Notwithstanding Cambodia’s no-longer warranted reputation as something of an edgy, frontier destination, it is in fact an incredibly safe country to visit, in relative terms. This is not like Barcelona where hordes of bag snatchers await, safe in their impunity, or Acapulco where gang warfare leaves bodies lying in the streets. But visitors should not be completely disarmed by the warm smiles of their hosts because, of course, nowhere is entirely risk free.
It’s actually surprising how safe Siem Reap is, given the explosion in the number of visitors whose wealth relative to that of the people who live here is staggering. Siem Reap remains one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, while even the most up-against-it backpacker is still able to drop what amounts to a day’s wages on a single cup of coffee. That is not a healthy state of affairs, and there are signs that the rate of bag-snatchings and general theft is increasing as young Cambodians in particular start to react against the manifest inequality and to submit to the pressures to get the latest gadgets and gear, which are no less here than anywhere else in the world. On the other hand, the risk of assault, either physical or sexual, remains very low. Indeed, a traveller is more likely to be assaulted by another (drunk) traveller than by a local.
The biggest problem is bag-snatching, when pairs of kids on motor scooters zoom up behind the unsuspecting then grab their bag and speed off with the loot. They are quite happy to do this whether you’re walking, cycling or on the back of a moto, making it incredibly dangerous for the victim.
Previous advice held that, if not using a backpack, people should at least try to carry their bags across their bodies as a basic precautionary measure. But that no longer stands up. It would seem that the gloves are off, and snatchers will now cheerfully drag the bag over your head, even if that means dragging you off your bicycle or scooter at the same time. After all, once you’re on the ground, which you will be, profusely bleeding and swearing, you won’t be able to chase them. Even if you’re not grounded, however, it doesn’t pay to chase a snatcher. No matter what your iPhone is worth, they have more to lose than you do.
If you are on a bicycle, and don’t have a backpack, see if you can get hold of a basket cover and keep your gear in there instead. You can also buy backpacks in pretty much any size at Central Market on Sivatha Blvd.
Though you should be aware all the time, be particularly careful when significant festivals are coming up, such as Khmer New Year (April), or Pchum Ben (October/November), since the rate of snatchings tends to soar as Cambodians are all under pressure to sort out new clothes and offerings.
Most importantly, if you don’t want to lose it, don’t carry it. Whether it’s credit/debit cards, passports or jewellery, keep it in the safe at your hotel. Only carry cash, and for the things that you have to carry, like your phone or camera, make sure they’re insured.
And, though it sounds far too obvious, don’t leave stuff lying around. Something happens when we travel and the normal vigilance we exercise at home either mutates into a sort of hyper-paranoia, which will ruin your holiday, or seems to get left behind in the first Duty Free. Then there is great shock and surprise when the camera left in the tuk tuk, or on the table in the bar, or wherever, up and disappears. But it is neither shocking nor surprising when this happens, much like at home.
On the flip side of that, the restaurant manager of an upmarket hotel in Siem Reap recently recounted how accusations of theft had been made against her staff five times in one week, and that this is not at all uncommon. Fortunately, the hotel has CCTV, so the property was soon found where the customers had left it, and the innocence of the staff members was once again established. A job loss here can be devastating to an entire family. We need to be sure that we really have got our facts straight, or as straight as they can be, before exposing someone to that risk.
On another level, while it’s not unheard of, it is extremely rare for foreigners to experience physical assaults in Siem Reap, which is not to say that sometimes people may not well, and justifiably, feel physically threatened. The biggest source for this is the gangs of kids and women who run the scams at the end of Pub Street, where it meets Sivatha Boulevard.
These crews have become incredibly nasty over the last few years, and stories have surfaced of women being pushed up against hoardings for refusing to give in to demands for money, and even of being punched in the face after trying to warn a group against being scammed. They are also adept pickpockets.
The first rule of thumb is simply never to give money, or anything, to any child on the streets, or to anyone using a child to beg, under any circumstances. Politely say no, and just keep walking. If you see someone who is about to be scammed, and feel an overwhelming need to warn them, then do it discreetly. And it’s probably a good idea to then leave the area.
Sexual assaults are even rarer, but again not unheard of. There is an advantage in the average Western woman’s size, and in the sad fact that the consequences for assaulting a Western woman are going to be many times greater than for assaulting a local woman, who is unlikely to complain and even less likely to press for jail-time. Conversely, the consequences of being that one in three million are greater too. Gang rape is a “thing” in Cambodia; there’s even a special word for it.
If the worst does come to the worst, the first thing you should do is notify your hotel or guesthouse. They can help to put you in touch with the tourist police, who have an office opposite the ticket booths for the Angkor Archaeological Park. They speak good English, and have a good reputation for being responsive, even if there is frequently a limit to what they can reasonably achieve. Their number is: (012) 402 424. You should also inform your embassy or consulate. They may be able to provide some assistance and support.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
9 other destinations in Western Cambodia