Staying in Siem Reap during the coronavirus pandemic

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.

Old Market Siem Reap closed for coronavirus

Old Market in Siem Reap, almost completely closed in the wake of coronavirus.

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.

Pub Street Siem Reap closed coronavirus

It took the coronavirus pandemic to get Pub Street to a reasonable volume.

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.

Angkor Wat sunset empty coronavirus

Sunset at Angkor Wat, empty for the first time in decades.

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.

Siem Reap with no tourists

Where have all the tourists gone?

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!

11 Responses to Staying in Siem Reap during the coronavirus pandemic

    Lesley says:

    Hi, thanks for the information. I have been in contact with my Siem Reap driver, and sent him money via Western Union. Hard times for him. I was wondering how the local people manage without tourists and an income, for the basics of food and water. Is there a social security payment, or must they rely on the generosity of others? Stay safe.

      Ruth says:

      Hi Lesley,

      Yes, sadly these are very difficult times for people here. Many families have lost most or all their income as there are no tourists coming through and businesses have shut down.

      Some people are missing out on meals and having to move out of their homes, unable to pay rent. There is no welfare system in Cambodia, no unemployment package.

      Expats here are trying to do what they can to help, but it could take a while before things get better again. Thanks for helping your driver friend!


    Carlo says:

    Hi Ruth ,
    thanks for your information. I am an Italian citizen and together with my Cambodian partner we planned to come to Siem Reap to open a restaurant business and to buy a house to stay there. How is the situation now? Do you know when Cambodia will open again the borders to foreigners?
    I know that Emirates probably will start to operate from July.
    Thanks in advance. Take care

      Ruth says:

      Hello Carlo,

      Cambodia has actually opened it’s borders to some extent – there are different visa processes and health screening (including quarantine measures) in place, however. I imagine that if things continue as they have been (no new cases in Cambodia for the past few weeks) that things will open up further. However, it could be a long time before tourist numbers pick up again.

      You could join a Siem Reap expats group on Facebook to get a feel for how other restaurateurs are finding things. The Cambodia Visa and Work Permit Group is probably the best place to get up-to-date information on entry regulations to Cambodia, so you might want to join that as well:

      All the best to both of you!

    KD says:

    Such a sad development. I have lived in PP for almost five years and I’ve seen the strength and persistence of Khmer creativity, making the best of hard situations with what little they sometimes have. Beautiful people with good hearts are common among the hard workers. Miss that one seller at Tuol Tompong market and “my” Tuk Tuk driver. Wishing all the best to the locals in this time, hopefully hand in hand with expats. I know that sounds almost too ideal to be true but every movement starts somewhere. Small things matter. Samnang laor.

    David Smith says:

    Had plans on moving to Siem Reap with my fiancé and daughter but the virus stopped that they are still trapped in Russia and I am still stuck in USA I hope soon we can meet in Cambodia They were very sad and so was I But we still have our hopes to get to that beautiful country and meet the people most things I have read have said they are very friendly and kind people Our used to be real estate agent lost her job thanks to the virus said she will help us find a place anyway she is a very beautiful person with three daughters two from her brother who died If the rest of Cambodia is like her then we may end up living there for life’ That you everyone for the stories They help hearing from real people God Bless you all and please be safe David

    eric says:

    Thank you Ruth for this description of (new) life in Siem Reap during this odd time … I have elected Kampot as my new home*, I live more precisely in the outskirt, few kms east, in a bungalow (in single terms), and it is pretty much the same ambiance in the city, hibernation sort of. But the impact for the Cambodians is less, Kampot is (was) not such a huge tourist area as Siem Reap. Take care. E

    John says:

    I am trapped in Australia wanting to return to Siem Reap. I had a flight booked for today but cancelled due to CONVID – 19 restrictions.
    My wife and daughter are in Siem Reap.
    I would prefer to helping the SR economy and being with my family than being in Australia.
    The hardest part is the uncertainty of when flights will resume again.

    Simon says:

    Thank you for your insights. I’m considering retirement in SE Asia having spent the last 16 years working in S.Korea.

    Catherine Dickson says:

    Well said. We moved here to live in January. My husband was always going to stay. But I had planned to fly back to Australia until my flight was cancelled. So then we both stayed. It is very quiet but we at this stage are glad we have stayed.

    Mjchael Cuthbert says:

    Well done to all of you locals and expats

    I would love to come to Cambodia to live

    but not possible at the moment.

    Stay safe – to everyone

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