Lockdown, what lockdown? Embracing expat life in Phnom Penh during coronavirus

“Life not normal is the norm” a Khmer Times editorial read, explaining the importance of adjusting to virus safety precautions in the early days of COVID-19. It’s fair to say, however, that a few months on (and notwithstanding that old chestnut about what constitutes ‘normality’ in the Kingdom of Wonder), expat life in Phnom Penh feels pretty much as usual.

Cambodia covid hand-washing sign

“In order to prevent the recent outbreak of coronary artery disease (Corona Virus)…” Helpful signage at Dol Chaang Cafe.

As most of the rest of the world navigates various levels of lockdown, in our rarified corner of Southeast Asia it’s almost possible to forget there’s a global pandemic out there. With the number of confirmed cases in the low hundreds and no deaths to date (and I’m typing this with difficulty due to the need to keep my fingers firmly crossed) Cambodia has so far been able, for a whole slew of reasons I’ll leave to the experts to consider, to keep the virus contained. We’re lucky, we know it.

Sure there’s plenty of safety awareness campaigning — the increased mask-wearing, ubiquitous hand sanitizer, and occasional thermometer-wielding security guard are signs that we’re living in different times — but the complexities of family bubbles and the ‘Rule of Six’ are unknown to us here. We’re free to exercise common sense in deciding with whom and to what extent we choose to mingle and, with some basic social distancing measures in place, where we do it.

The vibe in the capital is relaxed, the early wariness by locals of foreign ‘carriers’ has long since dissipated, and fears about the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic on a less than world-class health system failed to materialise. Little wonder that expats who beat an expeditious retreat, either through choice or urged by their organisations, have been gradually making their way back into the Kingdom.

Cambodia covid mask wearing

Fastidious mask-wearing at a Phnom Penh minimart.

When the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off, the Cambodian government expressed an enlightened approach to closures. People need to eat and, crucially, ingest caffeine, so shops, restaurants, and coffee sellers remained open from the outset. Food delivery services like Meal Temple, Food Panda and Nham 24 (our choice) came into their own. Bars suffered a few weeks downtime but were allowed to reopen if they served food (cue the appearance of previously unseen menus).

It’s interesting that not only have there been relatively few losses among the mass of hospitality venues in Phnom Penh, but new ones continue to appear, and the number of al fresco or semi-outdoor venues are clearly a godsend in the current viral climate. The popular Street 308 and Bassac Lane area may not be quite the buzzing mix of expats, locals and tourists it once was but it has crept resolutely back to life, appearing livelier by the week. Phnom Penh’s live music scene, meanwhile, has gotten its groove back with a growing number of venues getting in on the act.

Early concerns about shortages in expat supermarkets have so far proved needless (though I admit, with only a degree of shame, to stockpiling my favourite muesli). Cleaning products and soap dispensers were briefly thin on the shelves but the toilet roll riots that raged elsewhere in the world were viewed here with amusement — who needs them when you’ve got bum guns?

Phnom Penh street food

Phnom Penh is still buzzing with street food vendors.

Schools remained closed longer than most establishments but have been gradually reopening their doors since September — following the introduction of stringent COVID-related guidelines — to the relief of parents and teachers alike. Gyms and spas were initially shut down but are now back in business; yoga groups, salsa classes and similar social activities are picking up. KTVs, for some reason, are still barred from operating as such but, hey, we can sing in the shower!

For those of us who like to pay regular visits to friends and family in our countries of origin or pop over to Bali or the Philippines for the Pchum Ben holidays, the current restrictions on international travel, while necessary, are undeniably a concern. For the country’s economy, meanwhile, not to mention the people whose livelihoods depend on the industry, the dearth of tourist-driven income is little short of devastating. Expats — and there are still many, many of us here — have been satisfying their travel urges via the pleasures of the Cambodian ‘staycation’, taking advantage of currently-quiet islands, the increasing focus on eco-tourism activities, and the rare chance to mosey round the Angkor temples untroubled by swarms of tour parties — and in the process doing their bit to keep some tourism businesses afloat.

Meanwhile, Phnom Penh hotels starved of international visitors have been proactive in opening up their facilities, at appealing monthly rates, to longer term guests, some of whom found themselves ‘stuck’ in Cambodia when the virus hit. There are definitely worse places to sit out a pandemic than the likes of upmarket Plantation and Penh House!

Entry and Visa information:

For anyone looking to move — or return — to Cambodia during the pandemic, check our our Cambodia visas page. The Cambodia Visa and Work Permit Group on Facebook is an invaluable, up to date source of advice on navigating the complexities of the current entry restrictions and visa availability.

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