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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Coping with the big blackout

Coping with the big blackout

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Power-hungry expats armed with laptops surged into cafes like Common Grounds that still had electricity. Photograph: Miranda Glasser/Phnom Penh Post

Power cuts in Siem Reap are as much a part of life as mosquitoes, dust and freakishly loud 3-day weddings. But last week saw Temple Town hit by a blockbuster blackout, lasting four days.

People flocked to the few cafes with power such as Common Grounds to plug in their laptops and enjoy a much needed cold blast of AC. For no obvious reason, some blocks had power while across the street or around the corner, others didn’t.

The common question was whether people had power or not. This was followed by the almost inevitable resigned sigh and muttered “no”, or the rarer, slightly guilty affirmative from the lucky few who had generators or were living in the magically untouched bit of town.

Expats coped in various ways, by installing themselves in cafes, checking into hotels, or simply leaving town altogether.

I mainly swore a lot and tried to keep very, very still at home, while at night sleeping with a small towel draped across my brow to mop up the sweat. Fortunately, work was on one of the ‘right’ blocks in town with power so the office became a welcome respite.

Most expats responded either with frustration or a laissez-faire this-is-Cambodia attitude. Being the end of the high-season many, such as café owner Sarah Cantero and freelancer Regina Meyer, had friends or family visiting.

“It was a nice welcome for my friend,” laughed Meyer. “But we coped fine actually. It was hot so we sat on the balcony and had a candlelight dinner. The landlord did install a generator for the water pump, which I was very grateful about.”

Cantero had to put her parents up in a hotel rather than accommodate them herself.

Work-wise, Meyer took things in her stride, simply basing herself in a café. She said, “There’s not much we could do anyway and a lot of people around us live like that after all.”
Soria Moria hotel owner Kristin Holdo Hansen was also laidback. “Luckily we had a generator in Soria Moria, so even though we did not have electricity at home it wasn’t too bad.

Several people used our restaurant as their office, and some expats came over to use our shower too. After living here for almost 10 years I have been through many power cuts, so we always have candles available.

“The most frustrating part was work-related, when the telephone network and internet connection were down, which can make guests upset.  Otherwise we just made the best out of the situation.”

But other hoteliers less fortunate, such as Hotel 1961’s Loven Ramos, had to move guests into other hotels that were equipped with generators.

Helicopter pilot Phil Butterworth said having no electricity all day and night left him feeling “stinking hot” with “an irritated cat.”  But his work was unaffected because, “Luckily helicopters don't need to be plugged in.”

Teacher Carrie Cordell said it was a lot harder to teach with no power: “The kids are much crankier when they are hot. By Friday afternoon they were very moody.”
Another big problem was ruined food in fridges. While Bodhi Tree Café co-owner Lauren Gravett said her riverside café was in one of the least affected parts of town, she still faced problems.

“We came in at a loss over the last few days as the power cuts were long and during the night, so we had to constantly throw away a lot of food and prep food that we had done.”
Freelancer and NGO consultant Clementina Velasco took a zen view of the big blackout. “Just like the floods, it seemed to unify the town. At the very least, it gave us expats a conversation opener besides how hot it is or the latest gossip on the Facebook page.

“It was a good opportunity to remind ourselves that most of the Cambodian countryside lives without power on a daily basis. At the same time, it was difficult to escape the fact that deadlines loom and, like many others, my job relies on a working laptop to make it happen.”

The blackout came as a shock to Siem Reap shop owner Louise Loubatieres, who has only been in town for three months.

“I was mostly surprised at how much we depend on power, and how much it’s engrained in our daily lives,” she said.  “No power means laptop and phones end up dying on you, and all my lines of communication were gone which was frustrating. I had work to do for London and my delay had a knock on effect on them. And the shop was too hot. No one wants to spend time looking in a shop if it's hot, uncomfortable and too dark to see the products in detail.

“But there are highs and lows living in Siem Reap, so you just have to go with the flow.”

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