The Quarantine Chronicles

Entry one: Down and Out in Sydney and Phnom Penh

Globe reporter Alexi is stuck in quarantine for two-weeks in the outskirts of Phnom Penh after his flight returned a positive case of Covid-19. In his first diary entry from isolation, he talks swabs, Russian Boulevard and Avicii

June 25, 2020
Entry one: Down and Out in Sydney and Phnom Penh
My view of the Phnom Penh cityscape for the next fortnight.

Following a positive test on his flight into Cambodia, Globe reporter Alexi Demetriadi is currently being held in quarantine at a Phnom Penh hotel. He will be writing about his experiences in a series of blog posts over the next two weeks. He is also posting on a daily basis on his Twitter account. An account of Alexi’s journey to Phnom Penh from Sydney via Seoul can be read here.

Lord of the Flies? Cast Away? 2015’s Academy Award nominated, Room? All were tried, tested but failed to produce a witty title that could incorporate my experience as I sit writing in my hotel room. 

The title of George Orwell’s memoir from when living in Paris and London was the only one that seemed fitting. But I’m not working among the hoteliers in 1920s Europe – no – I’m stuck in quarantine in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, after a fellow passenger from Asiana Airlines flight OZ739 tested positive for the novel coronavirus. 

And unlike Brie Larson in Room, I haven’t got a young son to smuggle out in the hope of an escape.

This time last week I was knocking back a cold, crisp Resch’s Pilsner, Australia’s finest, while overlooking the Sydney harbour. Fast forward seven days, I’m sipping a lukewarm Cambodia Lager, while overlooking the cityscape of Phnom Penh from my hotel balcony on Russian Boulevard.

But that’s where the similarities end. 

My first time visiting Cambodia, having made the journey from Australia over the weekend to begin my new role at the Globe, I was hoping to visit each traveller’s must-sees of the Phnom Penh – from the bustling Central Market, the riches of the Royal Palace, to a stroll along the Mekong.

Instead, I have had four showers (a walk-in, with strong and consistent pressure), watched Avicii’s 2016 Ultra Miami music set twice over, and smoked on my balcony too many times to count. Lonely Planet’s Phnom Penh guidebook missed a trick missing these off the essential activities list.  

It didn’t used to be like this. Little over 24 hours before I was subject to what would surely have been described as breaking and entering – I’ve had tonsillitis almost six times, but I would trade another bout of that for the Covid-19 swab test that was thrust upon us at Phnom Penh airport.

I had two swab tests in Australia, I screamed churlishly on both occasions and I didn’t like them, and so naturally, I was nervous about my third upon landing at Phnom Penh International Airport. 

I was near the end of the queue, awaiting my turn to be tested. Ahead, in the makeshift testing zone, I saw a woman in tears and one man swearing. You may see descriptions of the test on Google as “mildly unpleasant” or “quite uncomfortable”. These are wrong.

The noodles for breakfast were actually brilliant and all meals come served with sides and fresh fruit.

For those who haven’t had one, let me enlighten you. A large cotton bud is slowly navigated up your nostril cavity, further than you ever thought possible, given a couple of twists while up there, before being delicately encased in a test tube.

I told the nice Cambodian doctor at the airport I didn’t like the test, and could he please just put it up a fraction of the way. My plea fell on deaf ears – apparently, it doesn’t work like that.

I screamed, wailed, pushed his hand away. All the while, my fellow passengers looked on at this screaming young Brit, shrieking for it to end. A couple laughed – a couple also glared – all the while a large cotton bud stuck out from my nose.

My first experience of Cambodia will now forever be chain smoking in the hotel car pack, hoping the nicotine would help ease the pain, and the embarrassment and shame of an undignified screaming fit by a 23-year-old journalist.

The first full day in the hotel, awaiting our test results, we were allowed a little freedom – meals downstairs and excursions to the reception – but with masks and socially distancing. On Tuesday, with test results returning a positive case, the full lockdown began. Confined to our  (admittedly, very nice) rooms for the next 14 days, meals delivered to us contact-free and no venturing outside.

Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, I fear I may emerge in two weeks with an overgrown beard and talking to a ball. The problem is, I already have an untamed beard and a penchant for football, so what comes next is anyone’s guess. 

My aunt sent over a beginner’s guide to a Tabata workout, and a butts and guts tutorial. I can assure you my butt and guts will remain intact – there is a place and a time to start being healthy and I don’t think quarantine is it

But I’m going to try and keep myself sane. Throwing myself into work (no excuse now for low productivity), making sure my room doesn’t turn into a cesspit and ensuring I shower every morning. 

My aunt sent over a beginner’s guide to a Tabata workout, and a butts and guts tutorial. I can assure you my butt and guts will remain intact – there is a place and a time to start being healthy and I don’t think quarantine is it.

In fairness, however much I complain, the quarantine process here in Cambodia does seem to be working. Namely, to stop the spread of inbound cases of Covid-19 – isolating it upon arrival and nipping it in the bud. 

And ultimately, however, what is most important is that our fellow passenger who tested positive makes a full recovery. 

It also has to be noted that the hotel is very nice, clean and modern – with balconies attached to each room and ample space. The staff at the hotel, working in an unprecedented climate, are all exceptionally kind, friendly and making sure that those in the rooms are – from a distance – as comfortable as possible. With reflection, it must be scary working in a hotel with potential Covid-19 cases. 

From my balcony I can see the Russian Boulevard stretch up to the city centre, almost teasing me to try slipping out and making my way to freedom. But freedom will have to wait a fortnight and, until then, I’ll have to keep occupied.

A Tweet doing the rounds during the early months of Covid-19 isolation was that British mathematician Isaac Newton managed to lay the groundwork for the laws of gravity in lockdown during the Great Plague, in 1665.

Perhaps this diary will prove my enduring legacy, and like Newton’s falling apple, future generations will discuss just how far that swab went up my nasal cavity, and just how loud I screamed. 

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