Lockdown!? – Cambo Life in the Time of Covid (1-11 April 2020)

Hunkering, beer delivery, and the biggest holiday of the year in the time of COVID. Daily life dispatches from Phnom Penh.

11 April 2020

Week 3 | Life Under Covid Restrictions

# Cambodia Total Confirmed: 110
# Cambodia Total Recovered: 34

We all started April here in the Kingdom of Wonder wondering what the heck’s gonna happen next.

A whopping 110 confirmed cases of COVID, all mild to moderate with no deaths.

By this time, schools, bars, gyms, pools, playgrounds, and religious gatherings had been shut down or banned for about two weeks.

Which meant Lori and I had been working from home and the boys had been home with us as well for about two weeks.

While the situation has dramatically escalated around the globe, the virus seems to have taken a page out of the Cambodian cultural playbook.

Arriving here in January, Corona’s certainly been taking it easy and watching the days roll by one by one under the hot tropical sun, which of course is fine by everyone.

But there is something else making its way just as slowly through the Cambodian system at the same time — a law that would grant the government authority to call a state of emergency.

You heard that right.

Apparently, before now, neither the prime minister nor the national assembly had the authority to introduce a lockdown if needed. Heck, not even the king had this authority, apparently.

I’ve got to hand it to Cambodia, that they’re really dotting their ‘i’s and crossing their ‘t’s on every aspect of this bill, which is making its way from one chamber to the next to the king to the PM and back to the king or something like that.

Meanwhile, beyond the various closures, there’s been quite a push on hygiene (washing hands, wearing masks, temperature screening, etc.), but as of early April, there hasn’t been a lot of guidance regarding self-isolation and social distancing.

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As the biggest Cambodian holiday of the year, Khmer New Year, fast approaches, we hope there might be some broad public information campaign to the masses in that respect.

After all, KNY isn’t just any old bank holiday quietly observed at home. Oh no. During Khmer New Year, the whole country grinds to a halt for a solid week as literally the entire population hits the road to meet up with family and friends at mass gatherings where people let loose and party for days in close quarters.

Not exactly the kind of thing you want millions of people doing all at once in the middle of a pandemic.

But rumors are circulating of the PM calling a national emergency, after the bill clears its many formalities of course. We all wonder what that might mean, exactly.

Will it be something crazy restrictive like we are seeing in Europe? Or something else? We assume there’ll be a curfew, and maybe movement restrictions. Maybe restaurants will finally close? Maybe we’ll have to have our groceries delivered to us and the kids won’t see the light of day for months?

Whatever the case ends up being, at this point we’ll just have to take it in stride. Cambodia is now effectively cut off from its neighbors and the last of the regular flights out to anywhere else had long since flown.

Additionally, a travel ban has been in place here for several countries including the U.S., and numerous fellow expats we know have returned to their home country.

In the first week of April, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how isolated the four of us are becoming here, at least in terms of other foreigners milling about.

This is the hygiene station just outside our bank. I’m pretty sure they put this in just for COVID. They do stuff like that here all the time. Endless resources for construction projects, yet few for much else, it seems.

A trip to the bank these days involves strapping the mask on, walking across the street, squirting some alcohol on your hands, getting your temperature read, saying hello to the money machine (I prefer the one that dispenses US$10 bills these days due to the lack of change at most businesses), spritzing your hands again, walking back across the street, hanging the mask on the hook, and washing hands. You can pretty much insert anything for “bank” such as grocery store, coffee shop, etc.

And yes, Cambodia has their own currency, Riel. But the de facto currency in recent years has become USD, so much in face that all ATMs in the Kingdom dispense both currencies and a great majority of formal businesses list their prices in USD.

Many places in PP, such as this Japanese bakery below, require a mask to enter. Some grocery stores do as well, and will allow you to purchase a surgical mask on the spot.

Unlike many Western countries, most people here wear surgical masks and N95 masks. They were doing this long before Corona, so most people seem to have a good supply. I assume if hospitals suddenly start to get hit with patients, that might change. But that hasn’t happened yet, thankfully. Hopefully, it never will.

This was the first place I hoped would require a mask, as all of their pastries are out in the open in tight quarters. Sure enough, they were indeed one of the first.

Grabbing a special to-go treat for Lori and me to mark making it through another week of Corona, I was pleasantly surprised to see this national coffee shop chain had placed dozens of these placards throughout their huge store.

To date, Starbucks hasn’t even done this. We didn’t visit Starbucks for two months because of it.

Honestly, it feels weird to be out and about after all the paranoia circulating in March.

For better or for worse, there is a level of optimism here in early April, given the low rates we’ve been seeing.

Still, Lori and I are being cautious. The boys aren’t playing with other kids, we don’t dine-in anywhere anymore, and our trips out of the house are limited to just a few times a week to run errands.

In the meantime, I’ve devised my own at-home cold brew method involving an AeroPress.

Ice is loaded into the red funnel and slowly drips onto a paper filter which evenly disperses the water into the granules. After slowly seeping through the granules, the coffee slowly drips through a metal filter and into the glass.

I’ve experimented with many different cold brew methods over the years and this one is by far the best.

The boys don’t get out nearly much these days as they used to. We try and make sure they get some time to run around our alleyway in the morning before things heat up, but it’s no substitute for all the exploring they’re accustomed to.

We try and go on a walk in the evenings a few times a week when things cool down a little, usually just around the neighborhood.

Sometimes we cross the main avenue dividing our neighborhood with the next one over and meander around there. We’re doing this a bit more these days knowing that an emergency order could be imminent. At that point, we may not be allowed to do this because it’s technically another district.

 

On this particular day, we’re saddened (and a little distraught) to see the big red double decker bus bar has disappeared. Even with school closures and big lifestyle changes, the disappearance of the big red bus seemed to be the event that alerted Noe to the fact that something is definitely not right with the world.

We’re hoping the bus bar’s disappearance is temporary, but something tells me it’s not.

This street in our neighborhood has been hit particularly hard by the bar closures, given that there are a couple dozen of them within a stones throw of where this picture was taken.

Week 4 – Life Under Covid Restrictions

# Cambo Confirmed: 114
# Cambo Recovered: 50

Hard to imagine we’re in week four now! In some ways, it feels like we’ve been doing this for a lot longer. A lot of us started back in January to take the precautions that much of the globe takes for granted now.

The photo above was published in a local newspaper showing one of the recovered COVID patients receiving his “I’m Cured!!!” certificate in a patient discharge ceremony at the hospital.

Listening to reports from across the globe on a nightly basis, Cambodia’s fight against the virus seems “quaint” in comparison, for lack of a better word.

In early April, there have been a string of recovered patients discharged with only a couple new cases to report. The weather has cooled a bit to the upper eighties, and the PM just announced that calling a State of Emergency would NOT be necessary at this time.

Within days, life on the streets seems to have snapped back. People are out and about without masks, traffic has picked up, and restaurants are welcoming patrons back for dine-in again. All with the Khmer New Year holiday just days away…

More on that later.

Still, there’s been no word of schools reopening any time soon. So, we try to keep things fresh for the boys as best we can.

And when I say we, I really mean Lori.

While Lori and I share the child care duties, Lori’s the one who thinks up new activities and sketches out their days.

When she took on her new role as an early childhood development advisor last September, she never dreamed she would be knee deep in it at home every day.

One day, Lori sent me out into the world to pick up a few things at a craft store. Watercolors were on the list, and of course I got the cheapest set they had.

What Lori and I didn’t realize was that not all watercolor paints wash out! We just sort of took that for granted since both of us had the washable kind as kids.

That first day, Noe got to paint with wild abandon, until we realized those colors would be with us for a very long time.

This was a particularly creative move on Lori’s part. She had these magnetic numbers and letters and quickly realized that half our house is metal and devised a scavenger hunt, which Riley particularly seems to enjoy.

In addition to the activities Lori thinks up (and daddy games like Let’s Make Cold Brew!, Let’s Wash Dishes!, and Let’s See Who Can Be the Most Quiet for the Longest!), we also have a few activities inspired by the kids’ nursery school each week.

 

Teacher-in-Residence

We’ve also managed to enlist the help of one of their nursery school teachers for a few hours a day, which helps to keep things a little more interesting in our small space with limited options for getting out and about.

Her living situation, COVID prevention training from the school, and the personal precautions she’s taking were enough for us to make the determination that the benefits outweighed the risks. Beyond the five of us, the boys haven’t been in contact with anyone else since mid-March.

She primarily speaks French and Khmer, which is great for Noe for keeping up his French (the school he attends is a bilingual English-French school, and his previous nursery school in Laos was taught in French and Lao).

Noe and his teacher speak French exclusively, and Lori and I are taken aback every day when we hear the two of them chatting away in French like they’re old friends.

It appears that some of it is rubbing off on Riley as well. He can’t count in English (or Spanish, which is what mommy speaks with him), but the kid can count to three in French.

 

 

Morning coffee (and water/smoothie) time on the front porch, hanging out in what Noe calls our “House Coffeeshop”. The little dude hasn’t been to a coffee shop in weeks and I know he’s missing that particular time out and about, especially Daddy Days.

 

Beer Bar Tuk Tuk

I was thumbing through the local news the other night when a local ad caught my eye for something new for COVID called the Beer Bar Tuk Tuk.

I was intrigued.

On our first try, they were still getting the kinks out, and we waited over two hours for our craft beer delivered straight to our house (in Vientiane, if ever a service existed, this would have been record time!).

Since then, we’ve learned to put in our order early for a specific time. But they actually do most of the work for us, in that respect. We’ll usually receive a text mid-week asking if we’d like them to swing by at the usual time. Then, they pull up around 7:15pm right after the boys go down and we head downstairs to grab our freshly poured craft beer.

They’ve got three taps serving Cervisia beer (a popular craft brewery here in Phnom Penh). Usually there’s an IPA, APA, and one other beer on tap (blonde, pilsner, or Irish red). The current price is US$3 for a 14 oz. pour.

 

Phnom Penh Air

This is my work space upstairs in our bedroom. The view doesn’t change much. In the three months we’ve lived in this house, we’ve had one rainy morning and a handful of cloudy days. Otherwise, it’s been consistently clear.

In Vientiane during this time of year, the air quality tends to get pretty bad. In March 2019, Vientiane boasted the worst air quality in the world for a time. In the six months we’ve lived here in Phnom Penh, the air quality has been amazingly good by any major city standard, which has been one of the biggest surprises of living here.

PM2.5 readings from our terrace in Phnom Penh rarely go above 50. In our neighborhood in Vientiane, I’d get 125+ on the monitor almost every night when people commonly burn their trash in the streets.

I imagine a little bit of this has to do with fewer cars on the road due to COVID, but we haven’t seen much of a change since the arrival of the virus here. In Cambodia, there are likely other factors at play.

While Cambodia is more industrialized than Laos, the country has far fewer factories in comparison to the likes of Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

But perhaps even more significant, field burning is much less of an issue here and the burning of trash in urban areas is virtually non-existent. A huge difference compared with Laos.

And across the room… Lori’s work space. She’s got three work positions she alternates between: Her standing desk (pictured here), her sitting desk (a chair in front of a dresser), and her bed-desk. I look over sometimes and can’t help but feel like I’m in a South Asian call center.

Oh, and did I mention it gets hot up here? In the morning, we’ll open the windows, turn on the fans, and get a nice cross breeze that is manageable up until about 10:30am. After that, we’ll close all the curtains and crank up the A/C. Here in the hottest time of the year, however, by noon, we’re toast. Literally.

It’s not entirely a surprise given the second level of our place is almost entirely constructed of metal and exposed to the tropical sun on all four sides (not including the roof).

On the bright side, we’d probably save a ton on electricity if we just left a loaf of bread to bake in our room rather than an hour in our electric oven.

Bath time! Which, in our house involves splashing around in a big plastic basin in the shower for a while. These days, Riley surprises us with how much of a big boy he’s looking. But when he’s all bundled up in his towel, he reminds us he’s still just a big ol’ baby.

“Distance Learning”

We don’t have a TV or tablets. So, before COVID, the only screen time our boys ever got were Marco Polo video messages and Skype with family and friends.

Now, in the time of COVID, they watch children’s concerts and story time videos from various public libraries in the U.S.

But that’s not all. Both of our boys, at the ripe old age of Toddler, have e-learning classes with their teachers from their nursery school.

Noe has one thirty minute class each day with his English teacher one week and his French teacher every other week. He absolutely loves the French classes and is totally engaged. The English classes, not so much. English is a second language for most of the kids in his class, so I think that he tends to get a bit bored with the lessons because they are geared towards all levels in his age group.

Besides his little brother, it is the only interaction he has with other kids these days, and he really looks forward to that aspect of the calls.

And Riley?

Wouldn’t you know it, even our 18-month-old is e-learning these days.

When I first found out that both kids would be doing the distance learning thing, I was very conflicted and very skeptical.

Conflicted, because while Lori and I are firm believers in self-directed learning for very young kids, we’re not big on structured learning at this age. With Noe, we always put a big emphasis on free play and self-directed learning.

It also bothered Lori and I knowing that it would be an additional thirty minutes of screen time.

I was skeptical because I couldn’t even imagine our crazy little one-year-old sitting still for any period of time, let alone a full thirty minutes.

But as it turns out, Riley actually does sit still and engage for a good portion of the time and actually seems to enjoy the interaction with his teacher and other pint sized classmates. He seems to enjoy it enough and get enough out of it that we think the benefits outweigh the downsides.

“Lock Down” Begins

With Khmer New Year fast approaching and COVID still something of a risk, especially in neighboring countries, the Cambodian authorities announced that KNY would be postponed this year.

Mind you, at its heart, Khmer New Year (like Thai Songkran and Lao Pi Mai) is a religious festival and the timing each year is based on the phases of the moon.

So, in many respects, you can’t really postpone KNY. It would be akin to trying to delay our own Gregorian new year (or Easter, which is also a religious festival tied to the lunar cycles).

While nobody is forbidden to observe the religious aspects from the comfort of their own home, all associated festivities are being canceled.

Furthermore, all workers and employers have been ordered to treat the week as any other week, and report to work as usual.

Furthermore, if anyone fails to show up to work without a medical certificate then it will be presumed that they traveled somewhere (even if that’s not the case) and they will be required to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days without pay.

The carrot in all this? Well, the main one is staying healthy and avoiding infection. Largely due to the information and misinformation floating around on Khmer social media, Cambodians seem to be deathly afraid of the virus, and happy to follow suit as a result.

However, the government has also promised workers that they will still get their four days off of work for the holiday, AND that they will also be entitled to a FIFTH day of paid leave when festivities are rescheduled.

In addition, authorities announced (a few hours beforehand) that, starting at midnight on the evening of the 9th, all non-essential inter-provincial AND inter-district movement will be banned for one week during the KNY holiday.

Which has put the city into a bit of frenzy, given that there are several small districts just in Phnom Penh alone.

We went to sleep on the night of the 9th not knowing if we would be able to cross the street in the morning to buy groceries.

As is often the case in Southeast Asia, however, laws are less about what’s on the books and more about what’s actually implemented and enforced.

Rather than try and contact anyone for clarification, we figured we’d just let it play out in the morning and see if anyone’s arrested crossing the street, then we’d know the true extent of the restrictions.

24 hours later, the authorities clarified the statement and removed the district restriction. Which means we’re now bound to a geographic area encompassing a 10 mile radius.

A far cry from places like Wuhan, Spain, or even parts of the U.S., it is the smallest geographic area we’ve been legally bound to since the start of the COVID crisis.

To be continued…

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Aunt JeanetteJANICE M FULLERTON Recent comment authors
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Aunt Jeanette
Aunt Jeanette

So good to hear how the Baxter family is surviving. Glad the boys have each other. It must be a riot to watch them. I love to hear how they each speak foreign languages. Impressive!!
Do the people wonder why you are ‘still there’? ‘ You are so brave!!

JANICE M FULLERTON
JANICE M FULLERTON

Stay safe, stay strong, and know that we think of you often; soon this will all be over.