Feb 21 2012
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?
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.
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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