Apologies to Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Márquez for borrowing from his book titled, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Dreams Abroad is all about living, working, and traveling abroad. So what’s it like to do all of these things during these current pandemic days? I’ve been doing all three during the past month or so. First, a bit of background information. This is the first piece I’ve written for Dreams Abroad, but I have been interviewed in several articles about teaching abroad recently. Check two of the three boxes, as I live and work in Cambodia. I recently took an eight-day trip to Thailand during the third week of March, from March 14th to March 21st. Check the third box. Here is my story.
The news and casual awareness of COVID-19 first surfaced here in late 2019. The first reported case in Cambodia was announced on the 27th of January. Fast forward to the 7th of March when they recorded a second case in Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Cambodia’s top tourist draw, as the small city is only 12 km from Angkor Wat. When this happened, the government ordered all schools in Siem Reap closed for two weeks.
Closer to Home
I live and work in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Everyone at our workplace knew that when the inevitable — cases reported here — happened, our schools would get closed down as well. I had signed a new contract at the beginning of February and still had a week of holiday owed to me from the previous contract, so on about the 9th or 10th of March, I booked a flight for Bangkok leaving on the 14th.
On the 13th of March, they recorded a few more COVID-19 cases. Cambodia now officially listed seven cases. The writing is on the wall for the teachers. The school announces a meeting for the Saturday morning of the 14th to discuss a contingency plan. I do not attend as I am safely buckled into my Air Asia flight to Bangkok by 9:00 a.m. Later that day, the government announces the closing of all schools until the 20th of April (at least).
A Hauntingly Empty Airport
My one-hour flight to Bangkok was only about 70% full. There were no crowds to speak of at either airport and expedient processing through customs and immigration. I spent a night in Bangkok and then went to visit friends in a nearby coastal town. I spent a day on a small island called Koh Larn. Everything was business as usual — although with reduced numbers of people — for the first four days or so. I remember paying respect to my Irish heritage in fine fashion on the 17th for St. Patrick’s Day.
Around 6:00 p.m. on the 18th, the police came around to a number of places to request their closure. The government of Thailand had decided to close entertainment places, cinemas, and bars, but restaurants could remain open. Life was significantly quieter during my last three days in Thailand. Borders around the world were closing up faster than windows during typhoon season. Part of me hoped I’d be marooned in Thailand for an extended holiday. But, I wasn’t loaded with cash and my family was waiting for me in Cambodia, so the other part of me was glad the borders between Thailand and home hadn’t buttoned up.
Flying back just eight days later from my departure, the plane was now only about 30% full. Air Asia doesn’t serve alcohol on short flights. Too bad, as with those low numbers, I could have had a cart of wine to myself.
Returning Home During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Returning to Cambodia by air is always a breeze for me as I have a one-year multiple entry visa in my passport. This arrival was especially quick. I had to fill out an extra form on the plane which asked which countries I had visited in the previous 21 days. I gave it to one of the ladies wearing masks and gloves upon arrival, and off I went through immigration.
I spent a relaxing Sunday (March 22nd) with my family in Phnom Penh and by now I am aware that I won’t be teaching the following day. So what about this job? What do I do? What did I miss? The devil on my shoulder who represented the half of me that wanted to be stuck in Thailand nodded and winked at me, saying “See, I told you so.”
Monday the 23rd — students can’t go to school, but they left school open to teachers. In both the students’ and my absence the previous week, teachers were busy learning the tricks of online teaching using Google classrooms — something which was new for all but two or three of us. We used next week to make practice lessons for the students to help them adjust as well. The school had collected the necessary contact information so that at least the older students could do this. The new school term didn’t actually begin until April 1st. So, we conducted online teaching from then up until the 10th. At which point — enter a nine-day break for Khmer New Year.
Khmer New Year Break
Khmer New Year officially lasts from April 13th to April 15th, but when factoring in travel days, the country closes for at least a week. It is based on the Buddhist calendar, so we were celebrating the incoming 2564 BE (Buddhist Era). People celebrate with traditional games, heavy drinking, and gambling. They also spend lots of time with extended families and make frequent visits to pagodas. The capital empties out as the masses head for the provinces.
There was a bit of a twist this year though, because on April 8th, the government announced the holiday will be postponed this year because of COVID-19. They want people to keep working and avoid a mass exodus to the provinces for the holiday. Nevertheless, we respect the holiday and stopped online teaching from the 10th to the 20th of April.
Epilogue: Life Goes On in the Time of COVID-19
The 20th arrived and the government still had not given the green light to reopen schools because of COVID-19. In our case, we are informed we will no longer be paid a full salary and are offered 50%. The teachers held a closed-door staff meeting to decide how much work we should actually do to earn these reduced financial rewards. The new hope/projection is that the schools will open again in early May. If this proves to be true, all of this will be a mere bump in the road. If not, the better schools will survive — but other schools will likely be bankrupt within three or four months.