Editor’s Note: This post is the first in our five-part series “COVID-19: Views from the Field.” Click here to read an introduction written by series organizer Rebekah Ciribassi.
When I waved goodbye to my partner at Torino Caselle Airport in northern Italy on February 18th, 2020, I had no idea what was about to happen—people don’t tend to predict the eves of global pandemics. There were no particularly ominous signs to note, and I was heavily focused on the logistics of carrying out my PhD fieldwork in Cambodia. My research focuses on seasonal variations of the use and consumption of traditional Khmer medicinal plants during maternity by rural women living in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. My aim is to identify medicinal plants used during different stages of pregnancy, how these medicinal plants are prepared as (or paired with) foods, and what the perceived effects of these traditional food-medicines have on treating symptoms associated with different stages of maternity. In addition to this, I’m also interested in the contemporary role and trajectory of Traditional Khmer Medicine (TKM) within rural community settings and how such traditional knowledge is shared. The overarching goal of this research was to support botanical work being done by the National Herbarium of Cambodia at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, nutrition and dietary research by the NGO Helen Keller International, as well as expand the inter-disciplinary cultural research by the Center for Khmer Studies in my role as a senior research fellow.
As I proceeded to conduct interviews in various villages in Siem Reap province during the last week of February, I noticed changes in the environments and people around me. The large tourist groups that once populated the streets along my commute towards villages surrounding Angkor Wat thinned immensely, leaving all those working in the tourism, transport, and hospitality industries to scroll through their social media accounts on their smartphones as they awaited work. Nearly everyone donned a type of facemask (medical-grade or fabric), schools were closed, and public events and gatherings were cancelled. Various ting mong, or traditional Khmer scarecrows sometimes used to ward off illness, began to appear in front of homes and businesses wearing facial masks.