Q&A: Leaving Cambodia bitter sweet for Leadership Network member

It was with a sense of relief tinged with sadness for friends and colleagues she had to leave behind that Leadership Network member Sarah van Boekhout left Cambodia as COVID-19 first emerged. Sarah spent five years living in Phnom Penh where she co-owned a talent management and production company.

Who: Sarah van Boekhout

Where: NZ now but in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, until Mid-March

Doing what (in Cambodia): Operations director for talent management and production agency Baramey Production

Leadership Network member since: 2019

Sarah (second right) with a colleague and and popular Cambodian singers ADDA and Laura Mam (to her right)

Sarah (second right) with a colleague and popular Cambodian singers ADDA and Laura Mam (to her right) at a Joint Chamber of Commerce event in Phnom Penh

Why did you decide to come back to New Zealand?

Funnily enough, I was due to fly back to New Zealand to attend the Leadership Network induction hui that was to be held in Wellington at the beginning of April.  

By mid-March I could see that the New Zealand government was starting to act very swiftly, and that the borders were closing fast. So, I changed my flights, packed up my apartment in Phnom Penh and left within 48 hours.

Partly this was in the hope of still being able to attend the induction, by self-isolating for 14 days first, and partly it was because the pandemic was clearly escalating daily and I was not confident enough in Cambodia’s healthcare system, to be frank. New Zealand was a logical choice.

Was it a difficult decision to return?

It was a fairly easy decision, because it felt like the right thing to do for the purpose of self-preservation. However, I did have feelings of guilt about leaving behind my Khmer friends and colleagues who did not have the option to leave. It certainly brought my privilege into full view; though, they don’t think about it in that way at all. 

Prioritising a proximity to family makes total sense in Cambodian – and probably most Asian - cultures!

I already miss my life and my whanau in Phnom Penh, and if I hadn’t already been thinking about winding down my time in Cambodia then it would have been a much more difficult decision to make.

How would you describe the COVID-19 response of the Cambodian government?

The Cambodian government downplayed the virus in the beginning, welcoming travellers from China and allowing cruise ships to dock. 

It has since employed some sensible measures, by shutting down certain businesses and schools, banning large gatherings, cancelling the Khmer New Year celebrations in mid-April, and banning domestic travel for a short time. 

Cambodia has now officially adopted a special State of Emergency status which gives the government extraordinary powers.

As a developing country, it faces many ongoing threats, such as the tens of thousands of migrant workers reportedly re-entering Cambodia after losing their jobs around the region.

How did daily life change in Cambodia with the onset of COVID-19?

The private sector has really suffered in Cambodia. It is an economy that is very vulnerable to shocks on both the supply and demand sides, and we have already seen mass layoffs in the garment industry, for example, as factories have struggled to obtain orders or raw materials. Sadly, this will disproportionately affect women, as they make up 85% of the factory workforce.  

The business that I co-own has a focus on event production, and so now that all public events have been banned we are turning our attention to our digital productions and hoping to make it through. 

Unfortunately, we have already been forced to reduce our staff’s salaries. The Cambodian government has very little that they can offer in the way of financial support, and already we can see the consequences of people losing their income. Anecdotally I can say that the rate of theft has gone up, for example. People are quickly getting desperate.

Sarah with a group of Cambodian colleagues and creatives

Sarah with a group of Cambodian colleagues and creatives

How did citizens adapt?

Cambodians are a resilient bunch, and fortunately many of them have strong family units for support. They are doing the best they can, but the economic effects will undoubtedly cause a backward slide into poverty for many families. In terms of day-to-day activities, people are being as responsible as they can manage, but wet markets have struggled to adapt.

What was it like travelling back to New Zealand?

It felt quite eerie. Facemasks are not an unusual sight in Southeast Asia but seeing them en masse in airports was something else.

My flights were packed, but airports were much more quiet than usual, and there was a strange feeling of ‘shared consciousness’ where you could tell that everyone was thinking more or less about the same thing. 

On arrival in New Zealand, we had to fill in special arrival cards and present to a medical staffer. It was all managed fairly well, but I do think that some travellers were a bit confused and did not fully understand what the 14 days of ‘self-isolation’ should entail. 

Will you head back to Cambodia when you can?

I have no idea when, but I will certainly return to Phnom Penh at some point,  to say a proper goodbye, but also my very generous friend currently has all of my worldly possessions stored in boxes in her apartment, so I will have to take care of those!

Before the virus hit I had already been considering leaving Cambodia, after five years there, and, now that I have made myself redundant, I will take this opportunity to look for a new adventure within the region. I’ve got my eye on Singapore!