While other countries were closing borders and imposing lockdowns, life in Cambodia has largely continued as normal. Over the past few weeks, however, the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic have started to reach the Kingdom. Like many other expats, my family has decided to stay in Siem Reap for the duration.
Probably the biggest impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Cambodia is with regards to tourism; since last month the tourist numbers have dropped precipitously. Siem Reap, which relies very heavily on tourism, is feeling the brunt of the tourist exodus. Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction, the ancient temples of Angkor, lure millions of visitors every year. Today they sit eerily empty. The tourists and their life-giving dollar have deserted Cambodia.
Shops, restaurants, hotels, and backpacker hostels in Siem Reap have closed down — some temporarily, some permanently, and many more on a “wait and see” basis. Restaurants are now offering take-away or delivery options to encourage self-isolation, or at least social-distancing. Pub Street, normally abuzz with nightlife, is barely recognizable with most businesses closed and few people meandering down the street each evening.
A fair number of expats have remained. Some decided to stay out of a sense of duty to their adopted home, while others are here because they have very little choice. Commercial flight options disappeared quickly as ticket prices soared and flights were cancelled often, and at short notice. Borders closing meant flights connecting through Thailand were no longer possible. And, the prospect of sharing a flight for a number of hours with potentially infected people, and passing through busy airports on the way home was also a frightening thought.
Still other expats felt they couldn’t leave as they have no real home in their ‘home’ country. In many cases, too, these home countries are not particularly appealing places to be at the moment as they struggle with their own responses to Covid-19 with lockdowns, quarantine measures, and well publicized shortages of food and hand sanitizers — something that isn’t a problem in Cambodia. Many expats have chosen to stay in Cambodia to continue their work and livelihoods, whether it be running a business or working at an NGO.
We chose to stay for several of those reasons. Here, we have a nice house and lush garden to enjoy as we self-isolate as much as possible. Back ‘home’ we have no house to go to. With thousands of others returning to our home country at this time, there aren’t many rental options available. Plus, we don’t have jobs there. We left all of that when we moved to Cambodia. But staying is also not without its drawbacks. Our youngest son has recently been diagnosed with a health condition requiring daily medication. As the borders around Cambodia closed, so did our access to his medicine from Thailand. We’ve found an alternative for now, thankfully.
The government seems to be doing the best it can with limited resources – contact tracing and testing people with symptoms who may have been exposed, shutting down schools and entertainment venues, and offering some economic and tax assistance to registered businesses. The prime minister has not only officially postponed the biggest holiday of the year, Khmer New Year, he’s also put a travel ban in place to ensure no one travels during the cancelled holiday period. He even denied entry to Cambodians wishing to return from overseas before the holiday, lest they bring the virus with them.
Our biggest worry is not our health during this crisis, though. It is the economic impact it is having on those around us. Cambodia’s tourist industry has ground to a halt. That means more hotels and restaurants likely to close with all their staff losing jobs. That means tour guides with no one to guide. That means souvenir shops with no one to buy their t-shirts and handcrafts.
The trickle-down effect is already being felt outside the tourism industry. My friend Vanna sells fresh chicken at the market. She has had to reduce her daily stock of fresh meat from 90kg per day to only 50kg. And even that doesn’t always sell by night time. With very little mark-up on pricing, the reduced turn-over means a huge cut in income.
Our tuk tuk driver friends are in crisis. They’ve been spending the whole day trying to find clients and end up with nothing at the end of the day but more worry about how they will feed their families. On top of that, they have the stress of their monthly loan repayments. Nearly everyone has a loan from a microfinance organization for their motorbike, drink stall, tuk tuk or trailer, as they simply wouldn’t be able to buy it without one. Finance companies aren’t known for showing mercy for missed payments. It’s a sad and worrying situation.
Our Cambodian friends and neighbors continue to shine through these difficult times, however, sharing generously what little they have. With this attitude, and if we all lend a hand where we can, there is no doubt the future will bring brighter days!