Siem Reap Locals: “Debt Haunts Us More Than COVID-19”

Mom, a souvenir vendor inside the Angkor Wat complex, said her daily revenue has been dramatically reduced from 300,000 Khmer Riel ($75) to just less than 10 thousand riels ($2.50) per day.
  • Isa Rohany
  • March 31, 2020 2:28 PM

SIEM REAP--It has been almost a full month since the Kingdom of Cambodia began to feel the true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over the course of that month, the citizens of Siem Reap province have been hit by an unprecedented drop in tourists and visitors, which has reduced the financial revenue to the Cambodian economy. Businesses, regardless of size, which are dependent almost entirely on the annual flow of tourists around the Angkorean complex, have suffered.

The majority of shops are closed, since fewer and fewer people are actually traveling. A small number of shops remain open, hoping to gain some more revenue to sustain their struggling livelihood. However, as thing worsen, the people of Siem Reap begin to view debts as their true enemy, followed by the fear of the Coronavirus. After this incident, even a small daily revenue simply cannot be taken for granted. 

Siem Reap, a very well-known tourism destination in Cambodia as well as the entire world, used to be crowded with tourists and businesses day and night alike. Not too long ago, those human sounds have been overshadowed by the mournful sound of nature. The slow disappearance of the tour guides’ voices across the temples, which were the voices that explained the magnificent stories of those ancient architectures, have been replaced by the sound of slow-swinging tree branches, with the direction of the wind and the sound of birds chipping back and forth. 

By 10 a.m., what used to be a congestive peak time for tourists to find food and coffee after some sight-seeing at dawn has given way to scenes of unnatural tranquility. Even some of the most delicious chicken dishes are not selling. Small business owners were gathering outside discussing various topics related to COVID-19 while taking care of their struggling businesses, while other people were confining themselves inside the comfort of their houses. 

Ty Samith, a local food vendor, said that her business has been struggling for over the past month, soon after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the local area. This situation has put a tremendous amount of pressure on her, especially in repaying her debts. 

“The impact is hard. Right now, my spending is higher than my profits. The big problem is paying back the debts. I wish that the banks could delay their terms, my profits are dropping daily. We invest, but we cannot sell. At the end of the day, the food is just going to go rotten”, said Samith. 

Despite all the issues brought on by the pandemic, Ty Samith has decided to risk continuing her food business, hoping that one day, a miracle will happen and her business can get back on track. However, it does not end here. The risk that she is taking to keep up with her debt puts her in a very dangerous situation with a higher risk of being infected by COVID-19. Apparently, it is not the virus that Samith fears the most. It is, instead, the payments that she has to return to the bank. 

As a person who spent almost a decade running this business, Samith was obliged to pay back $400 a month to the bank for the next three years. A visibly distraught Samith worried about what will happen in the long-term and personally hopes that the banks and other financial institutions will postpone their monthly debt collections throughout this crisis. She suggests that perhaps the payments can be summed up later, whenever the situation become less challenging, but nobody knows when that will be.

Things are sadly similar for Mom, another local vendor in the village. With her small carriage full of hats, wrist bands, necklaces and sunglasses, Mom’s souvenir business is suffering. Her daily revenue which used to be as high as 200,000 to 300,000 Khmer Riel ($50 to $75) has been dramatically reduced to less than 10 thousand riels ($2.50) per day. With this kind of revenue, it is impossible for Mom to sustain the needs of her three daughters. There was a time in which she had so little money, she couldn’t even buy food from the market. In this dilemma, she could do nothing else, but to continue dealing with the stress of her day-to-day business. She had no better options, but to earn as much revenue as she can to pay for both her family expenditures and, even worse, the monthly payment of $200 to the bank. 

A small walking distance away from Mom’s souvenir carriage is another local business which shared a similar sad fate. Sitting under the shade of the trees, Ty Samen, sells fried noodles and fizzy drinks, but today was ruminating on the threats to her business. The two neighboring vendors were seen discussing the unprofitable sales period, with Ty Samen saying that up until 10 a.m. she had only earnt 500 Khmer Riel ($0.12) from selling a single bottle of water. Normally at this time she wouldn’t even have time to chat, let alone rest in the shade. The limited income to reinforce her family spending is already a concerning matter, but what is even more concerning is her $200 monthly repayments to the bank. 

“I think that there will be nothing for me to eat if I decided to stay home. So, I just have to sell whatever I can,” said Samen during a period in which the majority of businesses have temporarily closed their doors.

“Sometimes, I could earn around 10,000 to 20,000 Khmer Riel which is barely enough for me to purchase a daily amount of rice consumption and yet, after all these commitment, it seems that my business is going nowhere in particular. To those financial institutions, I ask that they please show some mercy. No-one wants to be stuck in this awkward position. My business depends on the Angkor Wat temple, and if Angkor Wat temple is not getting enough visitors, then I need some delays to my repayments,” she lamented. 

These situations were considered unimaginable by Khut Sokha, but now they are sadly commonplace. As another local food vendor who has owned a small shop in front of the Angkor Wat temple for almost 20 years, she has experienced plenty of drops in terms of tourism. However, with COVID-19, it caught her by complete surprise. It is something that she has never seen before. “My business has been through some strange times; several disease outbreaks, including AIDS, SARS and even bird flu,” Sokha recalled. “But this time, everything is extremely quiet.” 

Sokha demonstrated her stance amidst the ever-decreasing amount of tourists. “No matter how the scenario is going to end up, I will not back down. It is my bread-and-butter, even though there is little profit. I have five employees who I need to pay 15,000 Khmer Riel a day ($3.75) and I don’t want to let them go,” Sokha concluded as she laid chicken out on a scorching charcoal grill plate in the hope of attracting enough hungry customers to pay off her investment. 


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