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.
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.
A visitor arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time would be hard put to find any evidence that there is a global pandemic. There are face masks, but that is not an unusual sight in Asian countries. The now ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer at supermarkets and restaurants might seem a little strange, but hey, can hands ever be too clean? (It will be fascinating to see data on how rates of typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases will have been impacted by the newfound passion for vigorous hand washing.)
But to expats who are staying on, it’s clear that the whole country is now more observant of WHO health advice — wash your hands, cough into your elbow, don’t touch your face, avoid crowded spaces, and wear a mask or stay home if you don’t feel well. For a country with a less than stellar medical service, this advice is key; it’s far better not to spread and catch COVID-19 than to try and seek treatment later.
My life is largely unaffected. Although there have been reports of hostility towards foreigners (who make up most of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Kingdom) the only evidence I’ve seen is tuk tuk drivers putting on a mask before picking up a European-looking customer. I now wear a face mask when outside, mostly not to scare others — getting into an elevator as the only non-mask-wearing person invites stares and hugging of the walls. Whether masks actually prevent infection or not, wearing one demonstrably calms down other people in Cambodia!
Thus far the official government advice has been limited to “avoid crowds,” but I and some of my colleagues are practicing social distancing and working from home. Those I know across the city are are choosing to go into their offices are unwilling to give up the air-conditioned comforts include a reliable power supply, free tea, and a blissful lack of the everyday sounds of Phnom Penh — the clanging of motorbike repair shops, blaring music outside discount clothing stores, and the ever-present noise of building construction, all of which is still going on. COVID-19 may have officially silenced the KTVs, but it hasn’t silenced Phnom Penh.
Living alone and shopping and cooking only for myself, it is easy enough to cut myself off from the outside world when I’m not working, and working from home protects my colleagues. I’ve also almost entirely given up socializing, and on the rare occasion that I do, I forgo handshakes, hugs, and kisses. However, this social distancing has not meant more book reading. My shelves are untouched, but I can say that the first series of Star War: Mandalorian is superior to Star Trek: Picard, and Dirty Money Season 2 is as fascinating and depressing as could be expected.
The closure of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam may affect the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in the near future, given that at least 100 tons a day of produce are imported into Cambodia. But at present markets seem well stocked, and canned and dried food is still widely available. Of more direct impact to much of the country are rising temperatures and the scarcity of water, which has increasingly impacted Cambodia in March to May. Power cuts have started to occur in parts of the capital, and rural communities are reporting a lack of fresh water, just when it’s most needed. But this happens every year, and is not directly related to COVID-19.
To summarize: if you have chosen to stay in Cambodia, (among friends, colleagues, neighbors or your favorite tuk tuk driver) then in my view you’ve probably made a good decision. Leaving means running the risk of being quarantined alongside the other passengers on your plane somewhere else in the world, a terrifying prospect. One the other hand, there are still fewer than 100 confirmed cases in Cambodia, population density here in Cambodia is pretty low (212 people per square mile compared to 671 in England), small markets and stores are everywhere, and with the popularity of bum guns, toilet paper isn’t even a necessity.
Yes, the medical situation could be better (and the traditional fall-backs of Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore are off the cards), and the police all clock off work at 5 p.m., but all of these are known realities of living in Phnom Penh. If there’s any country that’s perhaps able to deal with material hardship, Cambodia — after the real horrors it endured during its civil war — might just be the place.