Random Thoughts on Staying Safe in Phnom Penh

Posted on by Peter Hogan
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A few weeks ago and for the first time in my nine-year expat stint here, I was very nearly robbed. Of course the comedic aspect of all this only becomes clear after the event when at the time it was deadly serious, but the attempted robbery was stymied when both parties (myself in a tuk tuk – practically levitating in anxiety – and the two filthy urchins looming behind me on a Honda Wave, having followed my tuk tuk for 5 minutes ) drove abruptly and slap-bang at at 3am into a solemn all night funeral party hosted by the immediate neighbors. Fortunately, the glassy-eyed fixed stairs of umpteen white-shirted Khmer elders served to deter my assailants, although it was about an hour and four large gin and tonics later when my knees eventually stopped wobbling.

We all want to get home of an evening without hearing the sound of death approaching and ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ are not necessarily the first adjectives that spring to mind when thinking of Phnom Penh, so how assiduously should we take personal security issues here and should we allow the heebie-jeebies to prevent us from staying out after dark?

The attempted blag mentioned in the first paragraph may have been a personal first for me, but street robberies here are far more commonplace than many expats realize. However, most of the crime is Khmer on Khmer with the majority of victims being local women losing phones, gold chains and bags after being pulled from their motorbikes. Unfortunately, this trend of targeting women also spills over into Khmer on Expat/Tourist crime with, once again, most of the victims being women, which is perhaps another reason why I had gotten lucky for so long.

On the other hand, Phnom Penh now is a far safer place than a decade ago – long before Cambodia became comparatively stable and went supernova as a tourist destination. Back then a woebegone backpacker couldn’t wander a block from the Capital guesthouse without taking the risk of a bullet to the bum (this actually happened to a couple of Israelis) and late night punters doing the after-midnight Martini run would be routinely robbed en route there or back. I recall a long time expat describing a ‘polite ’1990’s armed robbery to me – the robber apologized for doing the deed and after rummaging around in the expat’s stolen wallet for a few seconds, returned his victim the 2000 riel moto fare needed to get home, wishing the hapless barang a safer journey home than he’d thus had so far.

So how to write a simple and up-to-date personal safety risk reduction guide in one language, in less than 900 words and without charts, spreadsheets or statistics? Quitting to the chase, here are my random thoughts.

1) If you lead a raucous, out-of-control, hard-partying life, then the risks of you being robbed increase exponentially. Put simply, the more often you stay out late and come home drunk in the early hours, the more likely it is you will be robbed at some point.

2) Be aware that the incidence of robberies can by cyclical; Khmer New Year, Chinese New Year, Pchum Ben and Water Festival are known as robbery seasons for a reason as financially challenged young locals seek to boost their ‘play money’.

3) Avoid certain notorious blackspot areas: Street 19 late at night, Gym Bar Street (178), the quiet stretch of south Pasteur (St 51) in BKK1 NGO land are all areas in which extra caution should be taken. Most notoriously, the 178/13 streets junction next to the National Museum, is somewhere to avoid on foot late at night, unless you wish be left penniless and in your socks and underwear as happened to a couple of robbed (and stripped) male backpackers recently.

4) If you are female, be aware that you are more of a target to the hatched-faced local louts and be extra aware that the focus of the thieves will be the strap of any bag you are carrying. Unfortunately, a French expat woman was killed a couple of years ago after being pulled from a motorbike taxi at speed by the strap of her shoulder bag so if possible travel by tuk tuk and place your belongings under your feet and kicked into the space below your seat.

5) Don’t travel around at night carrying your laptop or waving an iPhone in your hand.

6) If you’re travelling home well after midnight and can afford it, phone for a yellow cab.

7) Be aware that the moment when you are at your most vulnerable to robbery is as you alight from your transport home. Therefore, as you get close to home, use your wits and check to see if you are being followed.

To sum up, there is no totally failsafe way of avoiding robbery here apart from never leaving your house or hotel – and let’s not give that option the oxygen of publicity. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to have an active social life without obsessing or being constantly terrified, head down, jibbering – fear coursing through your veins – every time you step out at night. Put simply, it’s all a matter of playing the percentages and reducing the risks. So to end on a positive note, putting matters into perspective and speaking very personally, and as has already been pointed out by a fellow expat, I feel far, far safer living here in ‘third world’ Phnom Penh than in the part of South London I called home ten years ago. And that’s a fact.

Words: Peter Hogan
Photo: Darren Wilch

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19 Responses to Random Thoughts on Staying Safe in Phnom Penh

  1. Raskolnikov says:

    Good article KIR, glad you didn’t actually get mugged in the end! Re danger areas for robberies-I used to live on the corner of st 19 and 178 and on many an occasion wandered around the area drunk at night, I never realised it was considered a particularly dodgy area.Having said that, one night there was some lunatic shooting a handgun in the street right outside my place. Any particular incidents you know of that occured there?

  2. andyinasia says:

    Actually I also lived on the corner of Sts. 19/178 until August and never heard or saw any such incidents (although quite a few RTAs, typical of many junctions in the city). Maybe one incident from way back has lingered in the collective imagination.

    • Peter Hogan says:

      Off the top of my head I can think of one shooting and three muggings around that junction. The shooting was Khmer on Khmer but the bullets were flying everywhere.

      I also know personally two expats who were mugged around the St 178/St 13 area, one being our old friend Stan Khan.

      • serzal says:

        What about the owner of the bar Ginger Monkey, back in 2006, who was murdered? I believe that was right in that area, or am I mistaken?

        When you say S. Pasteur, do you mean south of Sihanouk, or north? (I don’t know what BKK1 NGO land is).

        • Peter Hogan says:

          The Ginger Monkey killing happened slap bang in the middle of the 178/13 streets junction next to the National Museum – an area I flagged up in my article. Well spotted, Serzal.

          And when I talk about BKK1 NGO land, I mean the stretch of Pasteur running from Sihanouk towards the BKK market.

  3. PenhMan says:

    I live off Norodom near 178. So I’ve used St. 19 late at night but never felt comfortable doing so. It’s a bit of a thoroughfare all day and well into the night. And the length of 178 from Norodom to the river looks a dodgy place to be. Lots of pairs of guys on motos use both 19 and 178 at night. Consequently, I’ve already made the decision to stay clear of the two streets.

    Good topic.

  4. Fred says:

    I once saw a young woman with an iPod strapped to her arm jogging near the mosque down by the lakeside in the early evening.She was wearing short shorts and no bra.When I offered some advice about hiding the iPod, she didn’t even say thank you, so I refrained from mentioning her culturally-sensitive dress skills.
    Some people ask for it.

  5. Kirsty Stobo says:

    In October this year, after 4 years in the Kingdom, I had my turn of being mugged…right outside my house on Street 75. Robbers approached from behind on a motorbike and swiftly grabbed my bag and pushed me to the ground. As a result, i got a broken elbow which required surgery so I had to fly home to the UK (as I didn’t have insurance – another lesson learned)and now I have 20% movement and my arm is 44% straight. So expats, it could happen to you also if you don’t have your wits about you at all times and always pay attention to your environment! I have learned my lesson in a painful and expensive way but it could always have been worse….could have been both elbows! Now I have a titanium plate in my arm….will keep quiet about that in case I lose my arm next time! Stay safe!

    • Soi Dog says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your ordeal. Yes it can happen to any of us. I hope your injuries continues to improve.

    • John says:

      I am so sorry to hear about your dreadful experience. I had been wondering about you, not having seen you at the university. I hope you fully mend and are able to return to us. The students miss you.

  6. khmerhit says:

    yes–roadside robberies were fairly common in the late 90s, usually perpetrated by cops or moto drivers in the wee hours. Most expats I fought back, and one got shot for his trouble–in the bum. He was trying to stop them from stealing his lap-top, nt a smart move. the jaols were usualyy more nervous than their victims, btw, and a rather poorer.
    I got beat up badly a few wweks ago, but not in Cambo.

  7. RayChristlTHC says:

    Glad Peter is ok & Ms Stobo is back safe from her surgery in Scotland…Cambodia is our home,yet even with some expat muggings,it’s a very safe place to live IMO…

    • Peter Hogan says:

      Hear, hear, good point, Ray.(And all the best to Ms Stobo too.) As stated in the article, I still feel far safer going about my daily business here than I ever did in London SE26.

  8. Frankie says:

    I was in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for the first time in May 2008 and just recently (May 2011) and I find it safe to walk out in the streets even late at night.

    Having been held up in broad daylight in my own country a couple of years ago I would definitely agree that Cambodia is still a safe country for residents and tourists alike.

  9. gamelan says:

    if you save your shekels, you can rent a bodyguard who, with little prompting, will shoot the perp in the scrotum

  10. zerotwosixty says:

    300 dollars will buy you a K59 and you can shoot them yourself.

  11. Manfred says:

    I’ve only been in Phnom Penh for two weeks, but I feel very safe here. I haven’t seen anything that would make me feel unsafe. I feel safer here than in many parts of London.

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