Lockdown, what lockdown? Expat life in Cambodia

When the world started to go crazy at the beginning of the year, Europe and America seemed to turn a blind eye to coronavirus, whilst China, and south-east Asia started to batten down the hatches.

Before China shut down in March many countries had brought in requirements (such as Vietnam) that you could not enter unless you had been outside of China for at least 14 days. The exception to this rule was Cambodia, which led to many people fleeing here, and becoming “stuck”.

The early lockdown panic in Cambodia

In March various venues were closed in Cambodia, such as schools and KTV’s and the press warned of a “new normal”, but in actual fact expat life has largely remained unchanged in Phnom Penh and the rest of the country. With the exception of us wearing masks when told to do so, something absolutely no one sees the reason to protest about.

Visa amnesty

Another great government success here and one which has not gone as smoothly in other countries was the visa amnesty. Essentially if your visa ran out after Cambodia essentially shut the borders then so long as you registered you were allowed to stay. Now of course no one knows how long this will go on for and like Thailand it could change any day, but overall it seems Cambodia has been smarter than other countries, such as Thailand who have essentially thrown people out.

Again no one knows how long this will last for, but my personal opinion is that Cambodia realize that by letting foreigners stay here, it means that they will be spending their money here. This may not solve every economic problem the country has, but it at least means that there is still a degree of normality and people spending money.

China seem to be doing similar right now. Having 1.4 billion people spending their money internally, whilst still exporting is no dumb move.

What pandemic?

As of yesterday the government announced the temporary closure of some entertainment venues, due to exposure from a Hungarian delegation, but if is anything like what has occurred before, we really have very little to worry about.

As most of the world seems to be perennially in lockdown, protesting, or simply counting their dead, in Phnom Penh it is almost easy to forget that coronavirus even exists. Of course there is more mask wearing, temperature checks and public health warnings, oh and the fact we can’t leave the country, but by and large things are just “normal”.

Overall the attitude in the capital and beyond is very relaxed, at the start people were very wary of “foreign carriers”, with masks being thrown on at the mere sight of a non-Khmer, but this has largely dissipated, with everyone from bars to tuk-tuk drivers back to courting their foreign friends.

How did Cambodia get it so right?

There’s obviously no magic formula here, but when lockdown in Cambodia has been implemented, they realized that people still needed to eat, drink and grab a coffee. Non-essential venues, such as schools, KTV’s etc were closed, but people were allowed to carry on as close to normal as possible.

Here it should also not be underestimated how well people behaved and how much government rules were followed. People wore masks and did what they were told, much like in places like China, South Korea and Vietnam. People were not out protesting about their “freedoms”, but did what they had to do. The net result of this has been a largely unchanged life.

Of course it is not as simplistic as this, Cambodia of course is a hot country, and much less densely populated than some other places, but still it has handled the crisis equally as well as China (which of course has not only cold places, but is densely populated).

Currently the only cases that end up in Cambodia are imported ones, and when that happens, as is the case now in Phnom Penh the country acts extremely quickly. Prevention is better than cure, and this is proving its worth every day.

Cambodia has been flexible

For those of us stuck here, or deciding to stay here Cambodia and its embattled tourist industry has been extremely proactive in adapting to the new normal. Prices have dropped and many great hotels have offered fabulous deals for long-term guests. In this respects this is what  has made Phnom Penh such an attractive destination compared to say Siem Reap. Due to how much Siem Rea relies on tourism it has been much slower to adapt to the changing times.

Internal travel is booming!

Thankfully as well Cambodia has a lot of national holidays and with people not able to travel to other countries locals and foreigners alike have been spending their time and money in Cambodia. Looking at Pub Street in Siem Reap during Khmer New Year 2.0 and you would hardly realize that anything was wrong.

And this has rung true in places like Koh Rong, that although slightly resembling a ghost town for much of the year at least has travel spikes during national holidays. If you have not visited Koh Rong yet then you really should whilst you have the chance, when the world does get back to normal, and of course it will one day, it will undoubtedly become overcrowded again. Now is beach bungalow time.

That being said, we are still stuck……

So, whilst it is undeniable that those of us “stuck” in Cambodia are currently some of the luckiest people on earth, it is still a worry that we cannot travel. For those of us in the tourist industry funds are rapidity drying up and the lack of opportunity to see family friends and loved ones can be devastating, but few would argue with the current travel abd immigration policies being correct.

Opening a travel corridor?

Not just for Cambodia, but on a global level the most likely scenario is that travel corridors will be opened up. For example tiny Nauru now has regular flights with Australia. With China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia now mostly being in similar positions with coronavirus, the hope is that a travel corridor involving at least some of these countries may open by as early as January. This would be great for all of the economies involved, as well as something to look forward t for those of us with a severe case of cabin fever.

Making the most of things

So, whilst we may be “stuck”, were also stuck in one of the few places that resembles Pre-Covid era normality. None of us can predict the future, but we can at least make the most of the present.

Being an expat in Phnom Penh could be a lot worse……

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