History of Cambodia is a history of violence. Violence has been part of Cambodian culture and everyday life for centuries and is as prevalent today as it has always been. As a traveller who spent a few months in the country and didn’t go through it locked up behind the safety fence of his hotel, I was exposed to the reality of the Cambodian ways, including its endless violence and crime. I have already shared the stories of other travelers who were victims of violent crime while travelling through Cambodia, and now I would like to share my personal experience and answer the question “Is Travel to Cambodia Safe?” with my own stories.
I stay in amazement when I see certain bloggers or forum members go through lengths to portray Cambodia as a safe country. Whatever the agenda behind such purposeful twists of truth is, I can’t help but express the horror over how public is systematically mislead. It takes savage imagination to call Cambodia a safe country. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
The following is nothing less and nothing more than my personal, firsthand experience after 2 months in Cambodia. These are not reports I got from other people, this is what happened to me personally:
My Personal Experience
I came to Cambodia with an open mind. I have been volunteering and supporting this country since the moment I set my foot on its soil and continued doing so unhindered despite the ordeal locals were repeatedly putting me through. Just as most other visitors to the country, I was also told that it was safe to travel in Cambodia. Having traveled through many countries before, including third world, non western countries (6 months on various islands in the Caribbean and 2 years in Eastern Europe – aside from countless other countries) I knew one has to keep his wits together and play it safe at all times, but still I came here believing that Cambodia was reasonably safe.
The very first time I had an unfortunate encounter was after two weeks in Cambodia at a more remote temple on the grand circle of Angkor. I locked my bike and walked inside the temple when I got that funny feeling that maybe I should have locked my bike against a tree rather than merely locking the wheel against the frame. This was the first time I only had my bicycle locked against itself and sure enough, as I walked out of the temple, I saw little kids who stood around with the banner that they were from an orphanage carrying my bike away. I yelled at them instantly, so they dropped the bike and bolted away. It was particularly disappointing since only minutes prior I had donated money to their orphanage as that’s what they were there for. Needless to say, I left that temple instantly even though I have only seen a small part of it.
A few days later, I had the bicycle lock keys stolen. I know I should have kept it on my chain along with other keys, where it’s much safer than loosely in my pocket, but it was becoming inconvenient as I rode the bike everywhere so I kept using the keys all the time and pulling the whole bunch on a chain became troublesome. Luckily, when a person who was suspiciously getting close to me unexpectedly left, I checked to see whether I still had all of my belongings and as I saw missing keys, I went right to my bike which was still there (in my vicinity all the time), took it to the shop to pay 2000 riel to get the old lock sawed off and spent additional 5000 to purchase a new, vastly superior lock. Unfortunate event, but I still ended up with little loss so I wasn’t making much of it.
It wasn’t until the time to renew my visa came. I wanted to combine it with a short trip to Phnom Penh. My stay in the nation’s capital started with a boy of about 10 years of age trying to steal my wallet. Cambodians, even though skilled thieves are not very smart and he failed to put two and two together so my wallet stayed safely fastened to the chain with the keys on the opposite end. I’ve worn my wallet on the same chain for 20 years and have never had my wallet, or my keys stolen thanks to it. I would have to be either unconscious or threaten with lethal force to lose it. The boy used the moment when I was posing myself to take a picture of hundreds of motorcycles taking off at the traffic lights, pulled the wallet out of my rear pocket and bolted off only to have the wallet ripped out of his hands by the chain that remained sealed in my other pockets thanks to a bunch of keys attached to it. Even though I was focused on the photo I was about to take, I still could feel the wallet coming out of my pocket so I don’t know how exactly he thought he was gonna be successful with this pull. What do you do with a 10 year old when you catch him stealing, though?
I only had three days to spend in Phnom Penh, but the crime was persistent. The day prior to my intended visit to the immigration office, I was jumped by a man a block away from the riverside, not far from FCC. He came running from behind me and skilfully snatched at my bag in an attempt to steal it. Not willing to part with my $1,600 laptop inside, I managed to grab at the strap as the bag was leaving me and started to fight back for it. It was followed by the thief yelling something in Cambodian, after which I saw several dozen men with metal rods, knives and machete loom out of every direction running towards me. I don’t know what that man yelled at them, but he obviously abused the fact that I was a foreigner so he said something in a language I couldn’t understand to set those people against me. And they surely did.
I have never run that fast in my life. I don’t even know how I escaped getting killed there that day, but I counted my blessings and when the following day came, instead of going to renew my visa, I went to the Vietnamese Embassy and got myself a visa to Vietnam so I could leave Cambodia instantly. I called people from the village where I was volunteering that I would not be back, because I feared for my life and that instead I was going to Vietnam. As I was riding the bike back to my guesthouse from the Vietnamese Embassy, I saw a group of people standing around a bullet riddled body along the road. I didn’t have the camera with me to take pictures of it as I rode across Phnom Penh to spend my whole day dealing with the visa situation, but this has added a seal of approval to my decision to leave the country. Besides, where there is one dead body in Cambodia, there are also people with deadly firearms. I wouldn’t want to join the dead man by being next with a bullets in my head.
Vietnam vs Cambodia
Vietnam was a whole different world from Cambodia. It was a breath of fresh air I desperately needed. Not only has it helped me to relax and get over the terrible experience from Cambodia, it was also a place where locals respect tourists (unlike it is in Cambodia). I could walk into a supermarket, do my thing and walk out – there would be locals there, but no one would start whistling at me from across the street, clapping hands at me and yelling like I’m a cheap whore. It was unbelievably liberating to have this type of treatment after a month of abuse in Cambodia. There were locals out there, but they were minding their own business, leaving me alone to enjoy my time at my own pace.
Then I would go for a walk (I have explored entire Ho Chi Minh on foot) and there would be tens of thousands of motorcycles passing by me every minute, yet I did not get any of them in my face every 3 seconds like it is in Cambodia. It was incredibly refreshing. When I went to highly touristed places, that’s where I would occasionally get asked whether I wanted a ride on a moto, but when I said “no”, it was a “no” and I was not bothered by that person anymore. That’s again unheard of in Cambodia. But what I really liked is that even beggars in Vietnam have respect. Cambodia is the only place I know of where a 10 year old kid would say “Fuck You” straight to your face if you don’t give him any money after he asked for it.
From the beginning I could not understand why treatment of tourists in Vietnam was so different from Cambodia, even though they are so close to each other. Why did people in Vietnam leave me alone? Vietnam is not that rich either and unlike Cambodia, they don’t enjoy extra millions from tourist revenue because they don’t have anything equal to Angkor to attract mass numbers of tourists there. And then it all came together.
I noticed that Vietnam was abuzz with construction. There was work in progress everywhere I looked. People were not bothering me, simply because they were involved with their own lives. Millions on motorcycles are either on the way to work or from work. Unless they are on the way to school or from school or on the way to get something for the family. Either way, they are involved with their lives. They work to provide for their families and as such, they don’t have time or interest to bother tourists. They actually appreciate them and are grateful when they visit their country. I have also encountered unconditional help in Vietnam, which something that doesn’t exist in Cambodia, but that’s a whole different story.
Back in Cambodia
I got caught between a rock and a hard place though. I left Cambodia because it was unsafe and too much crime was being committed against me too often. However I did spend a month there building upon something, using my own finances and knowhow to improve the living conditions of people in a remote village but with my premature departure I left it unfinished. I knew that many people whom I started helping would fall back into poverty if I abandoned them before my work has been finalized.
I started to feel the sense of responsibility for being the only hope for a better life these villagers had, so I decided to give Cambodia another go. I thought – since it was Phnom Penh where my life was put in danger in a violent crime attempt, if I stayed away from there, I should be fine.
So I came back to Siem Reap and commuted every day 12 km each way to and from the village which is close to Sras Srang moat, not far from Banteay Kdei temple within the Angkor area. I continued teaching English there for free and started a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of solar panel to electrify the village while preserving the environment. All was fine again for about a week, until we went to celebrate some occasion close to that traffic circle, by the entertainment park in Siem Reap.
At one point when we were leaving, the street got extremely congested with traffic and we had to push through a group of people which was further congested by food carts on wheels. I had my camera with me and since I felt three young men pressing at me from behind and poking at my beg, I held the bag firmly with my arm, shoving my other arm inside the bag to hold firmly onto the $5000 camera. These young men kept pressing on me from three sides which appeared as though it was on purpose, but I assumed they were in a rush to get through so I didn’t make a big deal out of it and just continued guarding the camera inside my bag. Then at one point the pushing stopped and the boys were gone. I figured they must have changed their plan as these food carts truly kept everyone stuck and gave up on getting through quickly.
The moment I got out of there, I found the cell phone missing from my pocket. I immediately realized what the purpose on pressing on me and poking at my bag was and realized that teamwork and stealing skills of Cambodians are not as backwards as everything else. They work as a team and know very well how to keep you distracted and focused on something while someone skilled at withdrawing things from pockets does what they are best at. This was a painful experience and took me a while to get over with. It was extremely disappointing as I spent a lot of money in Cambodia, brought in some more from other sources, invested a lot of time and effort to improve the lives of people here and this is what I was getting in return.
My faith in Cambodia was broken and despite trying hard, I was having troubles recovering from the disappointment cell phone theft had brought upon me. But the biggest hit was yet to come. A couple of days after my cell phone was stolen, I was riding to the village from Siem Reap where I was staying. It’s a 45 minute bike ride (when you step on it and ride swiftly) and I was almost there. Literally, I only had about 2 more minutes before reaching the turn off to the village.
Feeling good that I was almost there, I saw that man crossing the road. I steered in the opposite direction of his walking, but he seemed to have stopped instead of continuing walking so we could safely dodge each other. As I was getting closer, he snatched at my bag I had hung on the handlebars and pulled at it in an attempt to steal it which was followed by a swing of a machete.
I have a bicycle with gears. Unlike most Cambodian bicycles, it does not have a basket above the front wheel. However I have been using gear shifts on both sides of my steering bar as hooks on which to hook my camera bag. So instead of having it strapped around my body, I had it safely hooked on the gear shifts as the bag has a handle which is just wide enough to stretch on both hooks. I realized that when I hooked my bag on the handle bars like that, from a distance it could look like it’s actually a bag placed loosely in the basket which is a standard part of most bikes in Cambodia. That is likely what the man who snatched at it was thinking.
I cannot describe the horror of the experience. The man grabbed at my bag and yanked at it to run away with it, the bag remained safely attached to my steering bar, but it jerked my bicycle which I had at good speed causing me to fall and nearly splatter on the road. A swing of his machete followed and missed my torso by an inch. Had this one landed, I would have disappeared out of all knowledge like British student Eddie Gibson who came to Cambodia and was never heard from again.
This was a direct murder attempt with intentions to rob me off my bag which I have only avoided by a miracle. The man who attempted to kill me couldn’t have known whether there was anything of value in that bag, but since I was a foreigner and had a bag in an area surrounded by jungle and there were no other vehicles on the road which otherwise sees a fair deal of traffic, he took the opportunity and tried to kill me to steal it. Had he succeeded, he would have just dragged my bloodied corpse into the forest so it rots there until the end of days. Unhindered, the man would be free to continue roaming the roads with his machete waiting for his next encounter.
My guardian angel was by me that day, though. The yank resulted in a complete loss of balance but I have somehow managed to stick my foot down and not splatter, but in that process I scratched it quite badly and bled (especially from the heel) like a stuck pig. I could not believe this. I was almost in the village. Given the proximity to the village, I assumed it could have been either a person from the village I haven’t met yet, or someone who lived reasonably close. Why would they otherwise roam around in the neighbourhood?
When the villagers saw me all bloodied and trembling with fear following the near death experience, they asked me what happened and I told them. They also wanted to know what the man who tried to kill me looked like to possibly identify him, but given that I almost died not expecting it, I was so shaken, the last thing I had on my mind was to take a good look at the guy. Plus, I still had the memory of my last altercation I had with a man who tried to steal my bag in Phnom Penh and that ended up with a group chasing me with deadly weapons. This man tried to kill me. Hurting or not, as soon as I was able to get back on the bike, I darted right off from there not looking back, as if I confronted him, he would likely continue swinging the machete until a hit that disabled me was delivered.
Cambodia IS Dangerous
This basically concluded my stay in Cambodia. I immediately started making plans to change my return ticket to leave asap but Korean Air proved excessively difficult to accommodate such requests when they are made outside of the country of origin. This kept me in Cambodia for a few extra days. I stayed mostly locked in, as from my personal experience, Cambodia is extremely dangerous.
I have been half way across the world, but it took a country like Cambodia for a man to fear for his own life. And these are by no means isolated incidents. Since I have been volunteering within Angkor area and close to one of the main temples (on short circuit which is done by most people who visit the park), I got a chance to meet many tourists with horror stories. It starts with seeing people carrying disposable cameras and asking them why the hell would they come all the way to Angkor with this piece of plastic – and hearing answers that this was their only option since their camera along with the money and passports were stolen, all the way to girls walking out of the temple scared to death, crying because they were just raped inside.
Is travel to Cambodia safe? No it is not. Cambodia is one of the most dangerous destinations in the world, period!
Is Travel to Cambodia Safe? How to Draw Your Own Conclusions
So the question that comes to mind is – then how come there are so many people who insist that Cambodia is safe? Well, at this point, instead of trying to raise any more points to prove my case over theirs, I will leave it up to you to make your own mind up and decide for yourself whether Cambodia is safe or not. And in order to come to such conclusions, you need to know what the people who live in Cambodia are like.
One of the most obvious things I noticed right upon coming to Cambodia are countless banners warning tourists to stay away from child sex tourism. It is forced into everyone’s face by banners throughout the country to a point that it becomes ridiculous. Even if you are someone like me, who would not only ever consider sex with a child, but would not even have it cross their mind, by being constantly reminded about it, it almost seems as though Cambodia wanted to introduce itself as a country with striving sex tourism.
I have spoken with countless people, including the police officers and while there definitely are occasional cases of tourists sexually abusing children in Cambodia, these cases are very sparse. Vast majority of all sexual abuses of children are done by local men – the same men who are responsible for an infamous title attributed to Cambodia – the rape capital of the world. Rapes are extremely common in Cambodia and not only are they never punished, they are never even reported because for one – the police force is a joke and secondly, it is socially and culturally unacceptable for a girl to admit that she had a pre marital sex, even if she was violently forced into it. To sum it up – excessive number of Cambodian men are a bunch of sexually abusive characters who don’t stop at nothing. Not even when it comes to helpless children. This is important to understand when coming to Cambodia and you are unsure after hearing one side claiming that Cambodia is safe, while another claiming that it is dangerous. Just take into an account that it is a country of rapists and draw your conclusions from that.
Aside from being a country of child rapists, Cambodia is also crammed with former Khmer Rouge henchmen. These killing machines who were enlisted as young children to kill on daily basis are now in their 40s and 50s and are as used to kill as they were in their early teens. Just because they took off their Mao hats and put on fake designer shirts it doesn’t mean they forgot how to pull the trigger or hack a head off. Having killed dozens of people since they were kids and never facing any repercussions or punishment for it, these people are all over Cambodia and still have the same guns and explosives they were given when they were recruited to kill. Unpunished and allowed to live freely after countless murders, these men and women are but a small part of a large group of armed and dangerous killers Cambodia is full of. Regardless of whether you believe those who say that Cambodia is safe or those who say that Cambodia is dangerous, by visiting Cambodia you will be entering a country where Khmer Rouge murderers roam freely, equipped with uncontrolled and regulated military grade weapons. Instead of believing one side or another, draw your own conclusions based on facts. Take a close look at the type of people who make up much of the society and the picture should be quite clear.
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