Cambodia’s coronavirus scarecrows

In Cambodia it’s not uncommon to see scarecrows, called ting mong in Khmer, propped up outside people’s houses or gardens. Ting Mong aren’t there to protect the crops from birds, rather, they are there to frighten away ghosts and evil spirits. You often won’t see any ting mong for months at a time in Cambodia, but in times of difficulty they start to multiply. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, ting mong are everywhere.

Ting mong guarding a house in Chreav village, outside of a Siem Reap.

These photos were taken by Christopher Schoenbohm of Kulen Outreach, an NGO that provides education to children from the rural Phnom Kulen region Cambodia. The photos were taken in Chreav village, just south of Siem Reap. “Illness effigies are popping up everywhere in the Cambodian countryside,” Schoenbohm wrote. “They’re meant to fool the spirits into making the effigy sick instead of the household.”

Although Cambodia is a Buddhist country, ting mong are part of a pre-Angkorian animist belief structure. It is believed that these figures, dressed up to look like humans, will scare off ghosts and evil spirits from entering the home. They often hold guns or weapons and traditionally have scary features that are known for making children cry. Last year, villagers in Kratie erected ting mong when several people fell ill in the village during what was believed to be a cholera outbreak.  So it’s not surprising, then, that the spread of COVID-19 in Cambodia has seen the arrival of a new wave of ting mong. Continue reading

Cambodia coronavirus visa update

With new travel restrictions coming every few days, it can be difficult to keep track of Cambodia’s visa situation due to coronavirus. From March 17th those from the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain were banned from entering the country, apparently due to climbing rates of COVID-19 infections in these countries. Chinese visitors, however, were allowed to travel freely into the Kingdom. On March 28th it was announced that e-visas and visas-on-arrival will no longer be issued to any nationality from March 31st for a period of one month.

Cambodia COVID-19 update: what’s happening with visas?

During this period all foreigners will be required to obtain a visa at their local Cambodian embassy or consulate, and be able to provide a medical certificate certify a negative COVID-19 test result issued no more than 72 hours before the date of travel, as well as provide proof of insurance with a minimum of $50,000 of medical coverage. Due to the lack of availability of tests in most countries, this restriction makes it all but impossible for most people to travel to Cambodia in April.

Thailand has banned all non-resident foreigners from entering, and Vietnam and Laos have also shut their borders with Cambodia. Continue reading

Review: Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap

Baby Elephant has been around for a few years and during that time it has built up an excellent reputation for sustainability, environmentalism, and community involvement. We’ve heard the positive reports for years, but only recently had the chance to see for ourselves why people like them so much.

Baby Elephant Siem Reap pool

The pool at Baby Elephant and BE Happy is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail.

Located in the Svay Dangkum area of Siem Reap, Baby Elephant offered a soothing respite for your weary travel writer during a recent stay. Run by an Australian couple and an outgoing South African manager, Baby Elephant has a staff dedicated to making every guest feel welcome. A saltwater pool and ample seating in the leafy garden courtyard make it hard not to stop for a chat or a cocktail whenever you go in or out of the premises. Continue reading

Living in Cambodia during COVID-19

In January of 2020, when COVID-19 became known to the world, Cambodia tried to remain open for trade and tourism. While neighboring countries, and then South Korea, banned flights to and from mainland China and closed tourist attractions, Cambodia resolutely did, well, none of these things. After an initial spike in panic and face-mask-wearing when the first case was announced, the mood across the country was one of relative calm and caution throughout February — more handwashing, less travel, but not many other changes in daily life.

Russian Market Phnom Penh coronavirus

Not a lot of social distancing at Russian Market on March 16th.

As of this week, however, the mood has changed. It’s now pretty hard to enter or leave Cambodia by land or air. A country reliant on border traffic for trade and tourism, the Kingdom is now entering a period of coronavirus-related isolation from the world, largely because of the actions of other countries. Within Cambodia all schools have been closed, along with museums, concert halls, and bars, and large religious gatherings have been banned. The streets seem quieter (but the markets are still busy).

Volunteers from Australia and the USA have been recalled home, and a small but growing percentage of expats have decided to return home, before flights become impossible. Many more, however, have chosen to stay in Cambodia, including me. For people wondering what it’s like in Cambodia right now, here goes. Continue reading

Review: Penh House and Jungle Addition, Phnom Penh

I’ve stayed at dozens of hotels in Phnom Penh, and the ones that always seem to hit all the right notes are run by the people who have recently opened Penh House and Jungle Addition. Penh House lives up to the high bar set by Plantation, Pavilion, and Blue Lime and offers a standard of accommodation higher than many other more expensive hotels in the capital.

Rooftop pool Penh House and Jungle Addition

The rooftop pool at Penh House and Jungle addition with excellent city views.

Penh House and Jungle Addition are two buildings on the same property. Each has its own gym, bar, and restaurant, and guests of both are welcome to use the facilities of either property. They’re located on Street 240, a nice shopping area, walking distance from several great restaurants, and just around the corner from arty Street 240-and-a-half, which is home to Artillery Arts Cafe, and the Space Four Zero Cambodia Space Project art store.

The Penh House rooms are large and airy, with a mid-century-in-the-tropics feel, including retro-style ceiling fans, framed botanical prints, brightly colored ceramic tiles, and bamboo plants in the bathroom. The work of local designers is also spotlighted, including Loyuyu ceramics of Siem Reap and prints by Phnom Penh-based French artist Laurent Villate. MAADS hotels just have a way with these things, and they always get all of the design notes exactly right.

Penh House room Phnom Penh

A deluxe double room in the Penh House building.

The Blue Lime style (cement floors, white walls, splashes of bright, solid-color silk as accents) is now practically required at mid-range hotels of a certain type in Cambodia, but Penh House is a bit more subtle. Inspired by nature, the decor makes you think about drinking ice-cold drinks in the steamy jungle. The beds are king size, with crisp white sheets and decent pillows, and each room has a writing desk, an electronic safe, and enough different lighting options to set a mood or two.

The breakfast at Penh House is served buffet style and includes hot dishes as well as continental-style options such as toast, pastries, cheese and cut fruit, fresh juices and coffee. The breakfast at Jungle Addition is served a la carte and al fresco. At Penh House breakfast is served at the bar and restaurant on the building’s rooftop, which is also home to an infinity pool that’s larger than most, with a dozen brightly colored sun loungers and umbrellas for guests to enjoy.

The jungle at Penh House, Phnom Penh

Serious jungle vibez at Penh House and Jungle Addition.

There’s also a gym and spa on the property, the latter overlooking an indoor pond that appears to be a fully functioning ecosystem, filled with thriving greenery.

A very high standard of service sets all the Phnom Penh MAADS properties apart, and Penh House and Jungle Addition are no different. Excellent service, high-quality interiors, and reasonable rates make these properties an excellent choice for visitors to Phnom Penh.

Penh House and Jungle Addition pool

Another gratuitous rooftop pool photo.

During hot season, rates start at $60 per night for a superior double, and $70 for a larger deluxe double (although its worth checking prices online, we were able to find a last minute deluxe room for $50 per night on in low season). Suites start at $80 or $90. Prices rise to $73/$89/$104/$114 in high season if you book in advance, but go higher still for bookings closer to the date of arrival. 

→ Check prices and book a room at Penh House and Jungle Addition now

Looking for more? View the full Phnom Penh city guide for tips on where to stay, what to eat, and things to see and do.

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Learning Khmer in Siem Reap with Speak Like Khmer

Many foreigners in Cambodia find Khmer, the native language of most locals, so difficult that they never get past a very basic level of communication — if they learn even that much. Speak Like Khmer, a language school in Siem Reap, is here to help expats get a grasp on the Cambodian language.

Speak Like Khmer Siem Reap

All smiles from the Khmer language teachers at Speak Like Khmer in Siem Reap.

Speak Like Khmer offers Khmer language lessons for everyone from absolute beginners to those considerably more advanced. Though that first step into a classroom environment may be scary, don’t let that stop you. The school’s friendly, encouraging teachers will expand your vocabulary and improve your pronunciation and understanding of the language. Just as important, their sincere enthusiasm and immersive approach to teaching will build your confidence.

Speaking with Cambodians is the only way to actually improve your Khmer skills. At Speak Like Khmer, you’re greeted in Khmer as soon as you walk in, and at every step thereafter a real effort is made to communicate in Khmer as much as possible. The constant flow of Khmer really kickstarts the language-learning process.

Cambodian language

Learning (to speak) Khmer, the Cambodian language, at Speak Like Khmer.

Speak Like Khmer’s classroom is a fun and relaxed environment, but there is structure and there is homework! As an alternative to group classes you can choose one-on-one lessons, good for those who are a bit shy or more advanced.

The school also offers lessons in reading and writing Khmer. If the spoken language is daunting, the written version is even more so. Khmer’s alphabet has 74 different letters, more than any other language, and when you look at that alphabet you realize just how alarmingly different it is from anything using Roman letters. But thanks to patient and methodical guidance from Speak Like Khmer’s teachers, I found that after a few weeks the written words began to make sense, which exponentially facilitated my overall grasp of Khmer. The school provides study materials and has a lending library of books so you can practice reading at home.

Lessons are $8 for a one-to-one and $6 for group classes. If you want to keep your skills sharp while you’re abroad, they even offer classes over Skype. In addition, Speak Like Khmer leads cycling trips around Siem Reap, a fantastic way to acquaint yourself with both the town and the language.

Khmer is challenging, and let’s face it, it’s not useful in many other places. But while you are in Cambodia, learning the language is possibly the best way to gain a deeper understanding of the people. It also demonstrates a basic level of appreciation and respect that will definitely be appreciated and reciprocated. You will be laughed at a lot as you come to grips with the nuances of pronunciation, but it’s encouraging, friendly laughter — one reason it’s such a fun language to learn.

Speak Like Khmer
Sombai Road, Siem Reap [map]
T: +855 86 239 095

Phnom Penh’s Music Scene is Live and Kicking

Leng Pleng — khmer for ‘play music’ — the go-to guide to live music in the Kingdom, is celebrating 10 years online. It says a lot for the local music scene that in a decade of keeping expat and Cambodian music lovers in the loop, the weekly listing has rarely been short of content. While gigs by major international artists are few and far between — Cambodian cities aren’t exactly on the average tour schedule — we do our best with what we have, and what we have is pretty damn good. Whatever kind of music you’re into, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in the capital.

Miss Sarawan brings glamour to Oscar’s

Miss Sarawan brings glamour to Oscar’s on the Corner in Phnom Penh.

Check out Phnom Penh’s best-loved troubadour, the prolific poet and singer songwriter Scott Bywater; the exhilarating funk/soul/rap bombast of Hypnotic Fist Technique; Miss Sarawan a.k.a. Lay Mealeah, whose enchanting performances combine original songs and Khmer vintage pop classics; young Khmer thrash metal merchants Doch Chkae (‘like dog’) whose fiercely energetic performances live up to their name; and the rousing wall of sound from masters of Khmer fusion (and one of the most most exciting bands live around) the Kampot Playboys. Continue reading

The five best places in Siem Reap to work remotely

Whether you’re a journalist from out of town looking for a place to hunker down or a Siem Reap expat who has realized they get more done when they aren’t at home, there are great spots in Siem Reap to work remotely. From coworking spaces to quiet coffeeshops, in no particular order these are the best places to work remotely in Siem Reap with details about what makes them special.

Footprints Coworking Space Siem Reap

Coffee and quiet, two remote working essentials, at Footprints in Siem Reap.


(Best feature: the quiet)

Footprints is a lovely little haven about a ten-minute stroll from Pub Street that has a lovely coffeeshop and a dedicated coworking area upstairs which has got to be one of nicest workspaces in Siem Reap. Cool air and a very chill ambience make Footprints a great place to head to if you want to work in relative peace and quiet compared to many of the hipper spots around town. Continue reading