Sandbox Game: Koh Samui Trip Planning

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Koh Samui is open to visitors once again via the Sandbox Programme. But is it worth all the hoops you need to jump through?

It was 15 March 2020, and I was three days away from flying to Koh Samui. 

The flights were confirmed, the hotel booked, the rental car waiting. Yes, there was some concern about that strange new coronavirus going round, but Koh Samui had zero reported cases at the time- certainly fewer than Singapore, anyway.

Later that night however, MOH announced a mandatory SHN for anyone entering Singapore from an ASEAN country, effective 17 March 2020. The measures were supposed to last 30 days, and already I was looking to rebook for May. “It’ll all be over in a few weeks”, I confidently told The MileLioness as we headed home from the airport after an aborted trip to Kuala Lumpur.

Shows what I know, because I’m finally taking that trip, 678 days later. 

🏖️ Sandbox Game

Overview: Koh Samui Sandbox

Koh Samui recently reopened under the Sandbox programme, after a brief stint with the now-suspended Test & Go scheme. While not nearly as unrestricted as Test & Go, Sandbox visitors still enjoy quarantine-free movement as soon as they clear an on-arrival PCR test. 

As a reminder, here’s the prerequisites for Sandbox travel.

🏖️ Sandbox Requirements
  • Fully vaccinated with approved vaccine (age 17 and below exempt)
  • Purchase travel insurance with min. US$50K COVID-19 medical coverage (foreigners only)
  • Book AQ/SHA Extra Plus hotel and pre-pay for 2x RT-PCR tests
  • Apply for Thailand Pass
  • Take pre-departure PCR test 72h before flight (age 5 and below exempt)
  • Take PCR test on arrival and approved transport to hotel; isolate until result is out
  • Take PCR test on Day 5 or 6 and report results via MorChana app (Android | iOS)
  • Stay within Sandbox for first 7 days before travelling elsewhere in Thailand
  • If staying <7 days, must leave Thailand immediately from Sandbox
TAT: Sandbox

Of these, you should reserve the most time for the Thailand Pass application. This should be submitted a minimum of seven days before your trip begins, and you’ll need to have the following documents ready at the time of application:

  • Vaccination certificate
  • Hotel booking
  • Payment slip for 2x RT-PCR tests (issued by the hotel- get in touch with them once you’ve booked your room)
  • Travel insurance certificate

In other words, this isn’t the kind of trip you can do at the spur of the moment. My first Thailand Pass application was rejected after 48 hours, and it took a further 48 hours for my second to be approved- buffer time for things like this!

Walkthrough: Thailand Pass Application

Now, regarding trip duration- unlike what many media outlets are reporting, you can do a trip of less than seven nights, provided you leave Thailand immediately after you check-out. If you want to travel elsewhere in Thailand after Koh Samui, then yes, you must stay at least seven nights.

Here’s the thing though: if you’re a traveller from Singapore who wishes to return on the VTL, then you’ll still have to do seven nights in Koh Samui. 

That’s because:

  1. There’s no VTL flight from Samui to Singapore
  2. Anyone who stays in Koh Samui for less than seven nights can only take “sealed route” flights on Bangkok Airways from Samui to Bangkok
  3. The earliest sealed route flight arrives at the same time the last VTL flight from Bangkok to Singapore departs

For more information about sealed route flights and other Sandbox quirks, refer to the FAQs article below: 

Koh Samui Sandbox: FAQs

Flights

✈ Sandbox Game: Flights
To Koh SamuiTo Singapore
SQ706
Depart
: 0715

Arrive: 0840
PG132
Depart:
1155
Arrive:
1310
PG5125
Depart:
1200
Arrive:
1330
SQ709 (VTL)
Depart
: 1540

Arrive: 1915
Cost: S$677 per pax

Prior to COVID, flying to Koh Samui was rather straightforward. Both Bangkok Airways and SilkAir offered daily flights from Singapore, and while cash rates were expensive (given Koh Samui’s more luxury-oriented appeal and Bangkok Airways’ stranglehold over the airport), you could circumvent this by redeeming Etihad Guest or KrisFlyer miles. 

But SilkAir was merged into Singapore Airlines and its A319s transferred to Scoot, which has shown no interest in deploying them so far. That leaves Bangkok Airways as the sole international air link to Samui, and their flight timings are…not ideal.

The outbound flight puts you in Koh Samui at 8.35 p.m (although I suppose you could argue that might work out nicely since you might as well catch up on sleep while waiting for the on-arrival PCR test result to come back), and the return flight isn’t a VTL service. 

I also really wanted to visit the new SilverKris Lounge again, even if it meant waking up before 5 and dragging The MileLioness along (she’s understanding that way), so I decided on a SIN-BKK-USM itinerary, with SIN-BKK on Singapore Airlines and BKK-USM on a Bangkok Airways sealed route flight.

As a reminder, Koh Samui Sandbox travellers who transit in Bangkok are only allowed to take the two sealed route flights shown below:

 Days
PG5125
SMTWTFS
BKK
1200
USM
1330
PG5171
SMTWTFS
BKK
1710
USM
1840

It means a 3-hour transit in Bangkok (and I doubt they’ll let us use the lounge), but allows you to be in Koh Samui by 1.30 p.m. A villa at the Conrad Koh Samui is hardly the worst place to isolate, and with any luck we’ll be free by dinner. 

By the time I fly back to Singapore, I’ll have stayed seven nights in Koh Samui. This means I’m “clean” and no longer need to take sealed route flights between Koh Samui and Bangkok. The main objective is to get on a VTL flight from Bangkok, and PG132/SQ709 is the only combination that works. 

FYI: the entire journey must be on a single itinerary. It means you can’t redeem KrisFlyer miles for the SIN-BKK leg, then add on a separate BKK-USM sealed route ticket. The Singapore Airlines website allows you to book a joint SQ/PG ticket, however, and I paid S$677 per person for Economy Class. 

I was offered the opportunity to bid for an upgrade to Business Class on the inbound and outbound SIN-BKK legs, but a minimum bid of S$300 per person for a flight that’s <2 hours seemed a bit dear. I’d rather save that money for the spa. 

Hotels

🏨 Sandbox Game: Hotels
NightHotelCost
1-5Conrad Koh Samui376,000 points
6-7Banyan Tree Samui

There was never any doubt in my mind about returning to the Conrad Koh Samui, which I hold to be one of the most amazing hotels in the world. This all-villa resort gives every guest a private pool, panoramic views of the Five Islands (well, some with better views than others), and a sense of tranquility and isolation few places can match. 

Conrad Koh Samui

I’ve been there twice already, but I’m nonetheless planning to do a fresh review- I’m sure there’ll be those who want to know what it’s like post COVID, and this time I actually have a camera that isn’t a potato. 

Conrad Koh Samui

While cash rates at the Conrad Koh Samui have nosedived from the usual ~S$1,000+ to about S$560 a night, it’s still worth it in my opinion to redeem points. I booked a 5-night stay at 94,000 points per night, with the 5th night free (376,000 total). That worked out to a value of 0.55 US cents per point- good enough for me!

As a Hilton Diamond, I’ll enjoy free breakfast and hopefully an elevated villa with a better view. In fact, I can already see online that my lead-in Tropical Pool Villa has been upgraded to one with a Five Islands view. 

For the last two nights, I’ll be doing a media stay at the Banyan Tree Samui. This resort is located near Lamai beach, so if nothing else there’ll certainly be more life nearby than at the Conrad.

Banyan Tree Samui
Banyan Tree Samui

Like the Conrad, the Banyan Tree Samui is also an all-villa property, with its own private beach and oceanfront views. It’s garnered rave reviews online (ranked even higher than the Conrad on TripAdvisor, for whatever that’s worth), and I’m keen to see how the experiences measure up.

Lounges

New SilverKris Lounge Changi Airport

SilverKris Lounge seating
New SilverKris Lounge

Singapore Airlines opened its new SilverKris Business Class Lounge in November 2021, and I was among the first to visit en route to Sydney. 

Review: Singapore Airlines’ new SilverKris Lounge at Changi Airport Terminal 3

The new lounge may not break any paradigms, but it’s still a significant improvement from the previous facility, which opened in 2008 and was way overdue for a refresh. It’s beautifully designed, there’s individual shower suites (with fancy bidet seats), and champagne is back on the menu. 

SilverKris Lounge bar

While the hardware is certainly there, the service was rather chaotic on opening day with the staff struggling to handle the new F&B ordering system. I figure it’s worth a revisit two months later to see if they’ve managed to find their feet. 

Singapore Airlines isn’t the only one who’s been busy with renovations. THAI Airways opened their new Royal Orchid Prestige Lounge (near the D gates) in late 2019, and it doesn’t look half bad- certainly a lot better than the incumbent facilities. 

Photo: THAI Airways

The lounge is modelled on an ecological green mood concept, ensuring a tranquil setting away from the bustle of a busy airport terminal.

Experience traditional Thai hospitality during a short transit or before your next international flight within this oasis of relaxation.   The layout, although spacious, provides many quiet nooks for a read or rest with shower facilities available to freshen up between or before your flight.  Work stations are available if required with charging points available throughout the lounge.  Indulge in specially created hot and cold Thai signature dishes, order a freshly-cooked dish from the open kitchen or visit the cocktail bar for a made-to-order beverage of choice.  Self-service coffee machines and ice-cream/gelato bars are also available. 

It all sounds very promising, and since the SilverKris Lounge Bangkok remains closed, this is the only option short of a Priority Pass lounge anyway.

COVID-19 Testing

Thailand requires a negative pre-departure PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure. For this, I booked a home-based swab with DA that cost S$218 for 2 people. I brought the price down by a further S$20 with the code MC20, so I’m paying just S$99 per person, with the convenience of home swabbing. 

The two mandated tests in Thailand are a standard THB2,200 per test (~S$90) per person, and what I’ll be trying to find out is whether the Day 5-6 test can be used for pre-departure testing to Singapore. So long as you get a certificate with the following information, you should be good: 

  • Full name
  • Date of birth or passport number
  • Negative COVID-19 test result
  • Date and time the test was taken
  • Name of testing institution 

Waiting for me on return to Singapore is a battery of COVID testing, starting with the usual on-arrival test at Changi Airport (S$125 per person). Then it’s six days of daily ART swabbing, four of which are unsupervised, two of which require third-party verification.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to travelling down to a QTC/CTC during the Chinese New Year period, but thanks to DA’s Tele-ART service, I won’t have to. For S$17.84 (the cost of consultation plus my own self-test kit), I can do the Day 3 and 7 tests from home, over video call. 

DA Tele-ART: Do your pre-departure and VTL Day 3 & 7 ART testing from home

Assuming I can combine the Day 5-6 test with the pre-departure test required for travel to Singapore, I’m looking at S$460 in testing costs per person. 

⚕️ Sandbox Game: Testing Regime
LocationRemarksPrice
🇸🇬 Singapore72h before departure (PCR)S$99
🇹🇭 ThailandOn arrival (PCR)THB2,200
(~S$90)
🇹🇭 ThailandDay 5-6
(TBC: Combine with PDT)
THB2,200
(~S$90)
🇸🇬 SingaporeOn arrival at Changi (PCR)S$125
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 2 (ART)S$5
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 3 (Tele-ART)S$17.84
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 4 (ART)S$5
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 5 (ART)S$5
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 6 (ART)S$5
🇸🇬 SingaporeDay 7 (Tele-ART)S$17.84
  Total CostS$460 per pax

Odds and Ends

A few other logistical matters which didn’t fit into any of the other sections:

  • For SIM cards, I paid S$6.50 for an ICC Thailand SIM card with 15GB valid for 8 days
  • To get around Samui, I hired a rental car from samuirentcars.com, paying 5400 THB for 6 days in a Honda City. They’ll deliver it to your hotel, and you can drop it off at the airport
  • Assuming the Day 5-6 PCR test can’t be used for travel, it costs ~1,400 THB  to do a pre-departure ART test

Conclusion

While I would have liked to travel somewhere further afield, Europe and Australia’s case numbers look frightening at the moment. Keep in mind, the concern isn’t so much my own health (triple jabbed, after all), but with Chinese New Year happening the week after, the last thing I’d want is to be stuck overseas or potentially infectious on return.

Koh Samui presents a nice alternative, especially since we’ll be in an isolated resort most of the time. Seven nights is a bit longer than what I’d usually spend, but after a frenetic end of year, it’d be nice to unwind with a proper vacation. 

Questions about the Koh Samui Sandbox experience? Leave them here.

Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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Aaron Koh

I got confirmation from Bangkok airways saying for return journey to Singapore, I can take PG132 to catch SQ709(VTL) back to Singapore as I’ve made a single booking. So wondering how true is this sealed route they are enforcing.

Zhong

Would say it’s logical given they have similar risk. They’re coming from Samui and would have interacted with Sandbox visitors anyway.

Wish SQ would bring back the A319 direct service, if only to meet Covid VTL demand. Based on loads on the VTL flights I took, they would at worst breakeven.

Ben Wightman

Hi Aaron, Out of interest, did they give you this confirmation in writing? When are you leaving and returning and how did you book it as a single itinerary given Bangkok Airways isn’t Star Alliance and you’d presumably need to clear customs in Bangkok? Cheers

Mark

The big question about any travel to Thailand, including your proposed sandbox trip, is exactly what are the rules and the processes in the event you were to test positive in Thailand? I can’t find anything official on it anywhere – although there are some horror stories reported in the media. For example if you are asymptomatic can you remain in your hotel for isolation? If you are only booked for a 7-day stay, do you have to extend for another 3 to cover the 10 days isolation? Is the isolation 10 days though? Or 14? None of this information… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Mark
Ben Wightman

With the news just out about Test & Go restarting on the 1st of February, my question is whether you can enter on Sandbox and then leave on Test & Go, in the sense that you aren’t obligated to take a sealed flight to connect into a SQ VTL out of Bangkok. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/thailand-resume-quarantine-waiver-vaccinated-arrivals-feb-2022-01-20/

Ben Wightman

Thanks for the quick reply despite “relaxing” in Samui! 🙂 But wouldn’t the need for a sealed flight or “immediate” international departure from Phuket, no longer apply post 1st Feb?

Ben Wightman

FYI, Bangkok Airways just announced sealed routes between Bangkok and Phuket, but no mention of the same on the return from Phuket to Bangkok: https://www.bangkokair.com/press-release/view/operate-special-sealed-route-flights-to-support-phuket-sandbox

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