It is almost a law of nature: no sooner do high season tourists start flooding Sihanoukville to enjoy the gorgeous beaches and islands, than they also start dying with irregular regularity. Various combinations of excesses of sun, alcohol, drugs and recklessness produce a death toll that is completely unnecessary. The owner of one popular guesthouse described how he has pulled countless young bodies out of the sea with the tired, almost bored, resignation of someone who knows they’re going to have to do it again and again. He blamed it on the Ley Lines underpinning Sihanoukville. Others might suggest that it is a failure of people to look after themselves and the people they are with.
Death can come in many forms, like dying from an alcohol overdose while sitting on the toilet. Even a corpse would blush at that one, but it happened here. Or maybe it will drown you in a small pool in the middle of a packed nightclub. And while that specific incident in Utopia was widely reported, the drugs and alcohol that contributed to the tragedy were not.
Tourists are not immune to being murdered in Cambodia either. It is rare, but it does happen. Walking home blind drunk at random hours of the morning won’t help though.
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 when leaving a bar at night — 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.
Taking drugs anywhere is a personal choice. But exercising that choice in Cambodia should be done in the knowledge that the risks here are immeasurably higher. To be honest, depending on the drug it’s Darwin Awards-level 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.”
And just to compound all that, dying in Sihanoukville isn’t a good idea either. 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.
And that might be the good part. Medical care in Cambodia is patchy at best, and you can’t even get that standard in Sihanoukville. If you need emergency treatment thanks to an overdose, or because you’ve just inhaled a line of heroin thinking it’s cocaine, all we can say is “good luck”; you’re going to need it.
Sihanoukville is shaking off its reputation for drugs thanks to a concerted drive by the police to shut down the trade. This is Cambodia though, and drugs are still easily available. Cambodia is a country that rewards (actually requires) self-sufficiency. If you haven’t got the wherewithal to look after yourself, you’re not going to last long here. But if you are going to disregard the above, at least make sure there is someone around who can look after you should the proverbial hit the fan. Sometimes, swift action can make all the difference.
Personal security is a big deal in Sihanoukville as well. We constantly see complaints from people who’ve left their belongings on the beach while they just go for a quick dip in the sea only to find them gone when they get back. Take note: you are being watched and the minute your back is turned, your goods will be gone. The area around Ochheuteal seems to be particularly prone, but nowhere could be described as particularly safe.
If you need assistance, contact the tourist police (011) 683 307, 24 hour emergency number: (097) 778 008, or go to the tourist police centre on the junction of Serendipity Beach Road and Mithona Street.
By Robert Schneider
Last updated on 12th November, 2012.