Travelling through Asia during the Coronoavirus: it’s like I have the whole place to myself | Brigid Delaney

Should I go? Should I go? I really shouldn’t go. What if I get sick – or even worse, get detained on Christmas Island?

One editor thinks being quarantined in a detention centre will make a good Diary. But Bonnie, the foreign editor – who has been non-stop exposed to stories about coronavirus since January – sits me down for a serious chat.

“Brig, I don’t think you should go.” She knows I will go.

“If you go, you should … ” and then she proceeds to demonstrate what I should do when I board the plane. It’s insane and looks very similar to Naomi Campbell’s much mocked but eerily prescient pre-flight routine.

Bonnie stands up in the tearoom with a pretend bottle of disinfectant in one hand and a pretend cloth in the other.

“Wear a mask and gloves on the plane. Wipe down all the surfaces, and I mean all of them. Scrub around the seat including the armrest and the tray table.”

She contorts herself and shows me how she would spray and scrub under the tray table and around the seat pocket.

“When you land, dispose of the gloves in the bin and then put on a fresh pair.”

I board the packed flight to Bangkok and do not disinfect my area or wear a mask. I have not bought gloves. I don’t even have hand sanitiser (sold out at my local pharmacies, no doubt to people who are not leaving the country).

As I take my assigned seat, angry words my mother has said to me come back to haunt me: “You cannot clean properly if your life depends on it!” Now, it is literally, actually true.

If I get coronavirus it will be because I was too lazy to clean my area.


At the world’s largest private open-air museum for a day of cycling. We have our temperature checked on the way in, pick up our bikes and spend a leisurely afternoon enjoying the 28 Days Later vibe at this usually popular attraction that caters for large tour groups from China.

The following day we take a boat cruise up an empty waterway and a food tour around empty temples and quiet marketplaces.

That night, members of the international media and celebrity guests are meeting at a five-star hotel to celebrate an annual river boat race and the unveiling of the hotel’s new luxury boat. In our rooms is a gift pack which includes a beautifully designed and packaged bottle of hand sanitiser. It is massive, the size of a small bottle of champagne.

There is a party on the boat that evening. No one is wearing masks. Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell is there with some friends from New York. I ask her if she’s worried about travelling, you know with the virus and all but she just shrugs and says, “I mean, it’s in Oregon.”

I take this to mean that as the virus is in Oregon, nowhere is really safe and so you may as well be in Bangkok, on this boat, enjoying life and the delicious, tiny canapés.

Bangkok international to Siem Reap

The airport is very, very quiet. Everyone working here wears masks and around half the passengers are masked. But what I notice most is the absence of something. Just like Bangkok didn’t feel like Bangkok, the airport doesn’t feel like an airport. Big, busy international airports have a distinctive stressful energy about them, but here on a Sunday morning, there is a new, unsettling atmosphere. It has a deserted 3am vibe.

I haven’t worn my mask for the whole trip. It’s not the right sort anyway, a leftover from January when there was bad pollution and bushfire haze in Melbourne (and this makes me sad to think about – that we now have these disparate problems that require us to wear different masks).

But I’m thinking about wearing my mask because when I’m at the gate, a British woman opposite me starts coughing violently and doesn’t cover her mouth.

The cough appears to be coming from deep in her lower lungs. It is vaguely “wet” in sound, has a top note of rasp and is dredging what I imagine to be yellow phlegm.

The protocol is to cough into your elbow. I narrow my eyes at her and give her an evil look. I take out my mask slowly and put it on. She takes a pause then coughs again into the air between us.

I move seats and wonder if I’ve caught the coronavirus from her.

Siem Reap

The airport here is almost deserted. The hotel is quiet. On Monday there are four of us in a large, empty hall purchasing tickets to see the country’s greatest attraction: Angkor Wat.

“Usually there are hundreds of people lining up about now,” says our guide. We go to the temple precinct. We have it to ourselves. There’s a dribble of tourists around 8.30am. The car park has a few smaller vans and some cars but there are no tour buses. None. None! At one of the world’s most famous attractions!!! We walk the wrong way down empty passages and pose for photos in an empty courtyard.

All morning I take photographs of Angkor Wat with no-one in the background. I imagine this is what it was like travelling in the 1950s – pre Maureen and Tony Wheeler. This is surely good, in an era of mass tourism to have this amazing place to ourselves – yet, yet … it doesn’t feel right.

It’s getting towards 11am and the heat is brutal. We stop at a stall for a coconut. Our guide tells us that the coconut seller is really struggling without tourists. “It’s going to be a very quiet, very hard year for them,” he says.

On the way back into Siem Reap we go past hotel after hotel that is shuttered up, curtains drawn, with the carparks empty. Post coronavirus, one has already gone into administration.

The gem shops are shut, as are the tourist gift stores catering for tour buses.

This is the other cost of the virus. It’s not just the empty hotel beds and restaurants and shops, but the thousands of Cambodian and Thai hotel room cleaners, laundry workers, hospitality staff, rickshaw drivers and coconut sellers. All the people and their families downstream in the tourist industry are really going to suffer. They’re suffering already.

  • Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist

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