasn't cancelled. Once again, my baggage packing skill was good enough (38kg for 35kg allowance). The airport was fairly empty, but there was still quite a good number of passengers on the flight.
The flight departed on time at 3.40pm. Goodbye and see y'all again soon!!
Back in empty KLIA again. I had 5 hours to wait before my Korean Air flight to Incheon at 9.50pm. None of the Priority Pass lounges were opened so I found a quiet place to wait and had KFC for dinner before checking in for my next flight. The check in process was fairly easy. I only had to show my negative test at check-in and my US green card at the immigration.
My return flight from Malaysia to US was booked speculatively last June when airlines were offering free cancellation and I found a good award deal on Delta. I redeemed 35,000 Delta miles + $55 taxes for the one-way flight from KL-Incheon-Atlanta-Huntsville, with the long-haul flights entirely on Korean Air. I held on to this booking and was glad that there weren't any major changes or cancellations for these flights.
I'm sure glad that all my long-haul flights were on an Korean Air because I've noticed that Asians are much better with wearing their masks properly and following instructions. Majority of the passengers on the flight from KL to Incheon were Koreans and they all wore KF94 masks, properly. =D Plus, there was a temperature check before boarding.
The flight was fairly empty and I had a full row of 4 for myself. That means, I made my own 'lay-flat' economy seat. =) Had chicken with spicy sauce at 2 hours before arrival.
Landed at Incheon airport at 5.05am. We were all asked to stay seated until the crew notify us that we're allowed to disembark. EVERYONE followed instructions and stayed seated!! A ground staff who was dressed in PPE came onboard and escorted an old couple off the plane, while we all waited. Oh...I LOVE Asian airlines!! There were 'CORONA' signs everywhere around the airport but there weren't any additional requirements or paperwork required for transit passengers. Mask was required for everyone in the airport.
I had about 4 hours transit thought about using the free shower facilities at Incheon Airport before my long flight, but found out that all the showers facilities were closed due to COVID. It was sad to see that there were so few flights departing from Incheon that day and the full list easily fit in just one column. There used to be pages of flights on the departure board pre-pandemic.
There was one Priority Pass lounge, the Matina lounge, that opened at 7am so I was able to grab a quick bite at the lounge. The food was served buffet style and guests are asked to wear mask and wear the plastic gloves provided when getting the food. Of course, a group of white guys stupidly wasn't wearing their mask and the staff had to ask them to wear it. =.=
Bought some souvenirs for the family at the duty free shop before going to the gate to catch my flight at 9.20am.
This flight was also fairly empty and once again, I got a full row of 3 for myself and made myself very comfortable with my lay-flat economy seats. =)
Always happy to get bibimbap when I fly Korean airlines. 2nd meal was beef with ginger sauce. We were also served a hot pocket for snack. I must say Korean Air didn't cut down on their service despite the pandemic. Apart from the cabin crew dressed in PPE and all passengers are required to wear mask throughout the flight, everything else was normal.
Landed at Atlanta airport at 10am. I had Global Entry and it took me less than 5 minutes to get through immigration. They didn't even ask any questions. All I heard was 'everything looks good'. No temperature check, no contact tracing, no questions on where you come from, nobody asked for the negative test, NOTHING. All we got on the flight was a little CDC brochure recommending us to stay home and get tested. Not saying that I'm surprised but still, zero efforts there. Welcome to America!
I had 8 hours of transit at Atlanta airport and the Delta staff wouldn't let me get on an earlier flight for free even if there was space. I used my Priority Pass at the Minute Suites to take a nap for an hour, then went to the Club lounge. Both the lounge and flight was full. The US is like a different world coming from Asia where the airports were empty. Fortunately, it was only a short 40 min flight from Atlanta to Huntsville.
Made it home after 40 hours of traveling and being away from the hubby for 2 months. Thanks to hubby for these simple yet heartwarming gestures to welcome me home - Picked me up at the airport, helped me unpack, did laundry for the pile of clothes I brought back, made dinner for me, cleaned dishes and my water bottle, cleaned and changed the bedsheets, reminded me to sign up for vaccination.
That's a wrap for my first trip during a pandemic. Despite all the uncertainties, challenges, and restrictions, I'm thankful that everything went as smoothly as it possibly could for me throughout my 2-month long trip. I am certainly not taking for granted the ability to travel internationally during these trying times. I'm thankful to all the frontliners for making it possible for Malaysians like me to travel home safely and spend quality time with loved ones. 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.
As mentioned above, I was fully aware of the risks I was taking to travel internationally 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 of people who had to travel home last minute because of an ailing family member or for a funeral. 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.
- 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.
- As I was yet to be vaccinated at the time of my travel, I exercised more caution and made sure to follow all SOPs and CDC travel recommendations to protect myself and others throughout the trip.