Safety in Cambodia
Roadside robberies, druggings, extortion and blackmail. They’re the kind of things to put any wary traveller off a destination but they’re also the things you’re more likely to expect from South or Central America than Asia. But recently I’ve been hearing reports of an increase in crime in one of my favourite countries – Cambodia – and it’s got me worried.
I’m not worried for travellers, though. To be frank, I take these reports with a grain of salt. But I do worry about the reputation of such a friendly and open country which is finally getting a huge economic boost from a much-needed surge in tourism.
“Within a few days of being here, we’ve been warned repeatedly in Phnom Penh about thieves on bikes snatching bags from tuk tuks,” Mario wrote on his Facebook page. “Shortly afterwards my friend was attacked by five guys on bikes while in a tuk tuk, but he fought them off.”
I wrote to Kate to ask her about what she’s experiencing there at the moment. She’s told me that she’s been to Cambodia before and loved it but feels like it’s changed. The constant warnings about the bag snatchings, being a perfect example.
“Before this trip, I had Cambodia in my top 5 favourite countries, indisputably. And while the people are still some of the warmest, friendliest and kindest people you’ll meet anywhere, it’s not the same place it was a few years ago.”
Kate was extorted by a man who demanded money to return her phone which fell out of a tuk tuk. Mario’s friend was robbed by a gang of small children who threw bottles at him. And then there are plenty of tales of danger.
“In PP (Phnom Penh) I heard a story of a Westerner who did drugs with guys in a rough part of town, then unsurprisingly they robbed him,” Mario wrote. “When he finally got a tuk tuk back to his hotel, the driver blackmailed him, saying he knew the guy was in a part of town where drugs were found and that he’d tell the police if he didn’t pay the driver off. Obviously this chap’s behaviour was pretty stupid all round, but the driver saw an opportunity to take advantage of him, and used it.”
That last story probably captures my view on Cambodia. If you follow my blog regularly you’ll know that I spent about a month in the country earlier in the year. I found the people to be hospitable and friendly, although many will try and make an extra buck or two from a foreigner. I found it easy enough to get between the towns and cities, assuming you don’t need too much legroom. And I found vibrancy in the chaos, rather than vulnerability. I never even came close to any danger.
But there is a dark side just beneath the surface and it’s up to you, as a traveller, whether you dig down and find it. More than twenty per cent of the population lives below the poverty line (US$0.93 a day) and with deprivation comes desperation and with desperation comes deviance.
When I first went to Cambodia six or seven years ago, there were very few tourists. These days, the country has been invaded by the rich inexperienced travellers and the young party-seeking backpackers. Both are easy targets for criminals because these foreigners don’t pay attention to their surroundings and they put themselves in compromising situations. I believe these easy opportunities are fuelling any increase in crime that exists.
The majority of Cambodians is not going to try to take advantage of you. The majority will want to help you enjoy your time in the country, of which the locals are so proud. The key to safety is to be sensible and not treat the streets of Phnom Penh or the beaches of Sihanoukville like they’re your local neighbourhoods.
Don’t walk late at night through the streets of the capital. Don’t catch the tuk tuk with the driver who has been sitting outside the bar watching how much you drink all night. Don’t go to the beach parties alone and accept drinks from strangers. It’s sad that there are reports of women being drugged at bars in Sihanoukville but this can only happen if you let your guard down.
I decided to write this story after a few people contacted me to ask whether it was safe to go to Cambodia. I wanted the point of this story to be that I found the country to be extremely safe and never encountered anything untoward. But I also can’t ignore the firsthand (and secondhand) stories of other travellers who I respect. I would never tell anyone not to go but I would also warn everyone to be more wary than in, perhaps, Thailand or Malaysia. Cambodia is a beautiful country and it does not deserve to have a reputation as a dangerous destination.