I remember distinctly how I first heard of it. It was only referred to as “the virus” at the time. But even then, distant and in passing, it was spoken of in an ominous tone.
I began my voyage through south-east Asia on 12th December 2019. My plan included Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, and Singapore (in that order). I had every intention of following it through, although I always retained a high degree of flexibility, willing to change and adapt my plans as I went. I had no idea what a crazy spin the world would take in just a few months’ time.
I was lounging in a riverside bar in the town of Luang Prabang, in Laos. Perched upon a terrace overlooking the Mekong river, I was enjoying a delicious cocktail, basking in warm rays of the sun. It was late afternoon and life was pleasant in Utopia bar. ”Zen by day, groovy by night” is their slogan, and they live up to it one hundred percent. It was around the 25th of January. Around. I do not remember the exact date anymore. One of the best things about longer trips is becoming oblivious to the passage of time. Not knowing what date it is, what day of the week it is, or even what time of the day is it, instills in you an awesome feeling of freedom. Is it the weekend? Is it Monday? Who gives a damn. Give me another drink and let me soak up some more sunshine. Yeahhh...
Anyway, as I was sprawled on this terrace like a lizard on a rock with a heartbeat as slow as that of an iguana, I overheard the chatter of a group of guys lounging at a nearby table. Somebody mentioned hearing something about “the virus”, to which someone else replied cursing and saying it would have been better if he never heard of it, so he wouldn’t worry. They did not discuss it any further and I did not pay much attention to it - nonetheless, it got stuck somewhere in the back of my mind like a stupid song you hear on the radio first thing in the morning and cannot get out of your head until lunchtime. I made a mental note of low priority to research this when time will allow - and I was in no hurry at all.
A couple of days went past and I was chatting on WhatsApp with a friend of mine from back home. He told me about a virus outbreak happening in China, and that’s when I remembered hearing about it a few days earlier. When I travel, I tend to disconnect as much as possible. I intentionally refrain from reading the news which consequently means I get horribly and completely uninformed of any current events. I tend to fare very well despite this, but in this particular instance, the situation nonetheless required at least some degree of my attention. My friend was a bit taken aback by my complete ignorance of the matter. It did indeed sound quite serious, so I opted to do a bit of googling and get myself updated. At the time it was still a local issue, confined to China. From what I read about it, I gathered the Chinese are taking it seriously and it would be contained there.
In retrospect, my conclusion was sensationally wrong.