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.

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.

wearing a face mask in Phnom penh

Wearing a face mask is now de rigueur in Phnom Penh.

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.

Cambodia during coronaivirus view

Do the streets look emptier than usual?

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.

vegetarian foods

Stashing up on shelf-stable food supplies.

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.

28 Responses to Living in Cambodia during COVID-19

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    Paul says:

    Sensible advice. We are very happy to remain here. Agree with you about the facemasks

    មុំ says:

    Hey Pete, very recognisable, including the unopened books, working from home and the living alone part. I don’t wear a mask though and I do still go out to meet people. We even still throw disc in the park. All the best from Yangon!

    Jack says:

    I believe the visa over stay 10$ per day dealis being discussed now on being waived for all travellers in Cambodia so there will no longer be a 10$a day charge. This is being discussed now in there government. So wait to find out soon I reckon it will be fine don’t panic. Its cambodia it’s chill

    Don says:

    Hiw can I sole this? am stuck in Caabodai unabe to afford the uverstay fines fpr nearly a year after an E-visa and various mishaps preventing 3 ttemots to leave. I do get superannuation Invli(dityidity pensionA UD $11273 per fortnigh 700USD) I I’m r 55 and retired so was or am entitled to a retirement visa but cant exit to reuturn with a border run. CAN I GET A RETIREMENT VISA OR AT LEAST GET LEGAL OR EXIT cAMBODIA? AS i CANNOT AFFRD THE OVERSTAY FINE FOR ABOUT TEN MINTHS NOW WHICH IS USD$3000 and rising. YThe embassy refises to help at all ven though i still oay tax in Austyralia.


    Graeme says:

    Accurate representation of the life-goes-on state of affairs here & now. A couple of questions: 1. Are Khmers whistling in the dark or is this social distancing advice thing just something cooked up by the majority of the G20 countries? I suppose time will tell. And 2. How many people with symptoms are not being tested, and (oh, a third question I guess) are they self-isolating?

    Frank Zgoznik says:

    Good article Peter. Even the cyclists are keeping their distance this week. I’d say people are generally doing good health practices of what I’ve seen in Phnom Penh. Hopefully the hot weather will stem to spread of the disease in the country.

    Pete says:


    Once question as I renovated my EG visa once and normally is not allowed to do it twice.

    Considering the closing up and canceling of the flight someone knows if the government is extending visa and allowing people to stay?


    Vincent Lennox says:

    Thanks Joel ,I did just that keeping the New Year in mind.

    CaB says:

    Informative and also nicely written! Hello from another that has decided to stay!

    Vincent Lennox says:

    Good advise. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
    Would you know if the government offices are operating as usual? My annual visa expires next month andI use a 3rd party agent in Siem Reap to handle the transaction.
    Thanks and stay well.

      Amanda Coffin says:

      Vincent, from what I’m reading, the agencies are still able to process EOSes (Extensions of Stay).

        Vincent Lennox says:

        Thank you Amanda. I went to an agent this morning and they happily took my money and passport, no problem.Appears to have gone from $302 to $310 or I just overpaid a few dollars.

          Joel says:

          Last week I received my renewed, one year Retirement visa after only 5 business days. Usually visa renewals have taken 10 business days. I would suggest you submit it now before the Khmer New Year slowdown starts affecting things.

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