In Cambodia, I underwent a ceremony to ward off coronavirus

by Matt Blomberg | @BlombergMD | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 March 2020 08:45 GMT

Members of the media wearing protective masks look on as MS Westerdam cruise ship is seen offshore port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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As foreigners like me came under increasing suspicion of carrying the virus, I was told the ceremony would appease locals - and the spirits

By Matt Blomberg

PHNOM PENH, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - My friend had been calling me for days to move to her village across the Mekong River and away from Phnom Penh, the bustling capital city where coronavirus was most likely to take hold.

It was Wednesday morning when I decided to go.

Confirmed cases in Cambodia had tripled in three days, drawing comparisons to infection curves in countries already ravaged by the virus.

Rumours had festered for months about official underreporting, as the one-party government retained strict control over the coronavirus narrative.

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But now, the cat was surely out of the bag.

Foreign diplomats and aid workers were being called home. Borders and businesses were being closed. And, finally, the Cambodian government started to shut down most non-vital public gatherings.

For a foreign correspondent, it was business as usual - or as close as possible.

There was fresh air, fresh fruit and a decent wifi connection at my friend's place across the river so I packed a bag, strapped it to my motorbike, and drove onto the ferry.

I was well prepared to get on with reporting from the village - but not for the reception I'd get after arriving.

The ferry trip across the river - from a city with construction on every street to a rural area with dirt roads and roaming cattle - is like stepping back in time. Perfect for thinking.

Since the outbreak in Wuhan, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen had refused to repatriate students from the epicentre, admonished journalists for wearing surgical masks at a press conference, and flown to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping.

The message was one of solidarity with his closest ally and greatest benefactor as he played down the situation in Cambodia.

Eleven of the first 12 confirmed cases had been foreigners, and a government spokesman told me coronavirus was not strong enough to breach Cambodian immune systems, which he said were superior to all others.

Flicking through social media on the ferry, I saw some local businesses had closed to non-Cambodians. A friend messaged that locals in his hometown - a popular tourist spot - were refusing to get on buses with foreigners.

I called a couple of friends and they explained how there was a growing suspicion among locals that foreigners - with their frivolous lifestyles in a time of worry - were prime vectors for the virus.

Shortly after getting to my friend's place, those rumoured fears were confirmed.

Her parents came to tell me I should leave. Even if I didn't have coronavirus, they explained, any outbreak could be blamed on me.

I explained that I would stay mostly in isolation and obey any other restrictions the neighbours had.

Unmoved, they asked me to walk to their home, about 500 metres down a weaving track between children riding bicycles and curious locals peering from their properties having seen me drive past less than an hour earlier in the opposite direction.

I was told to sit in a red plastic chair in the middle of a square room by my friend's father, who, in a culture heavy on superstition, was said to be very close to the spirits.

He lit some incense, placed it in a spirit house against the wall directly in front of me and then left.

I sat alone for a few moments as people milled and chatted outside - the words "foreigner" and "corona" prominent.

Then my friend's mother and two women I didn't know came into the room, stood me up and began chanting, each one of them with a bouquet of lit incense between pressed-together palms.

They raised their hands high over their heads and then lowered them, repeating this movements over and over again, circling as they spun a wispy curtain of smoke around me.

Before the incense burned out, the women stopped circling but the chanting - a deep, undulating hum - continued. 

One woman put a hand on my shoulder while another began spraying water over my head, pushing my chin onto my chest. I closed my eyes. The third slapped incense across my shoulders.

The chanting got louder. I joined in. And then it stopped.

The women disappeared before I looked up and my friend's father returned.

"For now, it's okay," he said. "You can stay in the village."

Back at my friend's place, I drank cans of warm beer while she explained how the impromptu ceremony would appease locals - and the spirits - worried about the foreigner in the village.

I was rattled, not so much by the chanting and incense, but the looks of suspicion I got from some locals in a country where I'd always felt welcomed.

I could understand the fear - it was rational compared to some of the hysteria unfolding in other countries - but I wasn't waiting around to be blamed for bringing the dreaded coronavirus to the village.

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(Reporting by Matt Blomberg, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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