By Lun Inchy, Nhoek Chhornny, Seng Mengheng
Siem Reap - A woman sits silently at her stall waiting for customers. Since the spread of Covid-19 - even after the country reopened in November - buyers of her produce have been scarce.
Te Neourn, 46, has been a seller of pickled salad and salty crabs at Phsar Ler market in Siem Reap for four years. She has to earn money to support her three children.
“My husband passed away three years ago, and my oldest son gave up his grade 12 [studies] because we couldn’t afford it,” she says as tears fall from her eyes. “The other two are pursuing their diploma while I earn income alone to support them.”
Recent interviews with street vendors in Siem Reap province, which heavily depends on tourism, reveal Covid-19 has drastically impacted their income. Any fresh hopes of improvements when the country reopened in November have been dashed by the worldwide spread of the Omicron variant.
Interviews with other sellers in the Angkor Wat area find hardships remain due to the low number of tourists entering the country.
Te Neourn said before Covid-19, she could afford daily living costs and her children’s education. However, throughout the pandemic, she has been unable to earn enough to support her children. Coronavirus caused the market to shutter and put under quarantine for 20 days.
“Police sometimes chased us and we went to sell on the street,” Te Noeurm said. She added she has been allowed to sell produce now for more than a month. She spends 20,000 riels ($5) for her children to attend school and $150 a month to rent the space for her stall.
“It’s very difficult nowadays. I spend on rent and children, particularly their clothes and books,” she said.
Tem Neourn is concerned that the spread of Omicron will impact her livelihood once again, as work slowly starts to trickle back. “We had no food to eat sometimes,” she said.
"I want to request that the Royal Government supports my two children to study. I do not want much, I just want my children to study," Tem Neourm said.
Similarly, Da Ny, 42, who sells fried bananas from her Tuk Tuk near Angkor Children Hospital, said before the Covid-19 pandemic, she earned an average of 30,000 riels ($7.50) a day. Now, this has fallen to just 10,000 riels ($2.50).
During Covid-19, life was tough for Da Ny as she had no money to pay her bank debts due to a lack of customers during the lockdown across Siem Reap.
“I cannot describe the feelings and how I have been affected by these two years of Covid-19, I had no money to pay back the bank and support my children to go to school, so I decided to ask them to drop out of school. I sold every day, even during Covid-19,” she said.
She forced her children to leave school to earn money so she could pay the bank. “It is difficult to talk about it,” she said, adding the family had borrowed money to build a house.
“I can only earn interest to pay the bank for sales each day, so I asked my children to drop out of school to work in Poipet to earn money to pay the bank because I do not want to sell the house,” Da Ny said.
After the country reopened, Dany’s income improved as she was able to make some income, albeit nowhere near what she earned pre-pandemic.
"I am very worried about Omicron,” she said. “But if we still keep protecting ourselves by wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer, the virus won’t be able to spread in our country as most of our people have already been vaccinated.”
Me Srim is 42-years-old and has two daughters and a son. She has been a seller in the Angkor Wat area for more than 10 years. Sitting on a chair, holding her hands, Me Srim spoke sadly about Covid’s impact on her life.
“Before Covid-19, I could earn enough for food a day, or sometimes could save some money for paying the debt of a private institution and my children’s studies.”
However, during the pandemic, Me Srim struggled to make any profit. Scratching her shoulder, she said, “For two years in this pandemic period, sometimes I could earn some money, sometimes I couldn’t earn because I was in the red zone and couldn’t come to sell.
“The government closed down [Siem Reap] for half a month and I didn’t have anything to eat. Although the government has reopened [the city] so that we can sell, some days I come to sell and earn nothing. Some days, I only make 10,000 or 20 000 riels. However, I need to try to earn money to pay the interest on my debt and some for my children’s online studies.”
After reopening the country, a handful of tourists came to visit Angkor Wat. Me Srim said then she was able to earn up to 80,000 riels ($20). This helps her to support her family like in previous times.
During the serious pandemic period, she went to work in Phnom Penh as a housekeeper of a hotel and her husband as a construction worker.
Because working in Phnom Penh is far from home and her children and grandchildren, they decided to return to Siem Reap. “No matter what happens, I just want to live with my family, I don’t want to live apart.”
Me Srim was pale and scared. “I’m worried that if there is another spread of the coronavirus variant Omicron in Cambodia, it may shut down the country again. I’m concerned that we won’t have any work and money to support the family and pay the debt.”
Ky Sereyvuth, director of the Center for Chinese Studies and an economist at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said tourism plays a key role in economic recovery. However, what is needed to drive tourism to grow is professional and good tourism management.
“We see that the infrastructure is better, and the government has built 38 roads in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville also,” he said.
"At the same time, the agricultural sector for tourism also plays a very important role. Organic agriculture, where tourists dare to spend huge amounts of money to eat chemical-free food, high hygiene with good tourism services, good restaurant service, and professional tourism training.”
Ky Sereyvuth added he cannot predict when the Cambodian economy will return to pre-pandemic times.
“Because the Covid-19 pandemic situation is uncertain, when it is over…we cannot be clear judging Covid-19."
Tea Seiha, the governor of Siem Reap province, said Covid has been hard for everyone and authorities have helped in some ways.
"During the period of Covid-19, the provincial administration issued several measures to eradicate the Covid-19 epidemic, leading to the closure, which divided the area into red, yellow, and green zones,” Tea Seiha said.
“As for the closure in red areas, it affected businesses, not only the tourism sector or tourism operations. It also affected all businesses, they were completely suspended in the red areas, it was difficult. It affected the citizens.”
He said the provincial administration has also helped people affected by the lockdown by distributing food. However, he admitted there were some delays in the process.
“Tuk tuk drivers helped to deliver food, opened small markets that could sell as much as possible, and for those who were really in need, commune chiefs provided information to the provincial administration, and we prepared food for them."
However, the governor added, the market zone and the temple area were also impacted due to restrictions,
"The market zone and temple area were very much affected. We took action to clean the market, such as taking shifts in the market for people to sell once a week. On the other hand, we also opened a temporary market in the container market, so vendors can take turns once a week.
“Although the problem was not completely resolved, we solved some issues for people’s livelihoods,” Tea Seiha said.
Now the Angkor Wat area has reopened, citizens can operate their business, the governor said. “They are much better now. Moreover, 50 percent of hotels and guesthouses have reopened.”
He added Siem Reap will start administering third doses of vaccines to people in early January.
(Reporters for this story are from Newsroom Cambodia)