The Return

I’m currently on day 3 of 14-15 days of quarantine at a hotel in Phnom Penh. This means that I am back in the Kingdom of Wonders! It did take quite a bit of effort (from various people including my long-suffering parents) to get me here.

Pretty much as soon as arrived in the UK in September, I booked flights back to Cambodia. This flight was taking the relatively simple and common route of Heathrow to Seoul, Seoul to Phnom Penh. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. There were all the other obstacles that prevented returning to Cambodia that needed to be sorted, chiefly the PCR swab test and having the results in the appropriate format. However, I got that all booked and sorted. That was reassuring.

Then December came and the UK started going into stricter lockdowns. This obviously caused some anxiety. However, because I was travelling for medical appointments and work, I still had legal reasons to leave my house and go to London. So, it seemed that it would be fine.

Then, it was announced that the UK had it’s own variant of COVID-19. Countries started closing their borders to the UK. First Europe, then, the kicker: Korea. This meant that my flight to Seoul was cancelled. However, because France had only shut its borders for a set duration, I would possibly be able to fly through Paris after this. So, my flights were changed to transit through Charles de Gaulle Airport.

All packed and ready to go!

I packed and sorted all my things. I reached London, staying a few nights to sort out my tests. However, it was announced that there would be restrictions to entering France even after opening their border. I wasn’t sure what this meant and whether it applied to those who were transiting through France. I would phone the airline. They said it was fine but I should check with the embassy. I rang the French Embassy in the UK and the UK embassy in France, to be put onto an automated system telling me to check the government website. I looked up the government website. The government website said check with your airline. I was on a never-ending loop. After searching through pages on various websites, and opposite to the reassurances of the airline that I could fly, I decided to cancel the ticket. Basically, UK citizens could only enter France if they had a reason to be in the EU. I wasn’t looking to go to the EU, so I couldn’t enter.

So, whilst also taking my COVID test and only having a few days to go, I had to search through all the possible ways to get to Cambodia. When I found a potential route, I then had to check the entry requirements for each country. Various countries were not possible (Singapore being the main hindrance) and others had transit visas and other hurdles. I finally found one through Doha and Kuala Lumpur. It meant a massive lay-over in Kuala Lumpur. We then discovered an airside hotel in the terminal building! That problem was sorted, so I booked a room in that.

Then, the day before I was due to fly, I got an email. The flight between Malaysia and Cambodia was cancelled. There were no other options, it was too late to go through the process again and the prices had risen prohibitively. The only option was to turn around, head home and start again.

Attempt one was not to be.

With the potential of Korea opening up to direct flights from the UK, I booked another direct plane to Korea. This seemed to be going smoothly, until two days before, I went onto the airline’s website. There was a small ticker going across the top with a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it notification saying flights from London had been suspended. I phoned up the booking company to ask if this was the case. I explained that I was having a second rather expensive COVID test the next day and I needed to know in the next hour whether I should postpone the test or not. I asked them to check three times and they assured me that the flight was still running. We checked the Heathrow website and that suggested the flight was still going ahead.

At three o’clock in the morning, I was dozing in between sleep and wakefulness. I managed to form the thought that, because of the time difference, Korea would be beginning its day about now. If the airline had indeed cancelled its flight, I would have received an email by now. So I checked my phone. And there it was: the cancellation email. I knew there was little I could do at this point so I tried to go back to sleep. That effort was as successful as all my previous flight bookings.

At about 7:30 that morning, I had to leave for my COVID test. I had that drunken feeling after not sleeping well for a few nights. We drove the clinic through the grey, wintery, frost and fog. I arrived and the clinic was empty except the doctor doing my test. It was all done in about five minutes. The doctor even congratulated me on how well I did the test. (He didn’t know that internally I was screaming, “Oh God, please help me! Please, Lord, get me through this!”) I did struggle to use the card machine, mainly because I was still so tired.

Once I had arrived home and had a strong coffee in my hands, I started looking at potential flights. Now, in-between attempted flight number one the week previous and this second attempt, something significant had happened: Brexit. This meant that some routes previously available were no longer an option (mainly any through the Netherlands). That was another country to add to the ever-growing list of ‘places that don’t allow Brits’. After about an hour of searching, I finally purchased a new ticket. This was through Dubai, Seoul then to Phnom Penh.

It was Saturday and the day of the flight had come. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. My dad drove for the third time in two weeks to London and back trying to get me back to Cambodia. The roads towards London were mostly empty due to lockdown. It seemed too good to be true.

Heathrow was surprisingly full. There seemed to be a lot of travellers milling about, a lot looking confused and somewhat stressed. Quite a few people were trying to print various pieces of paperwork (such a health declaration forms) at a small shop in the corner of the main atrium. There were queues for some desks, but there were very few people waiting at mine. I went through the check-in process, which is more arduous now due to restrictions. “Do you have your test certificate? Do you have the correct visa? Which visa type is that? Do you have the receipt for your medical insurance?” I managed to get through all those. It seemed as if this was actually going to happen and it was going to be pain free!

“I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can check in your luggage all the way to your destination.” What? Apparently, because I was flying with two airlines, I couldn’t get the boarding passes for all parts of the journey or the luggage label all the way to Phnom Penh. Due to regulations, I wouldn’t be able to leave the airside part of any of my transit airports to pick up the luggage and check it in again. I was considering just throwing my luggage in the bin at that point and buying everything again when I arrived in Phnom Penh. However, after a bit of waiting and speaking to the flight supervisor, it was sorted. The check-in attendant told me that it was quite a stressful time and she had to deal with a lot of crying passengers. I didn’t tell her that if it hadn’t worked out, I may have been another one.

I still only had the boarding passes up to Korea. So, at this point my baggage was more likely to reach Phnom Penh than I was. It was progress and in the right direction. A few hours later, I got on my first flight.

The next bits of the flights were actually relatively easy. Apart from long queues for the health screening in Korea, both airports in Dubai and Seoul were pleasant. The cafés were open and you could wonder about without fearing COVID too much. I found the transfer desk in Seoul easily. I did have to get all the paperwork out again, answer all the questions and hand over a large wad of money to be counted and checked. All was in order. I got on my plane and was on my way to Cambodia.

The Cambodian side involved very long queues and was naturally a bit chaotic. However, as I had all the paperwork sorted together, whenever I got to the desks, I was done in about 2 minutes every time. Then there was the queue for the tests. This again was relatively simple. The test was done. All I had to do was get to my hotel. I was practically there. No more problems. No more difficulties. No more confusions. So I thought.

As soon as I had my test done, a young Khmer man came and told me to follow him. He took my photo on his iPhone then dragged me through the crowds queuing for the bus. He seated me on my own, on the front of an empty bus. He did not explain why I was there, where I was going and why I was on my own. Staff outside the bus were obviously talking about me but I can’t lip read in English, let alone Khmer. I sent a few anxious messages to my parents before my phone battery died.

I was reassured when other foreigners started getting on the bus too. The bus was full; suddenly, I heard the word, “Come.” I was taken off this bus and just left to stand by the side of the airport while I watched it drive away. I was then taken to another bus and sat there, once again on my own. I was very tired and very confused. However, the driver said, “Your hotel is far from the other one. This one goes closer.” So, apparently, I was going to a hotel on my own.

After ten minutes of waiting in an empty bus, thirteen other passengers all boarded. They were all Khmer. Now, to some people this may have made them even more worried. However, all of a sudden I definitely realised I was in Cambodia. The Khmer were all chattering among themselves. Cambodians can quickly form bonds with others they haven’t met before and are often quite happy to chat with strangers. One of the staff in head-to-toe PPE came with a clipboard and asked the driver, in Khmer, how many people he had on board. The driver responded, in Khmer, “Thirteen Khmer, one barang.” Barang technically means ‘French’ but is used as word for foreigner. The man with head-to-toe PPE was standing right in front of me. Despite this, he asked (again in Khmer), where is the foreigner. To this I put my hand up. All the Khmer people laughed and it was now obvious I understood the conversation.

By the time we left the airport it was 2 am. The drive to the hotel was very Cambodian. The driver asked the passengers if they wanted food before the hotel (the food isn’t nice there, he told them). They ordered 6 packs of fried rice from a stall. The first attempt to park was thwarted by there not being enough room. The driver honked his horn a few times to no avail. We continued down the three lane road to do a u-turn, heading back up toward the airport. Upon nearly reaching the airport, we did another u-turn back down the road. More honking (despite the time of night) but we managed to stop. The fried rice was passed through the driver’s window and then handed to me. I then handed it to one of the Khmer passengers who distributed it to those who wanted it. There was one spare, so they let me have it for free.

The driver was chatting away, driving through red lights whilst honking his horn to show that he had no intention to stop. I was completely unfazed by this and just chuckled to myself. I arrived at my hotel (called Okay Boutique). I had another photo taken on the driver’s iPhone. And then I went to reception. All the instructions were given to me in Khmer. I understood all of it but forgot some details by the time I got to my room. I finally sat down, with my fried rice, relieved by the fact that I had finally made it back to Cambodia.

My room for 2 weeks.

COVID in Cambodia

I was in Cambodia at the start of the pandemic, and I’ve been in the UK for three months now (as well as watching the two countries from afar). Therefore, I have a fairly good idea of what the response has been in both countries. I keep getting asked, “What is the COVID situation like in Cambodia?” I think the expected response is that it has been terrible, hospitals have been overrun, people are dead on the streets and there is no Cambodia for me to go back to.

This is not the case. Recently, there has been an outbreak of COVID cases in Phnom Penh. My dad told me he think the situation was about to get serious as about 300 people were found with it. I had to tell him that the figure was for the year. As of Wednesday 6th January, Cambodia has had 382 cases and 0 deaths. (The UK has had over 7000 times that amount; the US has had around 55,000 times that, for a little perspective.)

So why is it that Cambodia has not had as many cases? Or is it that COVID is actually rampant in the country and just not being reported? In the first few months I thought that might have been the case. Apparently, the British government did too, as it took until October for the country to be put on the safe corridors list. However, after a few months since we were first aware of the virus, the expected signs of an outbreak were absent. First, there was no massive uptick in funerals. Seeing as funerals are outdoors and very loud, it’d be hard to miss a pandemic. Also, there were no overwhelmed hospitals. I ended up going to various hospitals during the pandemic (mainly to visit newly born babies and their parents). They were mostly empty. The missionary community, working in vulnerable, poor areas and having networks throughout the country, heard nothing out of the ordinary. (Well, there were rumours, of course, but that didn’t reflect the actual truth.)

So, why is the situation so different in Cambodia than in the UK?

Closing schools and other public buildings

A single case of COVID-19 was discovered in Siem Reap, a tourist city towards the north of the country. Within days (or even hours), every school in the city was closed, as were cinemas, karaoke bars, sports centres and gyms. Again, after a case was discovered in Phnom Penh, all the schools in the country were closed. In this case, it was the headteacher of an international school who had just come back from a conference who had the virus. The entire school was disinfected and shut off from being accessed.

When a November community outbreak occurred, any affected business or public building (including a whole governmental department) was closed. Aeon 1, one of the largest malls in the city, was shut. Two clothing stores were closed. These have all since been reopened after being thoroughly cleaned.

Schools have been intermittently closed and reopened throughout the year. Private schools were some of the first to fully open. In order to do so, they had to pass an inspection by the Ministry of Education. The minister himself visited HOPE school and gave various recommendations. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, essentially said that what happens in schools happens in the community.

Rapid tracing

When the few community outbreaks have occurred, the individuals involved are extensively interviewed. Their movements are traced and everyone that seemed to be in contact with them are tested. When the November community outbreak occurred, hundreds of people were tested. There were also hundreds of tests done in response to the visit by an infected Hungarian minister. As a result, the outbreaks are usually contained relatively quickly.

This was not done through a world-beating app or other system. Nor was it done on an Excel spreadsheet. It was done in person, using the tradition methods, and has been relatively effective.

Quarantining and closed borders

Once a positive case is detected, the person is immediately hospitalised. This possibly accounts for the low death rate as well. At about 1%, you could have expected that around 3 people of the 382 people infected to have died. Obviously, it’s slightly more complex than that, as many of those who had it were travelling into the country and therefore fit enough to travel. This means they were unlikely to be elderly. In many cases, people around those who tested positive, such as family or colleagues were forced to quarantine.

Cambodia also shut its borders to various countries and cities for a few months. (Surprisingly, UK and China were not on the list. This may be due to the importance of the countries in terms of trade. I’m looking at you, Marks and Spencers.) The land borders between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos were completely shut for months.

When the borders did finally open, quarantining and testing measures were extensive. You had to be tested before you flew, once you arrived and fourteen days later. After that, you had the all clear. Initially, if anyone on your plane tested positive, you had to be quarantined in a hotel. Otherwise you’d quarantine at home. However, as someone breached the at-home quarantine, everyone who arrives in the country has to quarantine in a hotel (unless you’re a dignitary).

Cultural aspects

South-East Asia is well known for its mask wearing. It’s something that has been seen as a practical part of life. You might wear a mask because the roads are dusty, or you have a cold. So, when the news stories started in January, masks were seen everywhere. This wasn’t seen as oppressive or a breach of human rights.

Ready to go!

Another important factor in Cambodia is the amount of fear of the virus. Cambodia is well aware of its limited health infrastructure, its poverty and the vulnerability of its citizens. Therefore, the fear of the virus is high. When only a few cases had been reported, people were terrified of it. One impact of this is that alcohol gel, face masks and even visors were in the shops pretty much instantly. You could get them at bookstores, stalls on the side of the street and at the entrance to malls. The amount of PPE available was actually quite extreme, especially considering that the NHS had a shortage. The UK did actually end up buying PPE from Cambodia, which wasn’t a surprise.

Businesses were very proactive too. Many shops or restaurants put perspex screens up in front of the counters, as well as implementing temperature checks for customers as they entered (which is how the community outbreak was discovered), cleaning shopping trolleys, adjusting seating. A lot of businesses chose to shut during the first months and use it as an opportunity for refurbishments and training. A lot of this was not mandated, but strongly advised. Many businesses went above and beyond what was actually required of them.

There are other cultural aspects that have perhaps prevented the spread of COVID-19. Cambodians love to be outside. Celebrations such as weddings and funerals are outside in tents. People tend to eat outside if they can. Even if they are inside, the doors and windows are probably open, providing ventilation. During the rainy season, this is less frequent. However, the outbreaks coincided, fortunately, when the rains were less common. (In fact, during the first four months of 2020 it rained about five times in total.) A lot of shopping is done in outside markets, again mitigating against the spread of the virus in closed spaces.

The cost

There has, of course, been a huge cost due to the pandemic. The economy heavily depends on tourism, especially in Siem Reap. A lot of businesses have been decimated as a result. The informal economy of tuk tuk drivers, market vendors, souvenir sellers, tour guides has also been heavily impacted. Students have missed out on months of face-to-face schooling.

The government has been criticised, of course. A lot of the measures seemed unwarranted an oppressive. In order to prevent further community transmission, names were published of those infected. Also, misinformation via Facebook and social media has been cracked-down on . A lot of human rights watchdogs and charities have been critical of these moves.

However, it could easily be argued that the most important human right is the right to life, which Cambodia has secured for its citizens through its stringent measures. The quick, decisive (albeit excessive in some people’s opinion) actions are in stark contrast to that of the UK. The UK, a year in, is finally suggesting the restriction of entry at its borders and tighter quarantine measures. That horse may have bolted long ago. Furthermore, only this week have schools been declared a vector of transmission by the British government.

It is possibly Cambodia’s vulnerability and humility that has protected it so far. There has always been a realisation that the pandemic will cause huge problems for the country in many ways, but mostly through a significant death toll if it was allowed to spread. The Cambodians are a resilient people and I am confident the country will recover. Like most Cambodians, however, I am still cautious and apprehensive about what the pandemic could mean, especially if an outbreak did occur.

July

Well, this month is almost done. It’s mostly been taken up with language learning. I’ve been doing about 22 hours per week. I’m not going to lie, that’s quite full on. Of course, it’s not without it’s funny moments- mixing up the word Samdech (which would roughly translate as “the right honourable”) and sandaech (bean).

At the beginning of the month, Kristi went back to the US for six months. So a lot of the week running up to that was me accompanying her to goodbye meals. I ate very well that week.

I’ve also been enjoying venturing around Phnom Penh and even revived my instagram account.

I also had an adventure with a bird flying into my house. Fortunately, birds fell down the chimney back in the UK on a regular basis so I’m rather skillful with the old tea towel.

It was rather cute.

Have a look at some of my arty posts.

Finally, follow me! Here are the places you can do that.

1 Thessalonians 3

1 Thessalonians 3 talks about how Paul and Timothy were forced to leave Thessalonica due to persecution. This is timely because many friends and colleagues are leaving Phnom Penh, not because of persecution though, but because of COVID-19. Despite the obstacles and difficulties being difficult, it’s helpful to hear from the thoughts of Paul as he had to leave people he loved in a time of uncertainty.

Paul was worried about the faith of the Thessalonians; he feared the oppression would be too much and the believers there would fall away. So that is something to pray for in the uncertainty of coronavirus; that people do not fall away. Rather, we pray that believers across the world can be “standing firm in the Lord” as the Thessalonians did.

We can also pray this prayer for believers, the same one Paul prayed for the Thessalonians:

“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

So, during this time, lets pray for

  • strength
  • joy
  • holiness.