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Phnom Penh’s Riverside Trials
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Cambodia’s first imported case of Covid-19, coming from China, happened late January 2020, while the first Cambodian national diagnosed with the coronavirus was detected early March 2020.
What followed in March 2020 was the closure of schools and universities across the country, the cancelation of major public holidays and the implementation of lockdowns and many different restrictions. International flights subsequently halted and borders closed. Tourism related businesses, most hotels, numerous restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, massage parlours were immediately and massively affected by the pandemic.

A huge concentration of such places can of course be found along the riverside, particularly between Hummus House and the FCC, a strip just short of one kilometer and a half.
In September I spotted an increasing number of ‘for rent’ and ‘for sale’ signs on that strip and decided to count them. I identified around 22 closed businesses. I repeated this in January 2021 and counted 31. In April this year, the number dramatically jumped to 60 and last week it went up to 67! Those numbers don’t lie, it’s a catastrophe. I always counted the ground floor places along Sisowath Quay only. A remarkable number of nearby places are closed along the perpendicular streets too of course. Even more disturbing is that I’ve counted only 51 businesses which are actually active! This includes Western Union offices, banks, rice sellers, coffin shops…There are thus way more places closed than open, and some more are under construction – these haven’t been included in the count.

The economic devastation there is more obvious than anywhere else because of the concentration of businesses; you’ll barely find any family houses on the ground floor. Most places still operating are in survival mode, often paying lower rent and lower salaries and not generating profit. Often losing money. A sad example of a restaurant that ultimately folded is Andy’s Riverside Bistro, which was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Located in an iconic building, this bistro was a highly successful business, despite the fact that it was showing its age for a long time already. Andy was proud of the fact that, during those 25 years, he basically never closed, not even during the 1997 coup. As Covid-19 hit, the Riverside Bistro slowly but surely died a slow death and a real-estate agency took over. The same happened with many other oldies like Viva, Mekong River Restaurant & Lounge, Mao’s, etc.... So many more are desperately trying to hold on and are barely keeping their head above water.

I’d like to mention another fact, however, to put some things into perspective. In the past, the riverside has long been prime real estate and very popular with tourists and expats, but that popularity started to wane quite a few years ago. There are various reasons for this: the multiplication of better bars, restaurants, charming resorts throughout town, the fact that traffic is always intense and noisy on this road and that the sidewalk is constantly cluttered with parked cars and motorbikes, making it difficult to walk. In two words: not very family friendly. On a positive note; strolling along the promenade is lovely indeed.

Despite this situation, available spaces remained rather difficult to find and rental prices continued to go up. Business owners were just generating less profit overall, but not going bankrupt in high numbers. My point is that things weren’t picture perfect before, but when Covid-19 hit, it caused a total devastation.

Things are now starting to look better, restrictions are slowly being lifted as the vaccination numbers reach 80% over the total population. International flights should soon resume in higher numbers and tourists will start trickling in. The question on everyone’s mind is how long it’ll take before the situation goes back to ‘normal’ and if that’ll ever be possible. Meanwhile we’ll surely see signs of economic revival, albeit limited, during the course of next year.

**Written By Philippe Janowski