Siem Reap is the main tourist hub of Cambodia. Vast majority of foreigners who visit the country go there to see the ancient temples of Angkor and Siem Reap is where they stay and spend most of their time while they’re at it. Since violent crime in Cambodia can be a serious issue, it is perfectly legitimate to be concerned about personal safety while staying in town. Is Siem Reap safe for visitors or not? Let’s take a look at it:
It is understandable that Siem Reap is a major cash cow for the government of Cambodia. It starts with the purchase of the visa most foreigners who just wish to visit the Angkor Archaeological Park need to buy, takes a whole new level with payment of Angkor entrance fees and continues through fees (and bribes) paid by tuk tuk drivers, guides, tour operators and other “service” providers for the privilege to conduct business in this lucrative area.
With Angkor being such a massive money maker, Cambodian government certainly has the foremost interest to ensure nothing too newsworthy (like hostage taking and murder of a 3 year old Canadian boy in 2005) happens to a foreigner during their stay in Siem Reap. Increased police presence is the result. Luckily for visitors, the police stationed to patrol Siem Reap, including the tourist police the primary purpose of which is to assist foreigners in need of law enforcement, occasionally do what they are paid for. There have even been some cases of businesses being shut down and their owners/operators fined after foreigners complained because they were scammed (scamming happens more often than gets reported, but some foreigners do go through the hassle of reporting it and in some cases in delivered results).
This increased police presence throughout Siem Reap and Angkor area makes the whole Siem Reap province less dangerous than other Cambodian provinces. Rape is a serious problem all over Cambodia and I got to talk to many girls about it (victims who will never see justice being served) and found out that rape truly is less of a problem in the Siem Reap province than it is elsewhere in Cambodia. This allows the girls from Siem Reap to attend evening school classes and go home after dark without male escort.
Things are not as rosy in other Cambodian provinces where dusk brings the end to activities outside of the safety of people’s homes. However sometimes even your own four walls won’t protect you from sexual predators so groups of women who live together always have a male member of the family stay in a nearby house and available on the phone for those many days when someone is trying to break into their house for the score.
Heavy police presence throughout Siem Reap results in less dangerous environment not only for foreigners, but also for locals. Things do get sketchy after dark, though. When the sun goes down, the streets of Siem Reap get emptied out, except from the areas around Pub Street where most foreigners spend their evenings. The police patrol both ends of Pub Street with their bikes blocking entrances off to prevent vehicle access to the street that comes much alive at night.
Because this is where vast majority of foreigners visiting Cambodia spend most of their time, they come and go unharmed, believing that Cambodia is a safe country. Make no mistake, though – Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can be considered a safe country, but Siem Reap, despite not being entirely safe presents few dangers to an average visitor.
One good way to look at how dangerous Siem Reap really is would be by comparing it to Luang Prabang in neighbouring Laos. Luang Prabang is also a heavily touristed place, overrun with foreigners on any given day, with virtually every house on each of the downtown streets being either a guesthouse, a restaurant or some form of an office providing overpriced, pre-packaged tours. Yet even though it’s so heavily touristed, you won’t see any increased police presence there. Tourists wander the streets of Luang Prabang safely in the middle of the night, single woman walking down empty streets long after sunset, yet you won’t get any locals staring you down or throwing verbal remarks your way like it is in Siem Reap. Yet while you’re in Luang Prabang, there would be absolutely no police anywhere in vicinity.
I spent one week in Luang Prabang, exploring it back and forth, starting on some days at 5.30am and staying up on others until well after midnight. While thoroughly enjoying the street life of Luang Prabang on my own, I have not seen one police officer there. If you think about it, the government would only consider stationing more police officers in an area if locals pose a significant threat to the safety of foreigners who flock there with their hard currency. Since Lao people appreciate and value foreigners for who they are and what they mean to their economy, there is little need to police their actions. Draw your own conclusion about why Cambodian government spends extra money to have extra police in Siem Reap.