The coronavirus outbreak began in China and quickly spread across other countries in Asia. Now, amid a global pandemic, some Asian countries are experiencing a second wave of imported cases. We asked a number of locals to share their experience of what it’s like to live in Asia right now.

A man kisses his partner goodbye, both wearing face masks, during the coronavirus pandemic in Beijing.
A tender moment during the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing © Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Stephen Lioy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Stephen Lioy is a Lonely Planet writer who has been based intermittently in Kyrgyzstan since 2012.  All international passenger flights to Kyrgyzstan have been suspended indefinitely aside from three weekly routes to Russia, and citizens have been told to avoid gatherings of larger than 50 people, and public spaces (cafes, restaurants, banquet halls) with seating for more than 50 have been shut down. The government announced a pending state of emergency, but with no details provided on what the rules surrounding this will be. Currently only 12 known cases exist in Kyrgyzstan, with at least an additional 649 patients in quarantine due to recent travels or suspected contact with known cases.

Stephen Lioy, wearing a face mask in the prison-like yard of a former military facility in Bishkek.
Stephen Lioy, quarantined in a former US military facility in Bishkek © Stephen Lioy

Coronavirus cancelled my wedding, which was meant to take place on 21 March in Istanbul; once the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March we told our friends and family not to travel as it appeared borders might grow quickly and increasingly less porous. I was already in Istanbul taking care of last-minute preparations, having previously flown to Berlin a few days before for an also-cancelled conference.

Alone in Istanbul, I initially opted to wait it out till 18 March, when I'd have been out of Germany for 14 days. Kyrgyzstan shortly began to introduce increasingly tighter restrictions on who was allowed to enter, eventually denying entry to all foreigners and mandating quarantine for locals returning from China, Italy, Korea, Germany and a few others. However, when the government announced an exception for spouses of Kyrgyz citizens starting midnight of the 19th, I raced to the airport to try and get myself into the country (luckily we'd already prepared the legal documents and registered our marriage in Kyrgyzstan before I left!)

I'm currently sitting in day 5 of a 14 day quarantine in the former US military facility beside Bishkek's airport, reopened as a quarantine facility in recent weeks. It wasn't a fun ride to get here – I had to talk fast to convince Turkish Airlines staff to let me on the flight and again to convince the local border guards not to deport me immediately on arrival; the rules have been changing so quickly that not everybody appears to be aware of the most recent regulations, and I was threatened with deportation by at least three different border guards in the six hours I waited at the airport for an entry decision.


Update: I flew last night to Kyrgystan after the government changed the rules to allow spouses of Kyrgyz citizens to enter despite the current border restrictions. I was almost turned away twice at Istanbul airport by Turkish Airlines and was threatened with deportation at least three times when I landed in Bishkek by different border guards. Obviously the restrictions around travel are constantly changing these days all over the world, but if you know you have the right to enter or travel according to the rules of where you're transiting or traveling to, print out copies of documents and statutes to prove your point along the way. I'm just checked into a 14 day quarantine at the old US military base outside of Bishkek, after which I can hopefully reunite with my family with no more complications. #CoronaDiaries

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Quarantine is unspeakably boring, but conditions aren't too bad – a little grimy since upkeep has been minimal since the US base closed in 2012, but the necessities are provided and there's a congenial 'all in this together' sort of mood amongst the residents of the facility. For now, we wait. Two weeks can't end quickly enough.

Paul Clammer in Beirut, Lebanon

Paul Clammer is a Lonely Planet writer who has been living in Beirut since 2018. Lebanon has declared a state of medical emergency, with the closure of all non-essential businesses. Hospitals, pharmacies, bakeries, supermarkets and grocery stores remain open, with all citizens urged to remain at home. Beirut international airport and all land borders are closed until at least 29 March.

Paul Clammer takes a selfie in front of an enormous shipwreck on a sandy beach in Mauritania.
Paul Clammer on the road in Mauritania before self-isolating in Beirut © Paul Clammer

Like many travellers, I was in exactly the wrong place when the world started to take coronavirus seriously. Thankfully Lebanon introduced its travel ban in stages, giving me enough time to show my residency card – my permission to travel – at the airport check-in desk, and get home before the quarantine doors swung permanently shut.

My partner and I are now self-isolating for 14 days. Thankfully we have a balcony that catches the sun for part of the day, and our jasmine is just starting to blossom. It's a welcome reminder that normal life will eventually return.

Beirut is a noisy, lively city that is falling quiet as people start to heed the government advice to stay at home. The seafront Corniche, the city's beloved promenading spot, is deserted. Traffic gets lighter every day, although the flocks of delivery scooters, so often an annoyance for their cavalier attitude to road rules, are now truly coming into their own. This is a city where you can order a shisha (water pipe) for home delivery, after all. Grocery stores are currently well stocked, though some are asking customers to send their shopping lists by WhatsApp and wait outside while their orders are made up, to be handed over by a masked and gloved employee.

Even before coronavirus, Lebanon was in the midst of economic turmoil, with the government defaulting on a foreign debt payment for the first time ever. The crisis comes on the back of the popular revolution (or thawra in Arabic) that began last October with massive protests against state and institutional corruption. The thawra has been carried along by a swell of national pride, with the Lebanese flag flown everywhere these last few months as a symbol that we are all in this together. It's an attitude that encourages the spirit as the country faces this unprecedented crisis.

Read more: Coronavirus dispatches: writers around Europe share their experiences

Tom O'Malley in Beijing, China

Tom has been living in Beijing for 11 years. He researched and wrote the forthcoming 12th edition of the Beijing Lonely Planet guide.

Tom O'Malley wearing a face mask in a park in Beijing with a pram next to him
Tom gets some fresh air without taking any risks in Beijing © Thomas O'Malley

As I write this, Beijing is basking in warm spring sunshine and blue skies, a glorious day to greet the uplifting news that for the first time since lockdown began in January, China recorded no new local infections. It’s taken a Herculean effort to "flatten the curve", as Tom Hanks put it, the sort of militaristic disaster response that an authoritarian, one-party government like China’s is so equipped for.

The mood is gingerly optimistic as Beijingers shake off the collective hibernation hangover and start to venture out of doors. Schools have opened in other parts of China (not yet in Beijing), and though most tourist sights remain closed, the parks are busy just as the first cherry blossoms come into bloom. We’re getting used to the ‘new normal’ of face masks, constant temperature checks, and having our phones scanned to reveal past whereabouts.

In a city typically defined by crowds, Beijing is unseasonably free of tourists. Anyone coming into the capital – even if from a neighbouring city like Tianjin – is required to quarantine at a central government facility for 14 days, with family members segregated. Understandably, people are staying away.

Read more: Coronavirus dispatches: writers around North America share their experiences

Those with tourist-oriented businesses like hotels, restaurants and travel companies have been particularly hard hit. Anyone with premises in the hutong (Beijing’s historic inner-city lanes) has suffered dreadfully; for weeks now, every hutong in Beijing has a checkpoint and gate that only permits residents. Normally at this time of year, we’d be brunching on the roof terrace of boutique hotel the Orchid, or sipping al fresco negronis at Nina, but both are deep in the hutong and impossible to access. Businesses on main streets have fared better; Slow Boat Brewery, a craft beer bar, has kept pouring pints throughout the lockdown, god bless them.

Where does it go from here? With the situation changing day-by-day, it’d be rash to even hazard a guess. But right now in Beijing, the spring warmth brings hope that there is light at the end of tunnel, and life after coronavirus.

James Pham in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 

A freelance travel and copywriter, James Pham has been living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, for eight years. Vietnam has been one of the most proactive countries in dealing with COVID-19. Visas on arrival have been suspended for all foreign nationals and those arriving from the US, Europe, and Southeast Asia are now being sent to medical camps for 14-day quarantine. Bars, cinemas, massage parlours and clubs are shuttered in Ho Chi Minh City while schools have yet to reopen since late January’s Lunar New Year holidays.

James Pham sits at a small table working on his computer.
James reports on the reaction to the world pandemic in Vietnam © James Pham

While it’s all anyone can talk about, Vietnam’s COVID-19 situation can be described as a cautious “so far, so good”, thanks to the Vietnamese government’s quick and effective measures, including closing down flights and borders with China and flights with Korea very early on. Everyone receives multiple updates from the Ministry of Health via text every day and there’s a stiff fine for spreading false information. While Vietnam’s ultra-preparedness has largely been overlooked by international media, it’s a real source of pride for the Vietnamese people, even spawning a catchy viral music video (it feels weird to use that phrase now) and Tik Tok dance challenge that encourages hand-washing and social distancing.

Life in Ho Chi Minh City for most Vietnamese is rolling along with a few differences. Typically packed streetside coffee shops now only have a few customers because drinking coffee while wearing a face mask isn’t all that fun (face masks are now mandatory in public places like transport hubs, shopping malls, and supermarkets). The roads that were blissfully empty of the city’s legendary 8 million motorbikes during Lunar New Year have remained lightly trafficked since kids haven’t yet returned to school. While it’s been hard on some families, Vietnamese homes are typically multi-generational, with grandparents at home (or nearby) to look after the kids.

There was initial panic buying of face masks, hand sanitizer, and instant noodles, but glad to say toilet paper is in full supply (thank you, bum hose!). In fact, almost everything is back in good supply and food delivery is fast and cheap, often costing less than US$1 (or sometimes even free). I can have a steaming US$2 bowl of beef noodle phở delivered in less than 20 minutes!

Read more: Lockdowns and travel bans: which countries have COVID-19 restrictions

While a few companies have allowed employees to work from home and some workers have stayed in the provinces instead of returning to the city, for most, it’s business as usual, albeit much slower. Hardest-hit sectors have been tourism and food (especially foreign-owned restaurants and businesses who depend on tourists) and factories that rely on Chinese-made materials.

Because a third of confirmed cases are foreigners, there is an underlying suspicion and even scattered instances of xenophobia happening. I was on a small group tour in the Mekong Delta last week, and as our group of English, French, and Aussies walked by, some of the locals wondered aloud why we weren’t scared of coronavirus. Our tour guide responded that if there weren’t any tourists, people like him would be dead of hunger long before coronavirus. A small number of shops have posted signs saying they don’t serve foreigners, but recently, the government has issued a statement asking local authorities to follow up on all complaints of foreigners being treated differently.

Since the borders with China have been tightly controlled, there’s been an excess of produce leading to huge piles of watermelons and dragon fruit being sold very cheaply on the side of the road. However, a few feel-good stories have emerged. One of my favourites is of a local baker who found a way to incorporate fuschia-coloured dragon fruit into cakes and buns to help out local farmers, and even KFC is set to debut dragon fruit burger buns this week!

Jenny Elliott in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Jenny Elliott is a British freelance travel writer who moved to Colombo in April 2019 with her young family. Over the last week, Sri Lanka has begun to see its first cases of COVID-19 community transmission. In response to the virus, the government closed its national parks, cinemas and theatres for the foreseeable future. Schools have also shut until 20 April. All the country’s airports have now closed to inward international commercial passenger flights until 25 March. Passengers are currently able to board flights leaving the country. On 18 March, the validity period of all types of visas issued to foreigners was extended by a month.

Jenny Elliott standing against a sandstone wall in a black t-shirt and yellow skirt
Jenny is doing her best to keep her family safe in rapidly changing circumstances © Jenny Elliott

It took people by surprise when the government closed the schools last Thursday. Most families knew it was coming, we just didn’t expect it so soon, when the numbers of COVID-19 patients were still in single figures. For many of us, it jolted us back to April last year, when all the schools had been closed following the Easter terrorist attacks. There was a similar atmosphere of shock tinged with anxiety. Except this time, we recognised it might be a much longer road back to any kind of normalcy.

A week later, and the numbers of infected patients are slowly growing. Me, my husband and two young children have socially distanced from our friends and are staying home in our apartment. Being so far from family support networks has made us particularly cautious. So far, it has been a rollercoaster of crafting, squabbles, dance parties and tears.

Thank goodness for our balcony which overlooks some of Colombo’s waterways. Spending some time in the fresh air, watching birds flock between the palm trees, gives a much needed moment of serenity among the uncertainty.

The government has made most of this week a public holiday in the hope that people staying away from work will slow the virus’ transmission. The streets below have been getting progressively quieter, although the city isn’t in lockdown yet, with a steady stream of tuk-tuks, cars and buses still buzzing past. We are watching to see how well the containment strategy works and what the next week will bring.

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is now a global pandemic. Find out what this means for travelers.

This article was first published on 19 March and updated on 23 March 2020.

This article was first published March 2020 and updated March 2020

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