Last week, in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, I woke up to a concerned message from my sister-in-law.
“How are you doing? Any changes to your schedule?” she wrote in a text.
Like my husband and me, she had been reading the horrifying reports about deaths from the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. The implication was that we might want to come home early. We hadn’t considered that possibility.
Siem Reap was our third stop on a six-week sojourn through Southeast Asia, planned many months in advance. We left New York on January 26, just as the virus scare reached a fevered pitch. Our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was only one-third full. As we sprinted to catch our connecting plane to Bangkok, machines mounted overhead registered our body temperature.
During the three weeks since then, far from the virus epicenter, in Wuhan, China, the fast-moving coronavirus story has swirled around us. It has been a topic of conversation everywhere we went. As tour groups canceled and normally bustling tourist attractions became eerily deserted, locals seemed especially grateful for our dollars and eager to share their cuisine and heritage.
Even Cambodia, a country that hasn’t been part of popular discourse in recent memory, made the headlines.
The news came from Sihanoukville – an increasingly Chinese enclave about 330 miles southwest of Siem Reap. Last week Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, allowed the Holland America cruise ship MS Westerdam to dock there, after it had been turned away by ports in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand. Despite assurances that no one on the ship was sick, after more than 1,000 of the passengers, who came from 41 countries, had dispersed, the news broke on Sunday that one of them had the coronavirus. She is an American, who was flagged by an airport thermal scanner in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and later tested positive for the virus.
There’s a strong argument to be made that politics trumped public health. Hun Sen is closely allied with the Chinese, who, among other things, are constructing roads in rural Cambodia, buying land and building skyscrapers all over its capital, Phnom Penh. Still, it’s debatable whether this latest development will cause significant harm. Despite serious efforts to contain the virus in China, it has already spread to many other countries. There is no refuge, much as we wish things were otherwise.
Though we don’t frighten easily, we are not cavalier about infectious disease. Ten years ago, my husband contracted pneumonia – we suspect on a flight home from Tibet. It led to a profound, and life-altering, hearing loss. That time, there was no epidemic to blame. It didn’t cause us to stop traveling or to live in an antiseptic bubble.
We started our most recent journey with four days in Bangkok. Merchants there had already noticed a decline in business, in the middle of the normally bustling Chinese New Year. Khun Reed, owner of Cotton House, a custom clothing shop that I have patronized for 15 years, told us about an American client who was supposed to stay through February and decided to return home early. “’If I’m going to die, I would rather die in Hawaii,’” he told Reed. As far as she knows, he hasn’t experienced any symptoms.
Irrational as this initially sounded, within a day we realized that it was more a matter of risk tolerance. We reached our own limit during a rush-hour ride on the crowded Bangkok elevated subway, known as the BTS, or Skytrain. Looking at all the people wearing face masks, and even knowing that many Bangkok residents do this because of the choking pollution, we decided to get around by taxi rather than public transportation.
We take what are thought to be the most effective precautions. A last-minute addition to our suitcases was six bottles of hand sanitizer (though, as it happens, there has been no shortage of it anywhere we’ve been), and we use it liberally. On our first day in Cambodia we bought traditional gingham krama scarves that locals use, especially in the countryside, for everything from sun protection to carrying bundles. We wore them around our necks and, in a gesture copied from the Cambodians, lifted them to cover our mouths when we sneezed or coughed.
“Most foreign independent tourists are not averse to traveling during ‘interesting’ times,” says Robert Carmack, an Australian ex-pat and co-owner with his partner Morrison Polkinghorne of Bric-à-Brac – a bed-and-breakfast in Battambang where we spent five nights before coming to Siem Reap. To get there from Bangkok, we flew to Siem Reap, on a plane that seemed filled with other independent travelers. A driver, dispatched by Bric-à-Brac, transported us by car to Battambang, which is three hours southwest of Siem Reap, along a partly rough-hewn road that goes around the Tonle Sap Lake.
Situated in a far less touristed part of Cambodia, in the country’s rice belt, Battambang tends to attract rugged, independent travelers. Apart from stray references in conversation, there was no sign of the coronavirus panic. Carmack, for one, says he has not seen a drop in guests at his establishment, but did have one, understandable, cancelation because of the coronavirus scare: “an American couple who lived in China through (and caught) SARS” (severe acute respiratory syndrome) during the 2003 epidemic.
Siem Reap, where the concerned sister-in-law reached us, was a totally different story. Surrounded by Khmer temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, it had already been suffering a decline in tourism for two consecutive years. While some blame Chinese tourists for shifting their favored vacation spot to Sihanoukville, others point the finger at travel journalists who have reported that it had become over-touristed. Either way, cancelations of group tours, as a result of the coronavirus, have made things dramatically worse.
Our return to Siem Reap was a journey born of nostalgia. We had spent five days there in 1995, when the country was just reopening for tourism. At Angkor Wat, and the nearby sites of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, we were alone among the temples and the trees.
We had decided not to risk visiting the pink sandstone site of Banteay Srei, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Though it was situated about one-half hour away by car, the authorities warned us that this excursion was unsafe because of land mines and the continued presence of the Khmer Rouge. We bought a souvenir T-shirt that said, “I’ve been to Banteay Srei,” and vowed to someday make it true. In the interim we raised a child, who just graduated from college.
Based on everything we had read, we were prepared to find that the sleepy outpost we remembered from 25 years ago had become a crowded, Disney-style theme park. And driving into the city from the airport, past one gigantic hotel complex after another, made us feel like Rip Van Winkle. The next thing we expected to see were groups of people wearing headsets, being herded around by flag-carrying guides.
Instead, as tour groups canceled, the city belonged to independent travelers, just as it did on our first visit. At the Angkor National Museum, which did not exist when we were there last and houses a spectacular collection of Khmer treasures, the galleries were hushed. With only one day’s notice we got a dinner reservation at Cuisine Wat Damnak, where there is normally a several-week wait. On a lengthy day trip to Preah Vihear, a magical Hindu temple near the Thai border, we were vastly outnumbered not by tourists but by security guards, soldiers and monkeys. And when we finally made it to Banteay Srei, we found it nearly as free of tourists as we recalled Angkor Wat being in 1995.
Perhaps the best barometer of the decline in tourism was a stop at the gigantic Angkor Ticket Office, where one must go to purchase a pass to visit the various temples around Siem Reap. The building has 40 ticket windows. Yet it took us only five minutes to get what we needed to enter Banteay Srei. Last time there was no ticket office – just a lonely ticket seller standing on the road that leads to Angkor Wat.
Among those especially hard hit by the coronavirus panic are a new generation of Cambodian entrepreneurs who have gone into the restaurant business. This has helped turn Siem Reap, which had no such establishments when we were there in 1995, into a culinary center. Two foreign-run enterprises have played a role: Sala Baï, a nongovernmental organization that concentrates on training disadvantaged youth; and Ecole Paul Dubrule – a French-run school.
Mengly Mork, who attended the latter, is a 30-year-old chef and co-owner of two relatively new restaurants: Pou Kitchen and Café, and Pou Restaurant and Bar. Business has declined by 60 percent since the virus, he says. “The virus is not the problem. The problem is that people are scared.”
After eating our way through Mengly’s innovative menu – upscale renditions of his grandmother’s recipes – we booked a private lesson with him to learn how to make our two favorite items. Our day started at the Psa Krom Market, called “the local market” to distinguish it from the one that tourists go to. There Mengly led us through the aisles of fresh fish, herbs and blossoms that go into his recipes. Next we worked, elbow-to-elbow, alongside three staff members in the small kitchen of Pou Restaurant and Bar. While Mengly gave us our cooking lesson, they prepared for a lunch crowd that never materialized.
One of the recipes that we cooked was beef lok lak – a chunk of steak served with a pepper-and-lime dipping sauce. In the restaurant, we used a traditional clay stove fueled with wood and charcoal to grill the beef on one side, before flipping it into a frying pan of stir-fry sauce bubbling on a high-performance gas range. Mengly watched approvingly as I turned our creation out onto the plates. Then the three of us sat down to eat a meal together.
Last week, having decided to extend our stay in Siem Reap, we snagged a bargain rate for a two-night splurge at the luxurious Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor. Only 15 of the hotel’s 121 rooms were occupied. By then we had been in Siem Reap for five days, staying at the FCC Angkor, which was suffering from the same affliction. Prominently displayed in the FCC lobby was an infrared thermometer at what was labeled, in three languages, a “Voluntary Temperature-Check Point.”
A $268 deal at Raffles was available via Tripadvisor. In-person schmoozing (without revealing that I am a journalist) got us an upgrade for about the same rate, to a room on the top floor of the hotel’s original heritage wing, overlooking the Royal Gardens. Total value, including a Champagne breakfast: 45 percent discount off the rack rate.
Back in 1995 we had stayed in the same building – one of only two hotels in Siem Reap (there are now about 300). Our room cost $30 per night, and we thought we were overpaying. It was dark and dingy. The water ran muddy brown and took an hour to fill the bathtub. A sign in front announced that Raffles had bought the building and planned to renovate.
It has done that twice since then, creating a splendid lobby with furniture upholstered in leather and silk. The swimming pool is almost half the length of a football field. And our room, though much smaller than the one last time, was lavishly appointed and had every modern amenity. All that remains of the building we remember is the old cage elevator, which dates to 1932. It was kaput during our previous visit.
This has always been a hotel for what the Cambodians call barangs, or Westerners. The assistant front office manager, Sarmeith Ploak, who goes by the name “Mr. Chris,” says he grew up dreaming of working at Raffles. He’s been employed there for 20 years, having previously been a temple guide at Angkor Wat. “Maybe I was your guide the last time you were here,” he said. He was 16 years old at the time, and his second language was French. Later, “I learned to speak English under the coconut tree,” he added.
The Grand Hotel d’Angkor is emblematic of the changes in Siem Reap. It has retained its lofty name over the decades, through dilapidation and restoration. Whereas in the past we would have needed to leave the premises to interact with locals, last week we spent almost an entire day hanging out there, as one English-speaking staff member after the next stopped by to chat.
“Enjoy your mental health day,” the pool attendant said when he saw me sitting in the shade working on my laptop. He had learned that expression from other guests.
At the breakfast buffet one morning, I chose congee, a fish- or meat-flavored rice porridge served throughout Southeast Asia. Most of the taste comes from the condiments – typically ginger, chilis and fresh herbs. Raffles offered an additional, more precious, one: spicy smoked anchovy fillets. Thinking they would make a healthy snack for our travels, I inquired about where to buy some.
Next thing I knew, our server, Enyeng, a rice farmer who has taught himself four languages (French, German, English and Japanese) by talking to guests and now employs people to till his fields while he works at Raffles, appeared at our table. He was accompanied by Dany, who ran the soup bar and presented us with a plastic bag containing about one-half pound of anchovies. This being Raffles, we would have to pay for the purchase, but there was no charge for the thoughtful gesture.
We were reflecting on the richness of our experiences, in the middle of the coronavirus scare, when my sister-in-law’s text message landed. What’s so difficult to explain to her and other folks back home is how the virus seems to have brought people together, in the face of a remote, but worldwide, threat.
In this sense our journey has been adventure travel in its most authentic form – not something that we can choreograph or control. We accept the fact that obstacles confront us when we hit the road and cause us to think about life in new ways.
So our reply to my sister-in-law’s text was this: “Thanks for your concern. All is well here. No change in plans.”
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. All her travel is self-financed. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.