Feb 21 2012

Getting a motorbike stolen in Phnom Penh

Published by at 6:34 pm under Health & safety

Our motorbike got stolen in Cambodia last month. A Honda Wave. Reliable. Had a big chain on it. And most sadly for us, it was a rental. Motorbike theft is an unfortunate reality when you live in Phnom Penh. Just about everyone in this city has a motorbike, and from what I’ve heard — especially if you’re a foreigner — bike ownership in Phnom Penh is a lot like a game of musical chairs. Maybe even Russian roulette. So what to do when your rental bike goes missing in Phnom Penh?

For many, it's the family car.

For many, it's the family car.

There is much to do. Especially on a Sunday. Especially in a country where underpaid and oft-corrupt police require a bribe to do much of anything, much less go looking for a foreigner’s stolen property.

Here’s my advice. If you really want your own ride in Cambodia, buy your own bike. Buy a cheap, beat up bike that won’t appeal to thieves. And think long and hard about renting, because there is no theft insurance in Cambodia. If someone makes off with your rental motorbike, you’re buying the thief who stole it a brand new set of wheels.

Best of all: the rental agencies have been suspected of stealing bikes back from renters. Never put your real address on a rental sheet.

Let me tell you about what happened to us as a kind of cautionary tale. When my boyfriend got a teaching job far across Phnom Penh, we needed a motorbike. “Rent for a month or two, then get your own,” our long-term expat friends told us. So we did, even though we had to put down our passport as collateral.

“Buy a bike that no one would possibly want to steal,” our friends told us after we rented, showing us their own rattle-trap bikes covered in grime, oil stains, and mildly offensive stickers in both Khmer and English.

But as it turned out, we really liked our used Honda Wave — so much the idea of switching to a ratty $300 model held little appeal. We also didn’t want to pay $600 to buy it outright from the rental agency. We tried to mentally ignore the $800 theft fee if the bike did go missing. We had a huge chain and a huge padlock. We knew all the neighbours in our little alley. We had put a fake address on our rental form. It was a mere $60 a month. The two-month rental turned into seven months.

Than came a couple of weeks ago. “Faine, that’s not our bike,” my boyfriend said to me, as we opened the door to our alley. He was right. The motorcycle parked in our bike’s designated spot belonged to a neighbour. Ours? Evaporated. Not so much as an oil stain.

The Tourist Police aren’t open on Sunday. Hell, the police aren’t open on Sunday. Finding a cop willing to help with a petty theft incident in Phnom Penh on Sunday is roughly as easy as finding a magical rainbow unicorn in darkest Pittsburgh.

A typical Phnom Penh bike in happier times.

A typical happy Phnom Penh bike.

As in many developing nations, many police in Cambodia operate off a pay-and-play system. If you pay them, they might help you out. Salaries are very low for Average Joe Tourist Cop, and motivation to do much beyond show up everyday to work is low as well.

There is a tourist police station, as most officers will inform you if you hail one down on the street.  But there are three different addresses for this (possibly mythical) tourist police station, according to what you can find via Google. If you manage to make a phone-call to the tourist police on a Sunday, someone will shout at you in Khmer for four minutes, than hang up.

A Khmer-American friend suggested that we bribe the leader of our street’s tuk tuk armada into helping us find it. Tuk tuk guys are often alleged to be involved in organised crime, and since they usually sleep in their tuk tuks, they’re the best sources of neighbourhood information.

“Our motorbike is gone,” I told the tuk tuk chief. “Maybe you can help us find it?” I smiled widely and extended a hand with a folded $20 bill in it. He grimaced at the money.

“No, no,” he said, gently pushing my hand away. He shouted for another driver to come over and told him what had happened.

“I’ll take you somewhere,” the tuk tuk chief decided. We hopped into the tuk tuk, hoping he had some secret knowledge of Phnom Penh’s motorbike purgatory. It wasn’t to be: he took us to the nearest police station. The only people in sight at the police compound were engrossed in a game of chess. The gate was locked. They weren’t open.

I tried to give the chief the $20 again when he drove us back, defeated, to our apartment. He sighed and took $10.

And that was the end of our efforts to find the bike.

It was likely stolen sometime in the night Saturday. By 17:00 on Sunday, our charming little bike had likely already been repainted, tuned up, and quite possibly attached to someone’s tuk tuk. Two provinces away.

And so we coughed up the $800 to the rental agency.

Although Cambodia may be a cheap destination, paying up for stolen — and expensive — rented property can make your trip much costlier than you originally bargained for. If you really want to negotiate the semi-psychotic traffic of Phnom Penh on your own, make sure you’ve got some savings. Make sure you’re staying somewhere with a compound and an at least semi-conscious guard. Buy a new padlock and chain.

Because once a motorbike goes missing in Phnom Penh, it’s just about guaranteed that it is going to stay that way.

by Faine Greenwood

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Getting a motorbike stolen in Phnom Penh”

  1. […] As I was writing this, an article about getting your motorbike stolen in Phnom Penh was posted over at TravelFish. Just a coincidence, I am sure. Share this:TwitterFacebookMoreTumblrLinkedInEmailLike this:LikeBe […]

  2. marco_pauloon 21 Feb 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I bought a cheap moped in PP and would always recommend this option rather than renting if you are going to need the bike for more than a couple of months.

    I bought a Wave from Lucky Lucky on Monivong Bvd which cost $550. When I sold it a few months later, I got $500 because it was no different to how it was a few months previous. So the depreciation was less than the rentail.

    If it had been stolen, the $550 was lower than the rental company’s theft fee, so it is win win every time.

    I would always buy a Japanese one like a Honda Wave rather than some dodgy Chinese piece of junk. My Wave seemed bullet proof; it took hours of abuse on rutted dirt roads and even took river crossings pretty well.

    The odd puncture costs just $0.5 and I sometimes had the filters cleaned for $1, so maintenance is incredibly cheap.

    It’s difficult to completely eliminate thefts. One thing I always did was take it inside my guest house every night, sometimes even inside my room, but I was always aware when i parked it somewhere less secure during the day that it could be gone which was always in the back of my mind, especially as the chain wasn’t that strong. It’s rarely possible to chain a moped to something so it can easily be put on the back of a van.

  3. rohiton 26 Feb 2012 at 8:30 am

    My rental motorbike was stolen yesterday, just hours after I rented it from Angkor Motorcycles in Phnom Penh. I locked it everywhere, except one place near a restaurant where I had gone to use the toilet. It seemed to me that someone had been folowing me throughout the day waiting to see when I leave my bike unlocked. How else would I explain my bike getting stolen within a matter of two minutes?
    I gotta cough up $800 now, but heck, it’s scary. You can’t let your guard down here even for a second.

  4. Sarah Somewhereon 12 Mar 2012 at 10:14 am

    Sorry about your bike, that sucks! Thanks for sharing about it here, though, as you give some really good advice regarding buying vs renting motorbikes in Cambodia, particularly PP. It’s always the way though, no trouble for seven months and then, poof! It’s gone. At least you have probably saved others from the same fate, so rest assured your Honda Wave did not die in vain :)

  5. Philon 08 Apr 2012 at 7:36 pm

    As I am visiting PP in a couple of weeks, this information has made my mind up about hiring a moped there. I will give it a miss and hire one again when I head back to Thailand. Mopeds are great I hire them across SE Asia but if I get a sniff that it’s a potentially bad idea due to theft/corruption I avoid as I don’t want to risk ruining the rest of my travels by being stung for a ”theft” fee. Thanks for sharing this

  6. Mark Witherson 11 Nov 2012 at 9:46 am

    I use a little motorbike that is non-descript Susuki. The ones that get stolen the most are Honda Dreams as they have a very good re-sell value. The best thing to do at night if parking it inside a room is not possible is to park it at a ‘pinya moto’ (motorcycle park) they attach a ticket to the bike and give you the other half. Best also to do this at the markets. When you parkovernight it costsd 25 c (1000 riel) per day and is coverd by security 24 hours Check that the place is 24 hour or if parked at the market what time it closes as a lot of ‘pinya motos’ close at 7 pm.
    Mark Phnom Penh

  7. Tug Speedmanon 17 Nov 2012 at 3:51 am

    EXACTLY the same thing happened to me. I had been renting a clapped out (but extremely reliable) honda wave A – a very old bike that was a bit embarrassing to drive. Rented it for seven months without any problems. I even left it parked all night on the riverside with keys in the ignition twice!

    Then I moved apartments and rented a nice looking Suzuki smash (2005 model). Had it for one day, and it got stolen that same evening from inside my locked apartment complex. Watched the whole thing with the cops the next day on CCTV. The thief just picked the lock on the cheap Chinese padlock that was attached to a big chain strung through the back wheel, and just used a skeleton key to start the engine. Less than two mins work and he was gone!

    I printed stills of the thief’s face and distributed them throughout the neighbourhood, and told everyone (police included) that there was a $200 finders fee ($300 if they caught him that day).


    Samantha is correct. Once a bike is gone in PP- it’s gone! Just cut your losses and forget about it.

    So my next bike will be staying locked up safely every night in one of those 24hr ticket places (JUST DON’T LOSE YOUR TICKET!), and will never ever leave my line of sight – not even for a quick visit to the loo. A vehicle tracker is a good option too I think, and one can be bought cheaply on ebay


    I was getting my hair cut in PP one day when I realized that I had lost my moto key (hole in my pocket). The hairdresser said ‘no problem’ and called his friend. 5 minutes later a toothless grinning old man came along and sold me a skeleton key for $2. I didn’t believe it would work so he demonstrated for me. He inserted the key, turned it to the right, pressed the ignition – and the bike revved up.

    Food for thought. Be careful!

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