Cambodians ponder an unfamiliar concept: cold

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Across Cambodia, residents have been engaging in a rare activity: turning off their air conditioners and stilling their fans. Some of Phnom Penh's intrepid moto drivers have even been seen zipping around the streets at night in puffy parkas.

It has been cold here – the coldest in 27 years of recorded history, according to Seth Vannareth, the director of meteorology at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology.

As the cold settled in, she counseled this correspondent to "please take a coat with you." Yesterday, she had good news: The cold spell was officially over.

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Still, for Cambodians, the brief flirtation with sweater weather has been such a far cry from the norms of the cold season, which peaks in early January, that some people were even wearing socks.

The cold snap began on Jan. 30. Low temperatures have ranged from 7 to 15 degrees C (mid-40s to mid-50s F.) in the northeast and mountainous areas, far below norms of 17 to 20 degrees C.

What, if anything, this has to do with global climate change, Ms. Seth will not begin to guess. She attributes the chill to a high-pressure front moving down from Siberia, which, she says, has cooled off greater Indochina, including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and parts of Thailand.

Krang Karath, a Phnong chief in the northeast province of Mondolkiri, which has suffered some of the most extreme cold this past week, said his people had taken to drinking little cups of fish sauce and stashing hot coals under their beds to stay warm. Inmates in Mondolkiri provincial prison complained to the prison director of a strange new sensation in their arms and legs: numbness.

The cold has not morphed into a national emergency, even though many people in the countryside live in thatch homes that offer little protection from the elements. Uy Sam Ath, the director of the disaster-management unit of the Cambodian Red Cross, said he had not received requests for extra blankets.

But last Friday, a local charity distributed warm clothes and blankets around Phnom Penh, where many homeless have struggled with the cold. Thirteen-year-old Seth Rom had on two long sleeved shirts and one pair of grubby pants. "It's too cold to take a shower," he said. "Too cold to fall asleep."

Un Sophal, huddled in a Phnom Penh park, expressed appreciation for a pink sweater that she received two days ago. Before that, she said, she had been clinging to a mosquito net for warmth. "It wasn't warm at all," she said.

Many short-term tourists, of course, don't find it cold at all, and some of the country's long-term expatriates have enjoyed cozying up to some long sleeves.

"This is not cold," says Mark Treacy, the country director of Flora and Fauna International and a Wisconsin native. He says that he was delighted – and slightly dumbfounded – to find himself wearing a sweater the other day.

A few people have been braving the tepid waters of the elegant pool at Le Royale Hotel in Phnom Penh, but pool attendant Chan Sok said overall attendance had been down. "I wouldn't get in that water," he said archly.

But Helmut Waldheim, who was stretched out poolside, wasn't thinking twice about diving in. He's from Vienna. "It was zero there!" he said, looking content.

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