Random Thoughts on Staying Safe in Phnom PenhNovember 26, 2011
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