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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    leanne says:

    Hello, I am an expat living here, and my health insurance is due for renewal, the premium has tripled from last year if i want to be covered for covid-19. I remember reading that if you were living in Cambodia before the outbreak that you would be covered for covid-19 treatment by the government? do you know if is this true? Because if it is, i can opt for a plan that doesnt treat for covid-19.
    Many Thanks

    Vincent says:

    Keep me posted as things progress. You in PP, SR or other.How old are you? No family abroad?

    Vincent says:

    James, Maybe try a Go-Fund-Me appeal to your countrymen with specific details.Time for pride not to get in the way. Add details here if permitted and I’ll help some???

    JAMES says:

    What can one do when finances end, meaning No money for rent or food, and cannot find work as schools are closed.

      JAMES says:

      Thank you Vincent. I gave your suggestion a try, only problem is, because it’s a personal fund raise, I need an account with a working bank account, which I don’t have. It’s ongoing as I’m still looking into it.
      Vincent, Thank You again and Kind Regards for your suggestion. God Bless!

    David Smith says:

    Hi I wonder if you could tell me are they really throwing white people on into the streets and beating them because they say it is the white person who brought the virus to Cambodia??? It is what my fiancé said she read We were planning on moving to Siem Reap to get married and have a life there but the virus and now she read about the treatment she refuses to move there. Maybe they should remind them China released this virus not whites. And the virus would have gone there from China not mater what they did. I wonder why they didn’t get that mad at Pol Pot when he killed millions of his own people This smells of stupidity just like when Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s problems and killed them. Americans should get smart and realize the world hates us and get out of foreign countries they lived for thousands of years without us they can live a thousand more without us come back home and fix our problems.

      Kimmy says:

      Dear Sir:

      I decided to remain behind in Cambodia as well. The rumors that you are hearing are just rumors; they are not real!

      People are more prepared and not pointing finger to any particular race. Most of the Covid-19 cases are imported cases. The first case was from a Japanese man, the 2nd was from the tour group came on boat from Vietnam, and the 3rd group was from Malaysia; Muslims who went to there for annual Muslim Gathering.

      It is sad to see people get infected by this virus, but thanks to the government these patients were well treated.

      Take care of yourself and god bless Cambodia and the world.

      God bless

        Vincent says:

        Thanks Kimmy,
        Better words then I had time for. David I do hope your Russian relationship is not internet driven. But if it is have a full wallet.
        Best of luck.

      Helen says:

      I live here and will stay here and have not seen anything like that in Siem Reap. However, mainly out of respect, I wear a mask when venturing outside. Yesterday I was in the city’s biggest and best supermarket. The only customers I saw without masks on, despite signs politely asking you to wear one, were four white guys. I believe they are residents here and their arrogant attitude and utter lack of respect will inevitably upset the locals.The school I teach at is now closed so I plan to stay home as much as I can and do as I’m told.

    Peter Abram says:

    Work at home an don’t go out after dark. That’s my rule in Phnom Penh. All the others too–social distancing, I only eat in the small hotel I live in and my hands have never been cleaner. But all in all it feels like not a bad place to see this out.

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