Angkor in the Age of Corona

More than a dozen years ago I visited Ta Prohm, the famous Tomb Raider temple, with my girlfriend. As we walked along the dirt path that led from the east gate to the temple itself, I became distracted by everything around me: branches hanging from trees that didn’t exist in the United States, tourists from all over the world, bugs that wouldn’t quit flying into my ear. Suddenly my girlfriend grabbed me and used her full 42 kilograms to pull me aside, breaking my stride and making me stumble. I quickly realized why: I had almost stepped on a massive black scorpion. We hurried down the path away from the alien creature that had attempted to murder me and away from the crowds of tourists laughing at my terror.

Ta Prohm Cambodia

The scorpion is still there….somewhere.

After a long break, I finally returned to Ta Prohm this week, during the Age of Corona, and a lot has changed. The girlfriend was no longer there. Though I had pledged my everlasting gratitude to her at the time for saving my life, our relationship lasted only a couple of months more (probably because of my terrified whimpering). More interesting was that the crowds weren’t there, either. I was totally alone except for the scorpion, which was presumably still hiding somewhere along the path, plotting my destruction.

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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

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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