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Selling to No One A Photo Essay of Siem Reap's Empty Markets

Words and photos by Joe Patchett

In Siem Reap, the global COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the typically bustling tourist town. Local market sellers, who rely solely on international visitors to subsist, are struggling to make ends meet without the regular flow of tourists, with no end to the global pandemic in sight.

Since international borders began closing in March, the millions of tourists who usually visit Siem Reap have vanished. Visitors to the region's main attraction, the Angkor Wat Temples, were down 98.8 percent in July compared to the same month last year, the state-owned Angkor Enterprise recently stated.

At the town's central marketplace, closed metal shutters line the dim alleys of the once buzzing Old Market. The marketplace has been desolate since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Cambodia, four months ago. Today, only a handful of stalls remain open in hope of a rogue customer strolling by.

The stall owners here are struggling to make a living without the regular tourist trade. “Before COVID I would sell around $300 to $500 a day to tourists,” says Sokheng, who has sold spices and local delicacies at the market for over five years. “Now I am barely selling $20 a day.”
Sokheng at her Old Market stall in central Siem Reap.
Sokheng is a single mother supporting her 8-year old daughter, who spends her days at the market with Sokheng due to school closures. “I am paying for my daughter to learn online,” says Sokheng, “but she will have to stop soon because I cannot afford to pay for both school and rent.”

Kim Han is another stall owner struggling to pay her $1,200 USD rent each month. The market owners have given the stall sellers a discount on rent to help with the drop in income, but Kim Han believes this will only temporarily fix the problem, when she has zero customers to help pay her bills. She receives under one dollar in profit from each of the clothes items she sells at her stall.

Many other stall owners have already closed and returned to their home village, where they have a lower cost of living from that in the city, hopeful they can find farm work. This follows a directive from the Cambodian government who are focusing on small-scale farming to manage the large number of laid-off workers from the garment, tourism, construction, and transportation industries.

The government has also implemented economic stimulus measures such as temporary tax relief for tourism businesses and suspensions on loan repayments to help the sector in Cambodia, which contributed to 18.7 percent of the GDP in 2019. Some argue more is still needed from the government to rethink tourism for the future.

Daily ice delivery to food stalls in Siem Reap

To date, Cambodia has recorded less than 300 COVID-19 cases, seemingly escaping a widespread outbreak of the virus. However, the crisis has affected 630,000 people working in tourism with 30,000 of them becoming unemployed, and many more expected to lose their jobs in the following months if current trends continue.

A tourist and local guide walk alone through the famous Angkor Wat temple.

The Cambodia Association of Travel Agents believe the long-term viability of the Cambodian tourism industry is under serious threat. They expect some travellers from neighbouring countries to start visiting Cambodia again next year, but pre-pandemic visitor numbers may not return for up to four years, leaving locals like Sokheng and Kim Han speculating how they will support their families for not only the coming months but following years.

Words and photos by Joe Patchett

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Joe Patchett
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