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Life under lockdown – the view from Cambodia

Cambodia and its all-important tourist industry have been left devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Natasha Martin tells Carolynne Dear how she and her young family have been coping with lockdown and travel bans.

Natasha Martin and family pose for a photo at the now-deserted Angkor Wat temple complex, Cambodia.

“Most people agree that Cambodia has been spared. So far we’ve had just 122 coronavirus cases and no deaths. It’s puzzling and may be a result of under-testing, but it’s probably also due to 70% of the population being under the age of 30 and it being a sparsely populated country. 

“That said, tourism has been devastated. Other export industries, like garment manufacturing, have been affected too. The overall economic impact is not going to be good.

“The government response to the pandemic has been positive. I’m not sure if infection numbers were brought down by its actions or by good luck (and I guess we’ll never know) but its policies have certainly been sensible. 

“The most dramatic news we’ve faced was a cruise ship, MS Westerdam, having to dock in Sihanoukville in February after being denied entry to other ports in the region. But only one person was found to be infected and that result was later reported to have been a false positive reading.

“In March our schools closed and at this point a lot of our friends left Cambodia to return to Europe, Canada and the US.

“There has never been a ‘shelter-in-place’ order here, but over the Khmer New Year holiday in mid-April, an inter-province travel ban was introduced to stop large numbers of people travelling home for the holidays. For about two weeks, we didn’t leave the house and had groceries delivered. We played it very safe.

“At the moment, schools are still closed and I’m guessing that they won’t reopen now before September.

“Entering Cambodia is very difficult. You need a visa obtained from an embassy, a COVID certificate and US$50,000 insurance proof. And entry is barred to anyone coming from the US, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

“We haven’t been affected by any residents’ visa restrictions and my understanding is that the authorities have been good about extending visas for people stuck here.

“Technically, we could leave Cambodia, but I don’t think we’d be able to get back in again, and we both have jobs here. We won’t travel again until there’s no quarantine requirement at either end.

“I’m Canadian and my husband in Danish. Both of our countries initially shut their borders to foreigners. Like many expats, we don’t actually have our own place at ‘home’, so we decided to stay put in Cambodia and I’m glad we did. However, it’s strange not being able to book a flight at a moment’s notice and we will be rethinking our expat lifestyle if this situation continues, for sure.

“My big concern is that there is a family emergency and we won’t be able to get back.”

“I’m hoping to stay in Cambodia until Christmas and then we’ll take a long, two-month break to visit both families.”

“The pandemic has been absolutely devastating for a large number of Cambodians. I work in tourism and part of my job is to train guides. Not a day goes by that I don’t get a message from a former trainee asking for support to buy food for their family.

“For freelance workers, which is the situation of thousands of guides in Cambodia, things are just going to get worse.

“Of course we help where we can. To my delight I recently discovered that our gardener grows rice at the back of his house, so we’ve been buying 50kg bags from him and distributing it.

“It’s awful to see the impact of the pandemic on conservation efforts. So many people in Cambodia have worked so hard for important environmental wins. And now these efforts are being rolled back as a lot of the funding comes from ecotourism. Desperate locals have returned to poaching or illegal logging to survive. Three giant ibis (a critically endangered species) were poisoned a few weeks ago on the northern plains of Cambodia.

“On the positive side, as a family it looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Cambodia than we intended as we do our best to support the domestic tourist industry. We’re going to the islands next week, when we should have been back in Denmark for a wedding.

“We had a big family holiday planned to Bhutan in April. We’ve postponed it and we’re hoping we’ll get there within the year.

“In terms of homeschooling, my son is just two so there have been no online classes to deal with. But it has been difficult balancing work and childcare. After the initial panic passed and the domestic travel ban was lifted, we arranged for our nanny to be driven to work every day in our car and she was isolated in her home, too. Most of our friends set up similar systems with their helpers.

“My husband worked from home for about six weeks – from MY home office! – but he’s back now, which is good. He’s a very loud conference call talker.

“I have no idea how I managed to fill our days. The hours passed somehow. Quite often I’d be playing with my son, glance at the clock, and just a few minutes had gone by.

“I’ve read about 30 novels – there are an awful lot of stories about plagues if you start digging. The Plague by Albert Camus was my favourite and I also enjoyed Blindness by Jose Saramago. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles) is also very relevant to our current times.

“And I’m also pleased to report that we conquered potty training during lockdown!”

“I think our situation pales in comparison to what some countries have had to deal with. But it has been tough. I’m eager for it all to be over.”


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