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How to stay safe during Sihanoukville’s high season

Why it is so is a mystery to me, but when the calendar turns to the first day of November, tourist numbers take a quantum leap in Sihanoukville. At the same time, people start dying. It happened just the other day in my neighbourhood; an Englishman dropped dead while sitting on his toilet, apparently from alcohol poisoning. Last year, a backpacker drowned in the swimming pool at Utopia Nightclub. While the incident was widely reported, the drugs and alcohol that contributed to the tragedy were not.

utopia swimming pool, sihanoukville cambodia

Utopia swimming pool — nice place to play, if you play it safe.

A few years ago I got an early morning call from the local police. They thought I might be able to identify the body of an Australian man who had been murdered in an alley in the middle of the night. I couldn’t, but am not sure I could have identified him even if I had known him. His bloated, waxy-yellow body was not a pretty sight. After doing a little digging, though, I was able to discover that he had left a downtown bar blind drunk at about 2:30 in the morning and probably took that road thinking it was a shortcut to his guesthouse.

Every year, Westerners die in Sihanoukville — and a contributing factor is almost always drugs and/or alcohol.

Basically, staying safe boils down to a few common sense precautions: don’t do drugs; stay with a trusted group; and don’t ride your own motorbike — find a tuk tuk driver or motodop who has been recommended to you by someone trustworthy and let them return you safely home.

And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t go stumbling down dark roads alone in the middle of the night.

I would argue that taking drugs anywhere is a bad idea, but taking drugs in Cambodia is just plain dumb. There are a few reasons why. You never know what’s in them. The local street drug, yama, is wicked stuff and ruins lives if it doesn’t end them first. The cocaine you buy is more likely to be low-grade heroin than cocaine. Even ganja (marijuana) isn’t a great idea. The people who sell you drugs do not have your welfare at heart, and that includes your smiling motodop “buddy.”

Sorry to get all preachy on you, but dying in Sihanoukville isn’t a good idea. Not only will you be dead, but dealing with your remains will be an expensive hassle for your friends and family. There’s no cold storage for dead bodies here, so your body will probably be taken away and cremated. This will cost someone anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars, depending on who does the negotiating. Having your body shipped back home is only an option if you are very rich. Otherwise, forget about it. Even a good travel insurance policy won’t help you if your body is decaying and needs to be dealt with fast.

Sihanoukville crematorium — you really don’t want your trip to end here.

I hesitated to write this post because Sihanoukville is finally shaking off its bad reputation and I love the fact that couples (both young and older) and families are coming here in ever increasing numbers. However, the party backpackers still comprise a large portion of visitors, so I reckon a little friendly advice is in order now that the Sihanoukville high season is upon us.

Finally, I want to throw in a few words in defence of Sihanoukville. I’ve never felt unsafe here. Some would argue that it’s because I rarely stay out later than 23:00, but none of the younger expats I spoke to for input into this piece felt unsafe here either; one woman said she felt much safer here than she did back home in New York. That’s probably because she didn’t leave her brain in New York when she came to Sihanoukville; bring yours with you, too and you’ll be fine.

About the author:
Rob has always had a knack for living in places that are on the cusp of change, but none has compared to the coast of Cambodia.
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