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LINES OF THOUGHT ACROSS SOUTHEAST ASIA

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Tales of the Pandemic

Hunkering down in tourist-free Siem Reap

Cambodia's Siem Reap thrives and survives on its tourist industry, with millions flocking to the ancient Angkor Wat temple each year. But as Covid-19 halts global travel, writer Jonathan Evans describes life minus the tourists in this once-again sleepy little town

Jonathan Evans
April 27, 2020
Hunkering down in tourist-free Siem Reap
The once-packed Angkor Wat temple with only a handful of tourists on March 5. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Jonathan Evans is a writer and editor currently living in Siem Reap with his wife. While the Globe takes the utmost care to publish accurate information, by the nature of these first-hand accounts we are unable to independently verify the accuracy of the details contained within them.


I remember the day as clearly as if it were yesterday, even though it feels like years have since passed. It was the first day of February when my wife and I moved from a tiny apartment to a secluded boutique hotel in Siem Reap, intending to stay for two weeks before moving abroad, where she had landed a new role in travel publishing.

Two months later, we are still at the hotel. The incipient coronavirus scare had migrated across Asia and become an epidemic; airline magazines suffered an alarming shortfall in advertising; not just flights, but entire airlines were grounded; and by mid-February the work contract was cancelled. 

Even the notion that so recently, we were merrily preparing to leave Siem Reap for the big city – not, in normal times, such a terribly far-fetched plan – now seems so antiquated as to be laughable.

Catching a flight? A new job, in an office? Travel writing? But if these once quite unremarkable ideas have been poleaxed by the new post-Covid reality, it’s a measure of how fundamentally our society has changed in two short months; and how work-life structures which once seemed perfectly reasonable have suddenly become impossibly luxurious, absurdly fanciful conceits.

As travel writers, we’d chosen Siem Reap – whose entire raison d’être is tourism – back in May 2019, lured by its cosmopolitan food-and-drink scene, low cost of living and easy-going lifestyle, and an excellent airport with frequent regional connections.

Yet even in January, as we returned from a sojourn in the Philippines, Siem Reap served up an uncanny premonition of what was to come. Chinese tourists, once the majority tourist demographic, were nowhere to be seen. What was the end of an unusually quiet peak season became the start of an unprecedented slump as word spread of this virulent impostor and its silent but deadly powers. 

Tourism slowed so markedly that arrivals to Angkor Archaeological Park, Asia’s most celebrated religious complex, declined by 90%. Even though we’d witnessed non-peak periods during the rainy season – August, September – we’d never experienced anything quite like this, where the normally bustling city was consumed by a disquieting, eerie silence. 

Hotels started closing down; others ran on zero (or nearly zero) occupancy. As seismic news events shattered both the travel industry and travel publishing, we realised we’d lost not just the anticipated posting but our entire livelihoods.

The shops and restaurants that remain open are largely empty, offering alcohol sanitisers and temperature readings to the few who still enter. It is staggering how quickly these post-apocalyptic scenes have become everyday urban reality

What’s telling is that all this happened not just in peak season, but before any cases of the virus were even officially confirmed in Cambodia, or any flight routes were cancelled – such was the pervasive fear surrounding the virus. By late February, as long-term residents of an apartment hotel where couples and groups once came and went with clockwork regularity, now we were startled by the arrival of a single guest.

Sensing Siem Reap’s sudden decline, the Cambodian government introduced a special deal aimed at bringing in more visitors, extending the validity of the Angkor Pass – the permit that’s obligatory for foreigners visiting the temples – at no extra cost. 

And yet, partly due to a lack of testing, the real number of cases remained unknown, leading to an uneasy sense that we were living in oblivion. It’s been a fascinating case study in psychology, power, geopolitics and the media in the developing world. Local newspapers reported updates, only to debunk them the next day. In this poor country infamous for its authoritarian rule, regulations have been far from draconian: only schools, cinemas and KTVs were ordered shut in the early weeks. 

The only self-isolation that we’ve witnessed has been of the voluntary kind; locals have stayed at home through fear, rather than being ordered by authority. A lockdown has been widely rumoured, yet never fully materialised.

Until a six weeks ago, when confirmed cases started to creep up, we’d seen almost no one wearing face masks. Now, within that short timespan, masks are everywhere – and not just on the motorcyclists burning down the pulsating major artery of Wat Bo Road. The streets are devoid of pedestrians: on Pub Street, the neon glow of after-dark hedonism has given way to scenes redolent of the area in the early 2000s, where only forlorn-looking tuk-tuk drivers half-heartedly offer rides. 

The shops and restaurants that remain open are largely empty, offering alcohol sanitisers and temperature readings to the few who still enter. It is staggering how quickly these post-apocalyptic scenes have become everyday urban reality. 

Now that cases are finally being confirmed, the fact that the virus has received official recognition ironically offers reassurance that the problem is being taken seriously. Flights from the US, Germany, Italy, Spain and France are suspended, and all travellers are subject to strict health and insurance restrictions. Earlier this month, Khmer New Year celebrations, unthinkably yet inevitably, were severely limited. 

A Khmer New Year sign on an unseasonably quiet Siem Reap road. Photo: Supplied

While the news changes from one day to next – through an unholy trinity of social media, rumour mill and occasional government advisory – our hotel life feels blissfully removed from the world beyond our gate.

As the staff have gradually retreated to their villages around Tonlé Sap, the jungle-like grounds and restored 1960s architecture of this private enclave have been ours to explore at leisure. Though we never intended it this way, as the sole residents of the compound we’ve perfected social distancing without even trying.

As parched crimson flowers fall softly around the limpid green pool and gentle breezes punctuate the merciless heat of the late dry season, we try not to take our immense good fortune for granted. Our days are measured by the arrival of a friendly cleaner, a neighbour watering their garden, children playing obliviously in the backyard and animal sounds that range from a gecko’s raucous squawk to the high-pitched yapping of next door’s puppy. 

We have learned to take delight in the small things, the little milestones that mark the progress of our days. Tiny yellow hummingbirds hover above as they scan the tropical flowers for pollen, and we search for limes from overhanging branches to flavour our tonic water – before glorious orange-pink sunsets, savoured from the vantage point of our second-floor balcony, herald the onset of evening. 

It’s hard to imagine that in this idyllic suburban cul-de-sac, where we’re just 100 metres from the tree-lined river that bisects the suburbs and the vibrant French Quarter, an unknowable enemy is irrevocably reshaping the world around us. 

Compared to our friends and families in faraway cities, we live in cosy, bucolic isolation. Though we often look to Skype and Zoom for company, life for now is necessarily defined by solitude: today we must be apart, so that at some indefinite point in the future, we may all be together once again. 


This story is part of the Globe’s Tales of the Pandemic series, a collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called published each Monday covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history. All of these Covid-19 stories can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words to a.mccready@globemediaasia.com.



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