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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.