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Three years ago, I fell madly in love with Cambodia. For three years, it occupied a top five spot on my list of favorite countries.
So when it came time to go back to Southeast Asia, I knew that Cambodia would be a mandatory stop. I was beyond excited to return to this wonderful country.
If you’ve been following on Facebook, you know that things didn’t go as expected.
I used to ADORE Cambodia.
I first visited Cambodia in December 2010, and eventually spent about seven weeks in Cambodia total. I visited several different places in the country: Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kep, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, and the countryside outside Phnom Penh.
My favorite thing about Cambodia was the people — the kind, warmhearted Khmer people who greet you with smiles and waves wherever you go, who take you into their homes and treat you like a member of the family, who would give you the shirt off their backs if you asked.
My memories of Cambodia are happy ones, like the night a family invited us to celebrate the end of harvest in the countryside with them.
Did I have any problems? Yes, I did. My friend and I got robbed while skinny-dipping in Sihanoukville. But I didn’t blame anyone for that but myself. We were asking for it.
So please know that that the following words don’t come from a place of deep-rooted hatred. It breaks my heart that a country I loved so much has turned out this way.
Cambodia has changed — and not for the better.
Since the beginning of my trip, I’ve been involved in what has felt like a continuous crime wave. The country that I once regarded as rough in some places but largely peaceful has turned into a place that leaves me feeling unnerved and uncomfortable.
Here’s a rundown on what has happened:
Bag Snatchings in Phnom Penh
When I got into my first tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh, our driver warned me that men on motorbikes sometimes snatch bags from tuk-tuks, and he promptly closed the fabric on the sides of the tuk-tuk, sealing open space off as much as possible. I had never heard this from a tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia on my earlier visits, but it made sense.
To my surprise, I got the same warning again and again. These muggings were common.
And then it happened — my good friend S. was in a tuk-tuk with a friend (incidentally, his friend was one of my readers) and a motorbike driver reached in and pulled out S.’s friend’s bag.
S. is very athletic and vaulted out of the tuk-tuk, chasing down the thief. He and the thief fought over the bag and S. eventually punched his teeth out. Soon it became clear that the thief was part of a gang of five, and S.’s tuk-tuk driver joined in the fight, pulling off his belt to whip the accomplices.
S. got his friend’s bag back, and by that point, people were watching — some even videotaping — and the military police got involved.
S. later got a phone call from the military police. The thief was probably going to die, they told him, because he didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford healthcare. S. was shocked by this news, because the thief didn’t appear to be gravely injured. He now thinks that the thief was beaten more brutally after he left. The thief eventually died.
S. was featured on the news in Cambodia as the man who killed a bag snatcher. He was getting recognized on the street as far away as Siem Reap.
You need to get out of Cambodia, I urged him. What if his family comes after you? He has since left the country safely.
Extortion in Kampot
I decided to take a half-day tour to some of the sights around Kampot: salt flats, burned-out French mansions, Muslim fishing villages, a pepper plantation.
Early in the trip, on the road from Kampot to Kep, my phone bounced out of the tuk-tuk.
The man who picked it up would not give it back to me for less than $200.
I completely take responsibility for dropping my phone. It was an incredibly dumb move. I guard my phone closely and haven’t lost or broken it in years — but this was a moment of idiocy on my part combined with some bad luck.
As soon as the man picked up the phone, he began taking it to different shops and seeing how much they would pay him for it. $250 was what he was offered, he told our tuk-tuk driver over the phone. He’d “help us out” and give it back to us for just $200.
I wanted to involve the police, but having had bad experiences with the police in the developing world in the past, I opted to just pay the man and chalk it up to an expensive lesson.
Sihanoukville’s New Edge
While in Kampot, I chatted with a friend who has visited Cambodia off and on for years. We chatted about Sihanoukville, and he told me about the latest developments — that the Road to Serendipity has been paved and that Monkey Republic has reopened after being destroyed by a fire.
But the changes weren’t all positive.
Sihanoukville’s got an edge now, he told us. And not a good edge.
He described recent incidents in Sihanoukville — a woman was raped on the beach; a man was robbed on the beach. But the most striking story was that five different women got their drinks spiked while he was there.
Drink spikings happen all over Southeast Asia and the world, from frat houses to exclusive clubs. Most of the time, you can avoid spikings if you’re hyper-aware of your drink, but truthfully, you won’t be able to avoid them completely unless you have both a lid and a trustworthy bartender. But still, five different incidents — five different REPORTED incidents — within a short time frame, in my opinion, casts a serious reflection on Sihanoukville today as a whole.
Mugged in Siem Reap
Our friend S., the very same guy who fought off the bag-snatcher in Phnom Penh, was mugged by a gang of children in Siem Reap. He didn’t even have any valuables showing — one of the children reached into his pocket and stole his phone.
After running after the kid and smacking him, S. got his phone back. The children retaliated by throwing glass bottles at him, cutting his feet.
On the minibus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the girl sitting next to us told us that minutes after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh, she saw a motorbike driver rip a backpack right off a tourist’s back.
I’ve also heard lots of stories about drug users being blackmailed by locals threatening to turn them in to the police. My opinion on that hasn’t changed since the beginning: if you’re dumb enough to 1) do drugs in a developing country 2) get caught doing drugs in a developing country, you deserve all of the consequences, whether it’s going to jail or getting blackmailed for hundreds of dollars.
Doing drugs publicly makes you a target. Period. This has always happened throughout Southeast Asia and other developing countries, and for that reason, I don’t consider it a factor in this analysis.
I have several friends who have fallen as deeply in love with Cambodia as I did that first time. Many of them are expats who have lived here long-term; others are travelers who found themselves returning to Cambodia again and again. And they haven’t been happy with what they’ve heard from me and Mario.
Here is a selection of what I’ve heard recently:
Bad things happen everywhere, not just Cambodia. Yes, I’m aware of that. The one time I was mugged was in front of my apartment in Boston.
Lots of places have worse crime than Cambodia, even in Southeast Asia. That may be, but I’m not comparing places. I’m talking about Cambodia.
If you have common sense, you’ll be fine. Often. But common sense is not a cure-all for anything bad that could happen to you. Some places need more preparation than just common sense.
Cambodia is in a tough position. It’s not just poverty, but poverty on top of corruption, domestic violence, no safety net, and painful recent history. Indeed, it is in a very tough position — tougher than anywhere else I’ve been. But just because it can be explained doesn’t make it any less true.
As technology becomes more widespread, more Khmers are learning how little they have compared to the rest of the world. Indeed, that’s true, and that must undoubtedly be a factor toward escalating crimes against tourists in the country.
Cambodia used to be a destination for serious travelers only, but these days is also popular with affluent inexperienced travelers and partying backpackers, my friend Michael Turtle astutely pointed out. Adding this to the previous points is like igniting a powder keg.
But if Cambodia loses the economic benefits of tourism, it will descend into chaos. That’s very true, and losing tourism would be the worst thing to happen to Cambodia. But I’m not going to omit critical information from my readers for the sake of keeping Cambodia’s tourism numbers up.
Let me be clear: I completely understand my friends’ points. Before this trip, I myself was one of Cambodia’s staunchest defenders!
But things have changed. I’m not here to demonize or destroy Cambodia — I’m just here to tell you what it was like for me to travel in Cambodia in late 2013.
My View on Cambodia
After the incidents of this trip, I can say without a doubt that Cambodia has changed since I was last here three years ago.
An isolated crime, or even multiple crimes, is one thing. But in Cambodia my friends and I experienced a series of ongoing incidents that altogether end up painting a pattern markedly different than a few years ago.
I won’t go so far to say that I feel unsafe here. I will say that I am no longer comfortable here, and have felt constantly on edge.
I even changed my travel plans. I was planning to visit the temple of Preah Vihear, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but upon hearing that there are no longer group tours from Siem Reap and that I would need to hire a private driver, I declined. I don’t feel comfortable being on my own with a driver in a very rural part of Cambodia.
Of all the questions that I get from readers, most of them are about Southeast Asia. Of all the readers that follow in my footsteps, most do so in Southeast Asia. Even though I’ve spent much more time in Europe, Southeast Asia is what I am best known for and the region on which people seek my guidance.
For that reason, I know my opinions on Southeast Asia carry weight. Writing a negative post about Cambodia could result in some of my readers — maybe two, maybe a dozen, who knows? — to skip Cambodia and spend more time in Laos or Vietnam or Thailand instead. And for that reason, I need to be very careful about what I write.
Should You Go to Cambodia?
YES. Despite its troubles, you absolutely should go.
Cambodia is one of the places that I have long believed all travelers must visit, because it shows you the reality of a country that is still raw from decades of blood, war, genocide, chaos, and death — yet despite this, the people will be some of the kindest people you will ever meet. In addition to that, it’s got so many cultural treasures, like Angkor, and nice beaches and peaceful towns and delicious food, all for dirt-cheap prices.
BUT — Cambodia is no longer the of-COURSE-it’s-safe! destination that I once lauded. Make no mistake, it’s not Somalia, but visiting Cambodia does require a greater level of caution than other countries in Southeast Asia, just as visiting Barcelona requires a greater level of caution than, say, Reykjavik.
Do visit Cambodia, but be vigilant throughout your visit. Hold on to your bags. Stay in lodging that locks properly. Lock up your valuables. Keep your purse zipped up. Don’t pay drivers in full in advance. Avoid isolating situations when possible. Watch your drink like a hawk. Don’t get too drunk.
And for travelers who are cautious and street-smart, you will find Cambodia to be an enormously rewarding destination.