Cambo Life March 2020: Alone Together

Note from April 11, 2020:

This is a big post covering something of an unusual month, so I’m not going to preface it with a long introduction. I’ll write more on our current situation here in Phnom Penh in future posts.

With regards to that, the four of us are staying healthy, continuing to self-isolate, and trying to make the most of our days together in close quarters going into the rainy season.

It’s not exactly easy with two toddlers and nowhere to go, but we’re taking the days as they come.

Now, back to the beginning of March…

Cambodia confirmed cases: 1
USA confirmed cases: 53

At the beginning of March, China had reported 86,500 cases, Italy’s cases jumped by 50% to 1,700, the U.S. had just over 50 (mostly centered in Washington State), and Cambodia was holding steady at one official confirmed case reported in late January.

Immediately following the first case here in January, security personnel took to the streets with bullhorns disseminating masks and information to the public from the back of pickup trucks. Several days of panic buying ensued and everyone braced for the worst.

Then, nothing.

Cambodia didn’t have a single new case reported in the whole month of February, despite dozens of direct flights continuing to operate between Cambodia and China everyday. As of March 1, however, flights from Hubei province had been suspended.

Of course, like many places, there’s the ongoing debate over the accuracy of the official figures. Regardless, we’re just not seeing significant increases in patients at hospitals with severe symptoms consistent with COVID.

Although the coronavirus was very much on the forefront of everyone’s minds here, March began like any other month.

For our part, we spent Saturday and Sunday mornings with the kids at coffee shops and took long walks exploring the city. Weekday mornings, the kids went off to nursery school, Lori headed to the office, and I worked from home.

On the second weekend in March, the boys even went to a climbing gym, which is crazy to even think of being able to do something like that now.

Noe loved it.

He dominated the toddler wall, but wasn’t quite ready for this one…

Maybe next time.

Well worth the $4.

Cambodia confirmed cases: 2
USA confirmed cases: 423

Monday, March 9th was International Women’s Day. Lori got the day off but the kids did not. Which only means one thing… Date Day!

Cambodia confirmed its second case two days prior. The first was in Sihanoukville and the second was in Siem Reap — both imported and both far from the capital, Phnom Penh.

We observed Women’s Day with a full day of pampering, the likes of which we haven’t experienced since well before Riley was born.

We started with a fancy (for us) brunch at Khema Pasteur, followed by our first movie out in over four years.

Since we’re averaging going out to the movies 2-3 times per decade, we thought we’d splurge for Diamond Class.

And what does Diamond Class get you, you ask? Included in the price of admission is a welcome drink, a soda and big tub of popcorn (your choice of plain, salted, buttered, cheesy, or sweet), and a glass of beer at Hard Rock Cafe after the movie.

We even got our own little private waiting area before we were ushered into the theater.

The seats recline with a foot rest and you also get an airline-style blanket and pillow too (the A/C was cranked like most places here).

Lori and I accounted for 50% of the audience for the 11am showing of Call of the Wild.

Looking back, we joke that we even managed to social distance and still go out to a movie (long before social distancing was all the rage here in Cambo).

After-movie beers.

The cost of a Diamond Class ticket is four times that of a regular ticket. But we thought it was worth the $10 each.

Our date day finished at Bodia Spa for massages. We usually settle for the Khmer special up in Riverside (downtown), but thought we’d go big this time around. And…Lori got a discount membership card during a promo.

So, we tried out their 90-minute Balinese massage…and it was awesome.

•  •  •

Reported cases continued to increase in Cambo at the average rate of one per day — all imported from other countries.

These daily increases paled in comparison to that of other countries in the region and didn’t seem to be pointing to an outbreak here.

Schools continued to remain open through Friday the 13th. Our kids’ nursery school was taking all the necessary precautions with health scans, hygiene, and mandatory self-quarantine for anyone returning from out of town.

But by mid-month, the writing was on the wall.

We took a day trip up to Oudong Mountain on Saturday 3/14 for some much anticipated time away from the city.

There was a lot of chatter in the NGO community and expat social media that restrictions and closures were imminent. Even though Cambo didn’t have a lot of cases yet, such measures didn’t surprise anyone.

Everyone here is very cognizant of the limitations of Cambodia’s health system, and even a small outbreak could completely overwhelm hospitals, particularly outside of the capital in the provinces.

So, while standing on the top of the ancient citadel and former capital of Cambodia, we received the notification that the government had ordered all public schools, playgrounds, and swimming pools, to be closed immediately until further notice.

However, we weren’t sure if this also applied to private/international schools like our kids’ nursery school.

Despite the intense heat and humidity, Oudong Mountain made for a nice day trip out of the city. It’s a lot harder to get out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside than it was for us in Vientiane, so the four of us soaked up the opportunity to be active out in the open exploring someplace new.

Little did we know then, it would be our last for a while.

If you’ve ever wondered what a school bus in Phnom Penh looks like, here it is — a remorque-style motorbike with a long trailer.

That evening, not knowing what the future had in store, we made a last minute call to one of our sitters and ducked out for a couple of hours for dinner and drinks together in the neighborhood.

Within the week, all bars would be ordered closed indefinitely.

Cambodia confirmed cases: 12
USA confirmed cases: 4,226

Our place is fairly small, but at least we have this alley out front where the boys can play without crossing paths with anyone for the most part. In the hot season right now, the alley is virtually uninhabitable from 9am to 4pm, but offers just enough shade to make it workable outside of those hours.

The kids’ daycare stayed open one more day past the public school closure date. Everything was very last minute. We knew measures would be put in place but didn’t know when or how much notice we’d be given.

At around noon on Monday, I received an email that their school would be closed indefinitely after today. At 4pm, I made the short walk that I make every weekday afternoon to pick them up. It was surreal not knowing when I’d be making the walk again.

Initially, it didn’t seem to phase the boys too much. After all, nursery schools in Phnom Penh frequently shut down for 1-2 weeks at a time every couple of months because of the inordinate number of national holidays this country has (most of which are not observed by NGOs like Lori’s). In fact, we had just had the boys home two weeks prior for an entire week for spring break.

In the first week of the closure, we told Noe that school was closed for a holiday. Into the second week, however, he began to ask questions.

We eventually sat him down and told him a bit about what’s going on. He understands that the school is closed because a lot of people are sick, and that he can go back to school when they get better.

He’s a bit too young to grasp details beyond that, and we didn’t feel it was worth overwhelming him with unnecessary info, particularly given the current situation in Cambodia.

But both boys are flexible and resilient little critters and have adapted to their new normal better than expected.

However, we do have to be very creative in terms of keeping things fresh and figuring out ways for them to get the wiggles out and blow off steam in our tiny little flat, particularly when days regularly exceed 100 degrees (F) with 70% humidity.

On the hottest days, indoor exercise keeps Noe’s attention for about five minutes before he decides he’d rather be clogging sinks and flooding bathrooms, flushing toilet paper so he can take the core, filling up one of two of our remaining hand sanitizer bottles with water, or locking us out of the apartment.

For Riley’s part, he’s been known to turn on the oven, climb the shelves in his room, and escape out the front door, all of which takes about 15 seconds for him to accomplish.

Noe doing yoga out on our front terrace in the afternoon when its a cool 90 degrees.

Cooking and baking with Noe in the afternoon has become part of our daily routine. We make zucchini bread, carrot bread, casserole, chili, beet burgers, and anything else we have the ingredients for.

Cambodia confirmed cases: 33
USA confirmed cases: 10,442

After schools shut down, Cambodia received an influx of residents returning from a religious event in Malaysia in which 10,000 pilgrims attended from across the region. Almost overnight, the number of confirmed cases doubled to 33.

In response, bars were ordered shut and large religious gatherings were banned. Yet, most businesses remained opened and no guidance went out regarding self-isolating or social distancing.

Conveniently, Lori’s office had planned to do a test run for working from home on the first day the boys were home. The next day, Lori’s NGO decided to make the test run indefinite.

With all four of us at home now, and our family and friends back in the U.S. already self-isolating/ sheltering in place and practicing social distancing, we decided to do the same, despite no guidance from the national government along those lines.

With local life continuing on all around us per the usual, we confined ourselves to the house only leaving to provision or go on brief walks around the neighborhood with the kids.

We strictly held to this for all of four days, until I looked around at the world around us and the number of cases and made the decision to get Noe out of the house for a couple of hours.

A year ago when Vientiane was experiencing the worst air quality in the world, we asked a visitor to mule out a set of face masks for us. Noe and I regularly biked around town and wanted to continue to do so on moderate to severe pollution days.

Since moving to Phnom Penh, the air quality on the whole has been significantly better than it was for us in Vientiane. I packed away my trusty N99 mask and the kids’ PM 2.5 masks and didn’t think about them at all until the pandemic.

Although the WHO guidelines weren’t exactly in favor of masks at first, I started to feel increasingly uncomfortable going out in public in a country where people wear masks like Americans wear sunglasses.

In the interest of respecting local customs and avoiding harassment (which was going on to some extent at this time), we all started wearing the masks.

This week’s lesson? N99 may protect against pollution and virus transmission, but they don’t protect against durian smell!

I took Noe around the corner in our neighborhood to my favorite coffee shop. I ordered an Americano and Noe ordered a coconut.

We sat outdoors more than two meters from anyone and wore our masks when staff would approach (they were also wearing masks). Still, even with no official guidance from Cambodian authorities, and even while taking all the precautions, I couldn’t help but feel guilty about being there.

Over the next week, the social shaming making its rounds within the expat community became so intense that we decided to stop dining-in altogether, despite there being no confirmed community transmission and taking all social distancing and hygiene precautions. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Noe’s really been into maps lately, and all of the coffee shops have racks full of them. In the past, he’d go over and pick one out, study it until it was time to go, then put it back.

At this point, I couldn’t in good conscience allow him to put them back anymore, unfortunately, so we started taking them home and throwing it away. After doing that twice, I had to tell the poor kid no more maps for a while at coffee shops. A week later we had stopped going out altogether, solving that issue.

•  •  •

Around this time, we started stocking up little by little until our cupboards and fridge couldn’t take anymore.

We also started two traditions.

After watching the kids in the afternoon while Lori took her work calls, we switch. She takes over for the boys’ dinner and I crack a beer and watch the sunset from our upper terrace. The rains are just around the corner, so there’s no telling how much longer we’ll have sunset.

The other tradition involves several bottles of Bailey’s Irish cream I picked up on a provisioning run. A long time emergency response worker who’s a colleague of Lori’s recommended stocking up on two things in particular: wine and chocolate. I took her advice and added a little something extra.

Our little tradition now is that Lori and I have a shot of Bailey’s over ice together after the boys are down to celebrate making it through another day with two toddlers in close quarters in the hot season in self-isolation.

We’ve enjoyed this new tradition. It might be hard to stop once the pandemic blows over…

Rare quiet moment with Rye-Rye.

On the 22nd, we emerged from isolation into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Crossing Norodom Blvd. into the upscale, and usually bustling, foreigner enclave of BKK1, it was clear this part of town was taking the pandemic seriously.

When seeing these images, keep in mind that at this point there were still no official orders to stay home or even social distance. It was clear the international community perceived a much higher threat level than the majority of the locals. Lori and I felt that reality was somewhere in the middle of the two camps.

This divide was driven home the next day when we transited through various Khmer neighborhoods a buzz with activity on our way to Institut Pasteur. Markets and shops full of people, streets full of vehicles, and local restaurants packed with patrons. Our jaws nearly fell off. It was as if we suddenly found ourselves in a parallel universe where the coronavirus never existed.

Of the four of us, Riley was the happiest to be out and about and feeling the wind blowing in his face. It was our first tuk tuk ride as a family in weeks.

So why were we headed to a medical clinic in the midst of a global pandemic? All of Cambodia’s neighbors suddenly decided to shut their land borders and drastically reduce flights in and out of the country. We had just hours to decide whether to stay or to leave before Cambodia was effectively cut off from the rest of the world, save for a handful of regional flights that hadn’t yet been scheduled.

After lots of back and forth discussions with Lori’s line managers and careful deliberation, we decided to stay.

For those who decided to stay, it was strongly recommended we get flu shots. If the health care system got slammed here in Cambo due to COVID, the last thing anyone wants is to get the flu (or anything else preventable, for that matter) and require medical attention.

Lucky little Riley already had his flu shot for this season. The rest of us did not.

The only hospital in Phnom Penh currently designated to treat COVID patients is Khmer Soviet Friends, several kilometers away from Institut Pasteur, the closest clinic that stocked the flu vaccine. Still, the thought of going to any medical facility at this time was a bit unsettling. But the benefits outweighed the level of risk.

Noe didn’t know what he was in for. We don’t generally like to keep these things from Noe, but also just wanted to get in and out as quickly at possible without having to engage a toddler in an endless bout of circular reasoning and reverse psychology.

So, we all entered the examination room and had him go first. The dude’s gotten dozens of jabs and had multiple IVs in his 3.5 years, but it had been awhile. He’s so much more aware of the world around him, and has the ability to hold grudges for an entire day.

He was none too pleased how this particular afternoon panned out, and continued to voice his displeasure with us long into the evening, guarding his violated arm like it was the Holy Grail and milking the whole thing for everything it was worth.

It was next to impossible to get him to use his right arm for anything, not because it hurt, necessarily. But rather in a concerted effort to guilt trip us for the rest of the day.

Noe, making sure I was 100% aware he was only using his left arm (non-dominate) to “help” daddy take the clothes of the rack.

He continued this charade up until he went off to sleep. The next day he awoke like nothing happened and hasn’t mentioned it since.

This is the view out our bedroom window where I have my desk set up.

Some gorgeous days we’ve been having here lately (but HOT). I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some connection between the low numbers and string of 100+ degree days we’ve had for the past few weeks.

And on the other side of the room…

Fortunately the boys still take afternoon naps, which has helped a lot in getting things accomplished. We’re hoping Noe’s napping outlasts the pandemic.

We’ve been trickle stocking our cabinets to do our part to prevent a run on things. As of March 31st, all of the supermarkets around our neighborhood remain fully stocked, including toilet paper.

…with the exception of this particular visit to the Thai grocery store when all of the fancy French meats and cheeses had been wiped out.

I like to think it’s an issue on the supply side rather than the demand side. Believing that makes me sleep just a bit better at night.

Another nice sunset from the perch…

Cambodia confirmed cases: 102
USA confirmed cases: 140,904

A long overdue Skype with Nanny-Poppi-Grammy-Grampy. Masks and everything.

Up until now, we’d been hesitant to try a mask on Riley, thinking that he’d reject it and toss it on the ground. So, we enlisted the help of brother and Nanny-Poppi…

We are happy to report that our family back in the U.S. is managing to stay healthy, taking the necessary precautions, and managing to stay positive, as far as we can tell. We very much hope it stays that way.

A COVID family portrait…

After a bit of a rough start, Riley did surprisingly well. I think he lasted ten minutes before his first mask freak out. Little by little.

The bus bar in the neighborhood is locked up indefinitely, which I think affected Noe more than any of us. Seeing the big red bus he used to pass everyday to and from school all locked up sent a powerful message.

This alley is usually insane and all jammed up with tuk tuks, trucks, and motorbikes. These days, it’s a different story.

Glad I have my mask, or no takeaway Japanese bagels!

Noe’s first fort. He was pretty stoked.

Watching a Marco Polo from family…and using every corner of the house to keep things fresh. Our boys always welcome a change of scenery.

Which brings us to beets.

I do love a good beef burger. But, several years ago, a friend introduced us to this beet burger recipe and it blew my mind.

I made these beet burgers a lot in Laos and always had some on hand in the freezer, but hadn’t made them here in Cambodia. What better time to make beet burgers with the ones you love than self-isolation. Kind of adds to the whole post-apocalyptic vibe.

The aftermath of some major beet carnage. I like my beet burgers bloody as hell.

The biggest surprise discovery of the week may have been how much Noe loves raw beets and beet juice. The kid can’t get enough of both. He’s like a beet vampire.

And here it is are in all its glory…

Incidentally, it was our first dinner at home with the four of us since moving into this house in early January.

Lori and I usually feed the boys and put them to sleep. Then have a nice, quiet dinner just the two of us. We used to all eat dinner out together multiple times a week here in Phnom Penh, but obviously this self-isolation thing has changed that.

It was nice to have an evening meal together, but with everything that’s going on, Lori and I still look forward to our quiet dinners for two.

And every Saturday, we still manage to do a date night at home. To mark the occasion, we’ll order delivery or take away from one of the nicer restaurants that wouldn’t otherwise have delivery, make a fancy drink, and watch a movie on the ol’ laptop.

Even in self-isolation with toddlers, we’ve discovered there’s still room for self-care.

At the end of March and two weeks into this new normal, we’re doing alright. We’re really hoping not much changes in that respect for us, the rest of Cambodia, and our loved ones back in the U.S. a month or two from now.

Cambodia confirmed cases: 109
USA confirmed cases: 213,144

2 thoughts on “Cambo Life March 2020: Alone Together”


    So happy you all are doing so well and that Cambodia’s confirmed cases are so low in number. Stay safe and please keep these posts coming!!

  2. Shirley Northcraft

    I am glad the whole family is wearing masks. Hopefully everyone will stay healthy. Tell Noe that Grammy loves beets, too. Maybe I will plant some in the garden.


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