Getting Robbed in Cambodia

Shit happens.

Things break, people get sick, valuables get stolen. Sometimes you step on a sea urchin and wind up in surgery, other times you get robbed by motorbike… twice… less than an hour apart.

How not to get robbed in Cambodia

Getting Robbed

It was my very first day in Cambodia. I was planning on exploring the city, checking out the main sights: the Central Market, Grand Palace and Museum were on my list. Since my Singaporean hostel roommate was also new to town, we decided to head out and explore the city together. We had a great lunch in a local market, and were wandering down the street towards the Central Market on a thin sidewalk.

Walking slightly ahead of him as we held a conversation, I was shocked when I heard him yell and start running in the opposite direction. I turned around, not knowing what happened, and saw my friend running down the street after a motorbike. The motorbike had stolen his bag!

How is that possible? He was wearing a cross-body bag! Apparently the motorbike was going so fast that the strap snapped against his body. Even the nice thick strap of his quality bag wasn’t enough to save him.

Surrounded by local witnesses, some seemed shocked and surprised, while others were visibly upset. One girl even screamed “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!!!” while stomping her feet. It’s easy to tell that the locals are angered by the rise of theft in Phnom Penh, especially when it happens to foreign visitors.

Thankfully, my friend only had cash and his hostel key in his bag. His phone, which doubled as his camera, was in his pocket, and he had taken his passport, wallet, and cards out of the bag that morning. Unfortunately, he was carrying roughly $100 USD in the bag, all of which was lost.

tuk tuk Cambodia

It’s hard to steer clear from motorbikes when there’s no sidewalk

After the theft I stated to panic a little. What if that was me? I would have been screwed! I had so many valuable things in my purse. How could I be so stupid!

While it’s embarrassing to admit this, here’s what I would have lost had it been me:

  • Unlocked iphone 4S (value $200)
  • GoPro HERO4 Silver (value $400)
  • $40 cash
  • 1 American debit card
  • 1 Chinese debit card
  • Chinese student ID card
  • American drivers license
  • Passport
  • Chinese visa (value $160)
  • Chinese Residence permit (value $130)

As you can see, this list is super embarrassing. How could I possibly have that much value in my purse??! Not to mention the cost of a new purse and wallet. While I removed my credit card and an extra debit card, I should have taken out all of my cards and IDs, especially my passport. While I usually take my passport out of my purse, I just happened to forget that day.

Not only would I have lost my passport, I would have also lost my Chinese visa and residence permit, which I need to return to China. My school would have to send the necessary documents so that I could re-apply for a new Chinese visa. Once back in China I’d have to pay for another residence permit. How awful is that?!

After the robbery we decided to head back to my hostel. My friend needed to make a police report for his travel insurance, and I wanted to get my passport out of my bag as soon as possible.

Phnom Penh road

Getting Robbed….Twice

On the way back to the hostel, less than an hour after the original robbery, another motorbike came up behind my friend and ripped his gold chain off of his neck. AGAIN?!! Not only was the chain valuable and sentimental, the theft also left a giant mark on his neck and cut the side of his shoulder.

Who gets robbed twice in the same day, let alone in the same hour??! Welcome to Phnom Penh.

When we got back to the hostel, I immediately took out everything I didn’t need. I placed my passport, phone and all my cards in the locker. The only thing I kept with me was a bit of cash, my GoPro, and my DSLR camera around my neck.

Everyone we told at the hostel was shocked, but only that it had happened twice. One British girl had experienced an attempted robbery the night before. The only difference is that the motorbike wasn’t going fast enough to break her bag strap.

The hostel suggested we make a report at the police station to obtain a police letter for his travel insurance. Unfortunately, my friend couldn’t get any of the extra cash out of his locker because he lost the locker key in the theft. For some reason, the hostel spare key didn’t work, so the hostel had to literally saw open the lock on his locker. Thankfully, I had enough to lend him for the next few hours.

Not wanting to let the theft ruin our entire day, we decided to head to the grand palace while we still had time. Thankfully, my friend was able to have a good time at the palace, despite his awful day. Since the robberies had taken so much time, we didn’t have enough time to visit the museum, but apparently we weren’t missing much anyway.

Grand Palace Phnom Penh

Enjoying the Grand Palace

Reporting to the Police

After the palace, we went to the police station to make a report. This place was almost impossible to find, especially since our hostel gave us the wrong directions. Eventually we found traffic police, a small shoddy building surrounded by rubble. The traffic police were able to steer us in the correct direction, and eventually we found the real police station.

Unfortunately, no one at the police station spoke English. We waited for about 30 minutes until they were able to summon a child to translate for us. When we explained our situation (we combined the two robberies into one for simplicity’s sake), the officer had us both hop on the back of his motorbike to head to the scene of the crime.

Only in Cambodia will a policeman encourage two people to hop on the back of his motorbike as you weave in and out of rush-hour traffic with no helmets. It was a surreal experience to say the least. 

meat market Phnom Penh

Selling meat at the local market

When we finally arrived, the officer told us we had to go to a nearby police station, because that station patrols the area we were in. He dropped us of at an equally decrepit station, where we sat for a half-hour because no one spoke English. Finally they told us to leave and come back the next morning, when they would have an English speaker. This meant that we had to walk about a half-hour back to our hostel, when the original police station was only a few blocks away. Thanks guys.

On returning to the hostel, we met up with our British roommates. Immediately, one of them pulled out a ring and asked the Singaporean if it was his. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed. Unbeknownst to me, there had been a gold ring hanging on the chain around his neck. He normally kept the chain under his shirt, so I had never seen it. The British guy had only glimpsed it in passing.

My friend didn’t mention anything about a ring to me or anyone else, but as the British guy was walking down the street, he spotted some gold and saw a ring that looked very similar to the one he had seen previously. Knowing the necklace had been stolen, he picked it up just in case. Keep in mind, we didn’t tell him where we were robbed, and this street was about 5 blocks from our hostel! What are the chances?

My Singaporean friend was near tears to receive his ring back. Apparently it had been the ring, not the chain, that was sentimental. He kept it locked securely in his locker… once they sawed it open.

Phnom Penh Central Market

The Central Market

So… Should I Skip Phnom Penh?

In my opinion: no. Phnom Penh is worth seeing, and I would recommend two full days. The Grand Palace is stunning, and the Killing Fields and S-21 offer incredible insight into the country’s recent bloody past under the Khmer Rouge.

In short, you are safe in Phnom Penh but your things are not.

As much as we hate to admit, some things are important and valuable. Getting robbed can put a real damper on your trip, especially if your passport is stolen and you can’t travel anywhere!

Sleeping tuk tuk driver

Protect ‘Yo Self

After my first day in Phnom Penh, I texted my Cambodian friend and asked, “HOW do I keep myself from getting robbed???!” Apparently, the locals worry about it as well, and don’t walk around too much just because of this “Phnom”-enon (haha, get it?)

1. Wear a backpack

It’s harder to rip off a backpack than a cross-body bag. For extra protection, keep it on your front and wrap your arms around it.

I personally recommend the Viment 35L Ultra Lightweight Foldable Waterproof Daypack, mainly because it’s lightweight and it can fold up inside your bag. It’s also waterproof and great for hiking.

2. FANNY PACK

Not one of those huge ones. Get a tiny one that fits under your clothes.

3. PacSafe Bag

Believe it or not, there are a lot of cute, functional anti-theft bags out there. Pacsafe makes bags that are slash-proof, theft-proof and immune from pick pockets. Lockable zippers, metal-lined straps and slash-proof material are just some of the perks. I actually really wished I had one of these bags in Phnom Penh. It would have made my life so much easier. Besides, some of them are cute!

UPDATE April 2016:

I actually bought this Pacsafe Slingsafe bag in the Cypress color before my most recent trip to Vietnam and I love it! Although my dream Pacsafe bag is the Cranberry Pacsafe Citysafe bag. I just couldn’t justify it being twice the price!

4. Hold your bag close

If you’re stuck with a cross-body bag, hold it close to you. Keeping it in front of your body is not enough. You need at least one hand firmly attached to that baby. Since I had my DSLR, I basically just clutched both of them to my body for dear life.

5. Keep your bag angled away from the bikes

In Phnom Penh, walking in the street is unavoidable. Cars, street food stalls and even barber shops take over the sidewalk. If you can’t keep far from the line of motorbikes, at least keep your bag on the opposite side of traffic (while you clutch it to your body). Basically, just be very vigilant.

Phnom Penh Tuk Tuk

6. Be Vigilant in Tuk Tuks

Sure, walking around is dangerous, but tuk tuks are fine, right? WRONG. Motorbikes drive up alongside tuk tuks and steal bags from unsuspecting riders. Because of this. may tuk tuks have mesh to protect the passengers. Keep your valuables out of reach on a tuk tuk, and make sure no one can grab anything.

7. Take out all your valuables

Walk around with as little as possible. If you’re a guy or a girl who wears clothes with real pockets, Put your stuff in your pockets. While I wouldn’t normally recommend that because it’s much easier to pickpocket pockets (hence the name), it will protect you from the bigger danger of motorbike bag theft. Just keep your hands over your pockets in crowded areas.

If you’ve got a bag or purse, take out as much as humanly possible. There’s no reason to have your passport or an ID; a copy is good enough. Take only as much cash as you need, and don’t bring any cards unless you need to withdraw money.

7. Buy GOOD travel insurance

This is a huge one. Travel insurance is not just health insurance, it can cover everything from theft to flight delays to forced military evacuation. Trust me, you do not want to be the person who thinks they’re being thrifty by buying cheap insurance, only to discover their theft is not covered.

For example, my friend got his entire backpack stolen in Phnom Penh (more on that later). He had only been in the city for about five minutes, and had his day pack draped over one shoulder. As he was waiting for his bag to be unloaded from the bus, a motorbike drove by and took everything: passport, wallet, cards, camera, sunglasses, you name it.

It was only after that incident that he realized his travel insurance only covers theft in the case of violence. Basically, he was robbed, not mugged, so it doesn’t count. 

Phnom Penh market

Moral of the story: Buy Good Travel Insurance

After that first day in Phnom Penh, I’ve never been so thankful to have good travel insurance. I purchased World Nomads, which is by far the best travel insurance. In the case of theft, I was covered up to $1,000 with a $500 limit per item. While it would have been a horrible experience to have my bag stolen, at least I would have been covered!

coffee tuk tuk

The best tuk tuks are the ones that serve coffee

Have you ever had anything stolen abroad? What was your experience like? Did you have insurance to cover your loss? 

Heads up! There are a few affiliate links in this post. This means that if you purchase a product using my link I will make a small commission at no cost to you. As always, I don’t recommend anything I wouldn’t use myself. 

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

47 comments on “Getting Robbed in Cambodia

  1. I always feel like I don’t care about stuff… Until I remember that my passport is stuff too. I’ve definitely beenguilty of carrying too much value on my person before, this will make me think twice!

    • Yeah your passport is definitely the one thing you don’t want to lose! I think I would also be really upset if my camera was stolen. I upload my photos every night just in case!

  2. So scary! We’re heading to Phnom Penh this July and will keep all of this in mine. Thank you! I have a PacSafe crossover bag that I love when I travel. I’m curious if they “know” it’s a PacSafe though, as I’d be worried they’d try to yank it and take me with it since the straps are slash-proof and locked. While I’d still have my stuff, I’d rather not get hurt too. Ha!

    • I don’t think they’d be able to tell it’s a PacSafe. I’d just keep in in front of your body and keep a hand on it and you’ll probably be fine. I hope you enjoy your trip to Cambodia. I had a great time!!

  3. Oh dear, I had no idea that Phnom Penh was so dangerous! It must have been pretty traumatising for your friend. And what a miracle he got the ring back! I once got robbed in Cuba: camera, keys, credit card and some money, luckily not my passport!

  4. Oh, no! Getting robbed twice is such a short time span sounds horrible. I got my wallet stolen on the subway in Taipei several years ago. It was my husband’s birthday and I had just withdrew some cash to pick up his present later that day. It was awful to loose the money but it was a bigger pain to replace all my cards and my ARC.

    • Yeah I’ve found that what you lose means a lot more to you than the people who stole it. It’s such a hassle to cancel and apply for new cards, especially if you’re abroad!

  5. This happened to a friend of mine very recently. She had just arrived and was going from the airport to the city, and was in a tuk tuk. A motorbike went by and grabbed her bag. She lost her passport, phone and money. Then she had to bribe the police and the embassy to leave Cambodia so she could go back to Hong Kong to get a new passport.

    • That’s crazy! The police in Cambodia are actually the worst. They told us to come back the next day because no one spoke English, then when we came back they gave us a hard time because we had waited a day. Really?

  6. I have a PacSafe cross body bag that I love to use when I travel, it makes me feel that much more secure. I was nearly robbed in the same way in Ho Chi Minh City, although the motorbike tried to grab my phone out of my hand! Luckily I heard them coming up behind me, and was on guard so was able to yank my hand back as they tried to snatch it, nearly pulling the would-be thief off their motorbike in the process! I always listen out for motorbikes coming up behind me on the footpath now and am more careful using my phone for maps.

    • Yeah I’m super vigilant of motorbikes now. Every time I hear them come up behind me, I hold my bag tighter or look backwards. If there’s no sidewalk I prefer to walk on the side of the road heading towards traffic, and I only use my phone when I can be sure no one will grab it.

  7. I cant even imagine to be robbed, not to be robbed twice in one hour!!! My most valuable item is my dslr camera so I cannot leave it in my hostel room. But I definitely do not wear any jewellery and fancy sunglasses. Those items are necessary and only attract unwanted attention. I am sorry for your friend, I hope he enjoyed the rest of the trip.

  8. I am currently in Phnom Penh about to start a month long volunteer project and yesterday at orientation we were given quite a long talking to about safety and to robberies etc. Bit scary that that happened to your friend at all let alone twice!

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  12. Phnom Penh is actually really safe. Be vigilant and look after your things wherever you are. I felt safe everywhere I went in Cambodia, way more than somewhere like Bangkok where I was always on edge! Good advice here but use it everywhere in the world…

    • Great point. I think it’s important to keep in mind what kind of crime happens everywhere you go to best prepare yourself. I think witnessing motorbike crime twice in one day really made me feel uneasy in Phnom Penh (as it should), but I try to be careful everywhere. I got my phone stolen on Koh Lanta! Things happen wherever you go. It’s just important to be vigilant and learn the best ways to protect your belongings in each city. For example, China doesn’t have bag snatching but I’ve gotten really good at avoiding pickpockets!

  13. Wow, how unfortunate for your friend! I’ve been robbed 2x and it’s a terrible experience no matter what, especially when you feel like you’ve been violated :( I’m headed there this weekend by myself and am really hoping that things go alright – I’ll be keeping my DLSR on me and money under my clothes :/ Worried about the camera though!

    • Yeah getting robbed can really color your perception of a place unfortunately. I think the main thing is looking aware and alert. Walk with your hand on your bag and never lose sight of your valuables. Also, a small backpack is probably best, and make sure your camera has a good strap. Like I said, I didn’t get anything stolen, but I know of many friends who have. Just don’t wear any flashy jewelry, keep your hands on your bag and stay alert and you’ll hopefully be fine!

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  16. Wow, I had goosebumps just reading this story. I have a pacsafe bag that I use when I travel but now I’m wondering what would have happened if your friend had a bag like that? What if he was dragged off while the motorist ran away? :/

    • That’s definitely so true. I also have a pacsafe now, but it might be safer to just use a backpack so no one will try and grab it. Some people actually die from getting dragged! I kept my arms protectively around my bag at all times, which makes you less of a target.

      • Hi.
        Having just had my bag snatched tonight, I’d almost be tempted to say that it’s safer to have a bag with thin straps. You just need one second of inattention for someone to grab your stuff (after over a year of being super cautious, I let my guard down for a moment and the bag was gone..). If they see an opportunity, they’ll try to take it anyways, so at least if your bag breaks easily you’ll be safe.
        As for the police, I went to report it to the local police who took my deposition and sent me to the immigration police as it is open 24/7…. where they told me with no English to come back tomorrow as it was too late (9.30pm). I don’t think I’ll bother going tomorrow as I did not loose important documents (only money, insurance card and home key)

        • Yeah they did the same to us, even though it was the afternoon because there was no one who spoke English. As much as I love Pacsafe bags, I think you’re right. You don’t want to get dragged! I’ve found that people who wear backpacks are pretty safe because the driver knows it’s not as easy to get off of you. Then all you have to do is be wary of pickpockets. You could also wear a small backpack on your front?

  17. I stayed at a very well known hostel in Phnom Penh (Top Banana) and met around 4 or 5 people who had been robbed in a similar way, and one lad had even been mugged at knifepoint walking home when drunk one night. This made it by far the worst city for crime i visited out of Thailand, India and Cambodia.

    Saying that, i was always fine. Never bothered getting tuk tuks home from dodgy nightclubs, instead walking for half an hour alone down a dark road back to the hostel. i even lost my fanny pack with passport, cards and cash inside a nightclub and it was handed in to the bar!

    Definitely recommend the whole backpack thing, and always have it around the front of you when travelling on a tuk tuk, never on the floor, or else it will easily get snatched.

    • Yeah I noticed a lot of tuk tuk drivers will warn you to watch your bag in the tuk tuk because people might snatch it out the side. It’s such a shame because Cambodia is an incredible country and the majority of the people are so nice and kind. The fact that the locals are very outraged by this just shows that it’s a small minority causing this huge problem. Next time I’m bringing a backpack or a cute fanny pack!

  18. Just got my backpack stolen tonight from the basket of my bike cycling through Tuol Kork, about halfway down street 315 (street where Zaman University is). After almost four months here of feeling totally safe and walking ’round with all different types of bags without a care in the world, this is the first negative experience I’ve had, on a wealthier street than where I’m living. I’ve heard that that’s not unusual – motorbike thieves target the richer areas – very sensible of them, they’ll surely go far in life with such market awareness.

    My advice after this experience if you’re cycling is:
    1. Don’t keep all of your belongings in the same place.
    2. Put the items of the lowest value to the top of your basket.
    3. If you have a bike lock and don’t ride very fast, you could lock a bag with more valuable items to your basket – if they don’t make the snatch straight away, they’re more likely to speed off, and if you’re riding slowly enough I don’t imagine you’ll get hurt from the jolt (could be very wrong on this, though!!).
    4. Attach your keys to your basket – all of my (totally useless to thieves, so important for me) keys were stolen, and luckily security found a spare key for my room.
    5. Maybe turn on ‘Find My iPhone’ – if you can bring a Khmer friend with you to the police, could be worth trying to get your phone back straight away. They’ll be wiping it as soon as they can otherwise. At the very least this means you can lock the phone so the ***k**s can’t make much of a profit from your loss. I hadn’t done this, and am now very irritated with my earlier self for her nonchalance. Sync contacts to another device – I’ve now lost all of the numbers I’ve got since coming here, and as my number was unregistered, I won’t be able to get it back, so have likely lost contact with some newer local friends.
    6. Always be alert – chances are that if I had looked around when I became aware of a moto coming in closer to me than was at all necessary, they may not have attempted the grab, or I could have (gently?) swerved away from them.

    I hate to think that it’s naive to feel trusting of your environment! Phnom Penh is full of contradictions. It’s easy to forget that cities always attract thieves and scumbags when such a vast majority of your experiences are warm and positive, as mine have been here.

    Anyway – we live and we learn, and grow more suspicious and disappointed, eh?

    • Wow I’m so sorry to hear that happened to you! Thankfully nothing ever happened to me, but I was constantly on edge after what happened TWICE in my first few hours exploring the city. I really hope they make some progress, which I think will come from paying the police a bit more… from what I’ve heard many policemen either don’t care or are in league with the thieves because their salary is so low. I had my phone stolen in Thailand and it’s the worst! Best of luck to you and hopefully it doesn’t happen again :(

  19. Wow, what a wake up call – even for me – a decades long world traveller. I’m going to P.P. tomorrow for the first time; had no idea theft was so bad there; so will shift gears a) copy of passport b) cable lock for my handbag c) locks for the compartments on the hand bag d) passport bag/credit card/cash in a little bag stuffed down my shirt or pants, e) spare emergency money ($100 usually) stashed in another place. and more. I’ve never had a problem, but one needs to keep on their toes 24/7. Watch out for the spiked drinks, and the slippery ladies of the night too. Nevertheless, enjoy! ;)

    • It’s crazy! I have a few friends in Phnom Penh and they’re shocked this all happened in one day. But I think if you’re wandering around the areas near tourist sights, it’s best to take precautions. As much as I love my DSLR, we probably should’ve left our nice cameras at home while walking around the city. I think it’s smart to hide the main stuff, put your phone in a pocket, and only have small cash with you. Have a great trip!

  20. It happened to me as well. Walking 2 blocks back to our airbnb from dinner near the French Market, my bag was snatched off my shoulder with both of our passports, cell phone, cash and credit cards in it. It was a very difficult process for us, but that is a very long story for another day :) When we went to the tourist police, there were loads of people who had the same issue. I have been on the road for 15+ months and this was the place with the highest crime rate, but it can happen to you anywhere. I think posts like this are great, because had I read something like this before coming to PP (admittedly, I should have done more homework) I would have been more cautious. Thanks for putting it out into the blogging universe :) Here’s a short post I put on IG about my experience, you inspired me to want to share on my blog as well :) https://www.instagram.com/p/BfQHlVlgu5g/

    • Wow I’m so sorry that happened to you! It’s crazy the number of people I know and met who had this happen to them in Phnom Penh specifically. It got to the point that I even texted my Cambodian friend to ask him how I could avoid getting robbed since I felt like a giant walking target. I really hope things change, but with the horrible economic situation, the corruption from police and officials, and the number of tourists who have a ton of money, I don’t see it getting better for quite a while. That said, Cambodia is lovely and I do still suggest people visit :)

  21. Just had my crossover bag snatched by someone on a scooter literally 10 steps from my hotel door lastnight in PP. Very disappointing particularly losing the phone with all the photos and it was also my last night. Not much I would have done differently (as I’m pretty conscious of my surroundings) except maybe go for a very slim bum bag that can be covered by my shirt. Even holding the bag – at the speed they go past you’ve no chance – they’ll get it.

    • I agree! It’s so bad in Phnom Penh compared to anywhere else in China. From what I heard, backpacks worn over both shoulders are a bit better, but then you have to worry about pick pockets…

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