Photo: Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh.

Security issues come in many forms all over the world, and Phnom Penh is no different. There are a couple of issues in particular that tend to arise more than others in the Cambodian capital. It’s easier to protect yourself against them if you are aware of them — so read on.

The chances of a streetside mugging are always good here, but in the run-up to big festivals, the risk increases as Cambodians come under pressure to buy new clothes and give money as offerings. Tourists, wandering around distracted by everything around them, make for easy targets for some. Try to keep your belongings in a backpack, and wear it with both straps on your shoulders, especially when travelling by moto. Even wearing a bag across your body is not sufficient protection since thieves have shown themselves willing to drag people off the back of motorbikes.

Security-wise, you’re pretty much on your own here. But vigilance pays.

The same goes for sending a last-minute text message to someone while in your tuk tuk. We nearly lost ours in Phnom Penh in late 2015 when the passenger of a passing motorcycle tried to snatch the phone out of our hands as we checked it for messages. Fortunately, it turns out we have a good grip, and the ensuing stream of invectives that seemed to come out of nowhere was hugely therapeutic. The main festivals that prompt spikes in muggings are Pchum Ben (in September or October each year), and Khmer New Year (April), however the risk is perpetual. Be vigilant (but don’t be freaked out, either).

Here are some tips to bear in mind:

* Be alert. Hold onto your bag with both arms around it when in a tuk tuk, or across your chest when walking. On a moto, wear your bag nestled in front between you and your driver and hold on to it.

*Don’t pull out your phone while you are walking around or in a tuk tuk. If you do, grip it firmly or with both hands. Someone holding an iPhone with two fingers can be a big temptation to some.

*Purses seem to be an easier target, so consider using your pockets. (Are bum bags cool again, yet?)

*Don’t carry stuff you can’t afford to lose.

*Do not put up a fight, especially if there are weapons.

*Consider taking a taxi, especially at night. They use meters and the prices are usually comparable to tuk tuks and are sometimes cheaper.

*Ask your tuk tuk driver to wait for you while you get into your accommodation; robberies have occurred while people are fiddling with keys or waiting to get inside.

*Before you decide to leave everything back at your hotel or hostel, remember that thefts can occur there as well. If you are not in a room with a safety deposit box, try to leave your valuables locked in your bag and don’t leave anything near windows — thieves can use sticks with tape on the end to grab mobile phones and so on through barred windows.

Another risk that affects everyone, but can really throw a spanner in a travellers’ works, is having their rented motorbike stolen. Suddenly, a reasonably economic way of getting around is about to get quite expensive. Your rental contract will stipulate that the liability is all yours in case the bike is stolen; something to bear in mind when you sign it. For one thing is certain: once the bike is gone, it’s not coming back again. So if you don’t have the $800 or so it’s going to cost to replace it, then it may be as well to stick to tuk tuks and motos. If your rental bike is stolen, you can report it to the police — the best that money can buy — but remember that low expectations are the secret to a happy life, so lower them, then lower them again, all the way down, right down to the ground.

If you do decide to rent notwithstanding all that, don’t put your hotel or apartment address on the rental sheet, and try to get another lock to put on it. Rental agencies have had a reputation for following clients and stealing their own bikes back. Impossible to prove of course. We’d also recommend taking photographs of the bike before you drive it away, in order to avoid claims that you damaged anything.

One that we thought might have gone away, but still appears to be going strong, is a card scam operated by gangs of Filipinos. It starts off nicely enough when a smiling, non-threatening member of the gang approaches you with compliments on something about you, or wants to practise their English. Conversation starts, and boom you suddenly have all kinds of things in common, and an opportunity to assist this lovely person soon comes up. Travellers, punch drunk on exotica, for some reason lose their ability to detect the degrees in between outright fiends and glorious angels and take the woman for one of the latter. Here now, a chance to connect with a local and do some good. Dreams come true. Or not.

The next level is a confusing tuk tuk ride to another location, where the now slightly destabilised traveller is invited to join a friendly game of cards, for money. The tricks vary, but the result is always the same. The traveller loses, and loses big and is then frog-marched to the nearest ATM in order to pay up. The friendliness is gone, and the mood is now far more menacing. As above, we don’t recommend trying to fight your way out of this one.

The gangs seem to operate around the riverside and Sorya Shopping Mall in particular. They tried it on us in late 2015, but since we’re ginger we know well enough to be wary when random strangers approach to compliment us on our hair. They should have known that the standard response to gingers involves sympathetic smiles, and occasional hand-holding. Don’t be fooled.

Phnom Penh Tourist Police T: (023) 726 158; (097) 778 0002


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Where are you planning on heading to after Phnom Penh? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Cambodia.

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