Since Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a socialist country ruled by a single party communist government, it’s natural for many westerners to question whether the country is safe to visit. Hidden behind the veil of secrecy, Laos was off limits to westerners for many a decade leaving an impression that internal affairs, which were not watched by international communities could have created a potentially hostile environment that’s risky to enter. Yet despite what you may have thought, Laos is one of the safest countries to visit with people as peaceful and friendly as they get.
When it comes to personal safety, Laos is at the opposite end of the scale from Cambodia. History of Cambodia is riddled with violence and other than a few rarities, the country remains the epitome of violence to this day. The history of Laos on the other hand is the history of peace and other than a few rarities, the nation remains peaceful to this day. It’s astounding how countries that are geographically so close to each other can be so different in terms of personal safety and the way people treat one another. Since I had spent quite some time in Cambodia before coming to Laos, it gave me a chance to compare safety in both countries. Let me clarify how safe to visit Laos is by comparing it to Cambodia.
Laos vs. Cambodia
Having arrived in Laos from Cambodia, a country where violence and scam are part of everyday life, entering into a society where everyday life is highlighted by peace and friendliness felt like when the blood starts flowing again into a limb that was choked off by a tight rope. Fake smiles used as a disguise for shady purposes so typical of Cambodians were gone and all I could see were genuine, inviting smiles full of warmth and honour.
After Cambodia, Laos was a breath of fresh air that made me question (again) why I had wasted so much of my time and money on that country. I felt the same breath of fresh air when I left Cambodia for Vietnam, and when I crossed over through Cambodia to Thailand.
Fool me once, shame on you but fool me twice, shame on me. For some reason, I allowed Cambodia to fool me thrice but with each eye opener, with each new country I have visited after Cambodia, it became apparent that the world is an inviting and friendly place, but as with everything, there always is an exception to the rule. For a worldwide traveller looking for a safe and enjoyable place, based on my experience, that exception is Cambodia. I have been through all of Europe except from Scandinavia (excluding Iceland), all of North and Central America including the islands of the Caribbean, all of South East Asia and some of the rest of Asian continent (adding more to the list by the day), but Cambodia remains the only country out of all I have visited in which I had to fear for my life.
Global Peace Index
According to the 2010 Global Peace Index, Lao People’s Democratic Republic is the 34th most peaceful country in the world. Out of the rest of South East Asia, only Malaysia and Singapore ranked higher than Laos sending clear signal that Laos is a safe country to live in and safe country to visit. For comparison, according to the Global Peace Index, Cambodia ranked as the 111th most peaceful country in the world, which basically confirms that it’s one of world’s most violent ones.
Laos is Safe, But…
While I have never experienced anything even remotely close to being in danger and found all Laotians to be friendly and non violent people (even after walking through the dark streets and remote areas at night), I understand that as recently as 2007 there was a major problem with banditry in some areas of Laos. Particularly the road between the nation’s capital Vientiane and a popular tourist trap, a UNESCO world heritage site Luang Prabag was said to have been targeted by armed groups attacking buses with tourists. This has allegedly been taken care of by the government and banditry in that area is allegedly no longer a problem (I have taken that ride by bus myself and nothing extraordinary happened throughout the course). So even though most Laotians are non violent, non confrontational people, there certainly is a history of illegal activities sometimes involving robberies and killings. Never take your personal safety for granted and always take precautions against becoming a victim, even in otherwise very safe countries like Laos.
Unexploded Ordinance and Landmines
Landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) are also a problem in some areas of Laos (especially in the north, close to the border with Vietnam) and account for more than 300 deaths a year. While landmines are not as common as in Cambodia, considering the amount of bombs dropped on Laos by the USA, travel through remote areas could lead you to unexploded bombs waiting around for someone to poke at them. It’s smart to stick with well-worn paths when hiking in these areas and never enter places marked with minefield warning signs. But most of all, if you do spot something that resembles a bomb casing, don’t try to find out whether it’s still unexploded or not. Don’t go near it, do not ever touch it and notify local authorities about the location.
One of the reasons why Cambodia has grown to become a popular tourist trap is because it’s cheap. At least that’s what most people who visited the country claim. But let’s take a closer look at some undisputed facts before we jump into conclusion and find a more reliable answer to how cheap Cambodia really is (or whether it is cheap at all).
Is Cambodia Cheap?
Let me get ahead of myself and say it right up without beating around the bush – Cambodia is NOT cheap. Just because most visitors are able to spend less money in Cambodia than they would have in, say Canada, the United States or Germany, it doesn’t mean that Cambodia is cheap. As a matter of fact, vast majority of articles for sale in Cambodia are more expensive than in any of the three mentioned countries (or elsewhere in the world). Since no serious manufacturer would open a plant in a country like Cambodia, where quality of workmanship is so low and work ethic nonexistent, very little is manufactured there. As a result, most items of everyday use must be imported from abroad. Personal hygiene products are a good example. Thinking you could buy a tub of Colgate tooth paste for cheap in Cambodia would set you up for a big surprise.
Similarly, good luck trying to buy a Snickers bar for a price similar to that in western countries. Yet don’t even get me started on electronics or motor vehicles. Check out the classified ads for prices of overused, 30 year old beaters. They sell for the price of brand new sedans in Canada. Electronics? Thinking of replacing that broken camera that was stolen while you were visiting Cambodia? Prepare to shell out on average 40% more than you would in your home country.
Genuine Products in Cambodia
But that’s only the beginning. If you buy a camera from a retailer in a western country, you can be pretty sure you are buying a genuine product and you will get a reasonable customer service (sometimes even a time-limited no questions asked money back guarantee) should the product not perform to your expectations. Not only are these unheard of in Cambodia where similar product would cost much more, you would have to consider yourself blessed if you lucked out enough to obtain a genuine product for your money. And if the casing is genuine, than at least some parts of what you buy will be stripped off and replaced with cheap, generic substitutes. That’s real Cambodia so really – it’s not cheap there. The perceived cheapness most people experience is just a skewed reality that camouflages itself as cheapness, but in reality it’s not.
$2 Burger in Cambodia vs $6 Burger in Canada
Since I’m from Canada, the best way for me to compare products available in Cambodia is with those available in Canada. The example below can be used for any other western country, just replace “Canada” with the name of your home country and you’ll get the desired result.
Let’s say (for illustration purposes) a burger in Canada costs $6. Then you come to Cambodia and find them selling burgers for $2. An average person who buys that $2 burger in Cambodia would end up writing a blog post, or telling their friends that Cambodia is cheap. But I’m not your average person. I like to disclose the whole truth to my friends and readers of my blog, not just the convenient part, so let me break the cost of each burger down a little:
Cost of Hygiene
In Canada, even though the burger is perceived as more expensive, you get certain guarantee of hygiene and freshness. If nothing else, at least before a license to handle food is granted, some form of inspection of premises is made (and can be done later on as well). You don’t have anything like that in Cambodia. Burgers can be sold out of a self made push-cart that’s parked with the swine overnight before it’s taken out to carry food. In conclusion:
guarantee of hygiene in Canada – some
guarantee of hygiene in Cambodia – none
Cost of Safe Ingredients
In countries like Canada, internationally recognized standards and principles are followed to ensure that the food safety requirements are met. The body that’s responsible for the enforcement of these rules is called the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Before any edibles can be offers for sale, they must first be approved for sale by the CFIA.
It’s important to acknowledge that it is a dog eat dog world out there and everything seems to be about profits nowadays, yet still at least there are some institutions that would remove suspicious lines from shelves of grocery stores if there was a reason to believe they posed a health hazard to the public. This has happened many times and will continue to happen even if it means that the removal of products will push the company that provided them to the retailers to the brink of bankruptcy. Producers know it very well so food safety controls are rather rigorous. In conclusion:
guarantee of freshness and safety of food in Canada – some
guarantee of freshness and safety of food in Cambodia – none
Cost of Decent Service
The burger itself is merely a part of your experience buying it. In order to have it freshly made so you can munch on it, you must first order it with the server. And here’s where the real difference of a burger in Canada vs a burger in Cambodia comes to place.
Ordering a burger in Cambodia (or anything else for that matter), will undoubtedly require you to have to deal with a Cambodian national and that won’t go without a need to put up with their laziness, attitude and rudeness.
Ordering a burger in Canada requires an interaction with a server who – whether genuinely or by pretense – will usually be nice and respectful to you. This is a western way of life where customer is seen as a person important to success of a business so staff know they need to treat them with respect and dignity or the business fails. There are mood swings and other variables that can make the experience questionable, but for the most part, dealing with business attendants usually results in fair and dignified treatment. You pay $$$ for it, but you get it.
In Cambodia, on the other hand, you can get your burger for $2, but you will be served by a rude local who takes you for a pest. You will have to deal with their slowness as they scrape their feet against the floor pissed off that they have to serve you, you will have to deal with them barking at you if anything is unclear and you request clarification, you will have to put up with them laughing at you and not hiding that they are talking about you while they’re having themselves a good time at your expense and you will have nothing on your side to prevent that from happening.
Cambodians are very rude in general and nothing makes them happier than misfortune of another. This is true of all of them, including the monks. Even a monk will laugh his ass off at you if you bought a bus ticket with a dedicated seat and the seat is taken by somebody else even though it should belong to you. But then again, just because someone shaves their head and puts on a saffron robe, it doesn’t mean they become any less of a Cambodian. Afterall, Cambodians don’t get ordained for monks out of sheer interest to become a better person and do good. That’s not why they do it. They become monks when there are benefits for them in doing so – for example if becoming a monk will save them from going to jail or if it provides them with free education. But as soon as it becomes clear than the benefits of being a monk are over and leaving monkhood would be of more benefit, you’ll see them gone and back being their usual selves.
Cost of Customer Service
Shopping in Canada comes with some customer service. If you have any form of post purchase issue or complaint, there usually is a dedicated customer service representative, a manager on site, or if all else fails, at least bodies like the Better Business Bureau. Once money is spent, you still can often get either a replacement or a refund should something be wrong with the product purchased.
In Cambodia, once money is spent, consider it final. There is no accountability whatsoever. You pay for a silver pendant and find out it’s just some cheap metal – tough luck. Not only will there be no one to take care of the issue for you, you will be laughed at, mocked, pointed fingers at and threatened if you try to stand up for yourself.
I learned all about Cambodian customer service after my cell phone was stolen. I called Metfone’s customer service in a bid to cancel the number that went with the stolen cell phone. Since thieves got my phone, I at least wanted to make sure they couldn’t take advantage of the credit I had on the SIM card. But dealing with Metfone’s customer support revealed the true face of Cambodia.
Not only is calling Metfone customer service from Metfone phone numbers a paid call, their representatives are typical Cambodians – rude, self righteous bastards with holier than thou attitudes. Basically, after hours of wasting money being put on hold and passed from one person to another, I was told that everything was my fault for not paying attention, that they’re not there to take care of such requests and was called names for bothering them with this bullsh1t.
Cost of Enjoyable Experience
Let me get back to those burgers. One of the most important differences is that even though you would have spent $6 for your burger in Canada, you could sit in a facility where you could enjoy your bite without someone blowing smoke in your face, chewing with their mouth open so the leaves fall off the trees it’s so loud and disgusting, or being bothered to no end by beggars ready and willing to tell you to “f%$k off” or call you “stingy” if you refuse to give them money while they’re turning your dining experience into a nightmare.
Which Burger Was Cheaper?
Yes, you did need less money to buy a burger in Cambodia than you would in Canada, but it was not cheap. If you look closely at what you’re getting and how much you sacrificed and put at risk (including your health which will catch up with you one day, whether you like it or not), you did in fact overpay by shelling out those two bucks.
Cambodia is NOT Cheap
Cambodia is by no stretch of imagination a cheap country. Considering what you receive for your money, it is in fact ridiculously expensive. If you were to sacrifice all the good things Canada protects you as a consumer with, you could live in Canada for less than in Cambodia. Go sleep in a ditch with rats in a really dangerous part of a ghetto, eat filthy leftovers dumped in the bins by spoiled kids and you’ll see that Canada is really cheaper than Cambodia.
Why Is Cambodia Perceived as Cheap?
It is only because some people lower their standards of acceptance and willingly put their personal safety and health at risk that they are able to stay in Cambodia and spend less money than they would in their home country. And then they go around telling everyone that Cambodia is cheap, while conveniently leaving out the details of why exactly it seemed cheap.
One more time – if you take into account what you get for your money, Cambodia is a bad, bad value for money and an overall expensive country. Unless of course you take personal abuse, health hazards and endangerment of life as acceptable standards. Then it is cheap but that way it can be cheap in any country, including Canada.
The best and the only way to avoid the mistreatment Cambodia greets visitors with is by not going to Cambodia. Khmer temples can be visited in other countries (such as Thailand or Laos) and outside of that, by giving Cambodia a pass, you won’t be missing out on much.
Scamming foreigners by selling them worthless counterfeit products is a very common and widely practised way to profit. While in most cases it would mean the loss of money, Cambodians push this a whole flight of steps further and won’t wink over potentially killing someone if it leads to easy income. For example, Cambodia is a global leader in sales of fake malaria pills, and that’s a serious threat to health that could easily lead to death. Imagine you’d buy the malaria pills in Cambodia and thinking you are protected, you’d go exploring Angkor Temples and get bitten… I can’t stress this strongly enough – stock up on everything you’ll need before coming to Cambodia and never leave purchases of anything that could affect your health or life for Cambodia. Ever!
Cambodians don’t believe in earning a living through hard work. They either want handouts or easy income through scam or theft. I said it many times before and will say it again – you can’t be 100% alert 100% of the time. Sooner or later, after a long tiring day you’ll let your guards down for a second and with dozens of con artists hanging around waiting for that opportune moment, one is bound to notice and take advantage. This will make your stay in an already expensive country even more costly and as it turns out, of all the people with whom I spoke (and who comment on my posts), virtually everybody had something stolen in Cambodia. A lifetime commitment to thievery makes them very skilled thieves. They also work in teams and know how to distract an unsuspecting tourist to make the pull successful. The only safe way to avoid it is by not going to Cambodia at all. By taking a risk and going you stand a very solid chance of becoming a victim. You have been warned!
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.
Considering how crime ridden Cambodia really is, it’s hard to imagine that tourists and expats could be exposed to a danger that’s far more serious than violent crime. Yet it’s true. Traffic safety issues are so severe in Cambodia, they put country’s violent crime to shame. And that’s something that’s not to be taken lightly. Afterall, Cambodia is one of the most violent countries in the world, a country in which mob killings and political violence gain epic proportions. Just imagine how dangerous Cambodia’s traffic must be if it’s even deadlier than their ongoing genocide.
One of the reasons contributing to an extremely dangerous traffic situation in Cambodia are unqualified and uneducated drivers. Thousands of motorcycles are operated by children as young as 10 years old. Proper driver’s education doesn’t exist in Cambodia and since traffic laws are both non existent and not enforced, nobody even tries to get educated and become a safe driver.
Cambodian Traffic Laws
There allegedly are some traffic laws in Cambodia but the enforcement is not a priority of the government which is too focused on securing their position by removing everyone in their path. The police occasionally go out to give fines – when they need an extra cash in their own pockets – but that doesn’t mean anyone in Cambodia gives a crap about the rules. They like to fine foreigners because foreigners don’t know regular traffic fines are about 3,000 Riel (roughly $0.75) and ask for $20 or so. If it ever happens to you, make sure you request a “sombot” which is a Khmer word for “receipt”. Traffic infractions in Cambodia have fixed fines so asking for a receipt may prevent the police from extorting outrageous amounts of money from you.
Speaking of traffic laws – at the time of this post, there has been no traffic law in Cambodia outlawing drunk driving. Not surprisingly, DUI is one of the main reasons for grisly ends to many traffic accidents.
What Side Do Cambodians Drive On?
Officially, Cambodians should drive on the right – same as in the USA, Canada or mainland Europe, but as with other traffic regulations, this requirement is not enforced and is as such completely ignored. You will have all sorts of vehicles coming at you from all sides, joining the traffic by riding in opposite direction, reversing into the traffic, ignoring red lights or stop signs, never ever yielding to anyone whose vehicle is smaller than theirs. The video below contains a footage of a motorcyclist riding in the opposite direction and a Cambodian cop being a complete waste of space:
Cambodian traffic situation can best be described as a complete traffic anarchy. Nobody follows any rules, everybody does what the hell they want even though nobody actually knows what the hell they are doing. And as could be expected from an anarchy – the bigger a vehicle you drive, the more arrogant you get while on the road. As it is with carrying and flashing guns, driving and purposefully oppressing all other traffic participants, including the pedestrians is nothing more than an attempt to compensate for inadequacies and insecurities.
As soon as Cambodians get off their vehicles, they become pedestrians and will have to dodge all the vehicles which will never make any attempt to slow down or stir away for someone smaller in size. Hence when they get back in their vehicle, the feeling of being oppressed goes away and now it’s them who become the oppressors. The full circle gets closed.
There are a few pedestrian crossings (zebras) here and there on the roads with busy traffic to presumably allow the pedestrians to cross the street. I don’t know who came with an idea of painting the zebras on the road as it’s been nothing but a complete and utter waste of paint. As a pedestrian, you can wait as long as you want for someone to stop and let you cross – afterall you are on a cross walk – but no one ever will. Ever. No Cambodian will ever stop for a pedestrian. Not even in your wildest dream. They need to compensate for their insecurities and yielding to a pedestrian when you are on a motorcycle or inside a car simply diminishes their egos.
I first noticed the inability to cross the street on my first ever walk through Siem Reap right after I had landed in Cambodia. I stood at the pedestrian crossing for a good while, I stepped down on the road to make it absolutely clear that I am intending to cross the road on that cross walk, I even made a step forward in an attempt to move across thinking that once I start moving along the zebra, the drivers would stop but even though everyone could see me, nobody stopped. As a matter of fact, nobody even as little as slowed down. Not a slightest attempt to allow me to get through. Complete arrogance and ignorance which was also doubled by local’s mean-spirited nature who had a good laugh watching me stuck, unable to cross because nobody would respect the crosswalk.
Shockingly, as if no respect towards pedestrians by the drivers was not enough, Cambodians also like to park their cars and motorcycles on the sidewalks making it impossible to use them for walking. As a pedestrian, you will spend more time walking on the roads, than on the sidewalks because sidewalks are simply blocked off by rudely parked vehicles of all sorts. But then by having to walk on the road you will be subjected to rude, disrespectful drivers and moto riders swerving through the traffic from all directions, putting you directly in harm’s way.
The danger doesn’t stop there, though. Remember those cars and motorcycles parked all over the sidewalks preventing you from walking somewhat separated from extremely dangerous roads? Well, with so many vehicles blocking up the sidewalk, every time you go for a walk, you will have dozens of them backing off into the traffic on the road, literally reversing right into you, who has to walk along the side of the road because sidewalks are blocked off. Nobody will wink an eye if a pedestrian or a bicyclist is behind them, they will continue reversing, until they either ran you over, or you jumped off to save your life.
The video below shows how sidewalks in Phnom Penh are full of rudely parked cars and motorcycles giving pedestrians absolutely no chance to walk separated from dangerous traffic on the roads:
Riding a Bicycle in Cambodia
Oh boy. I bought a mountain bike when I got to Cambodia to have my own, independent means of transportation and while it means slightly more respect than walking, it surely doesn’t raise it by much. You get buses plowing it down the middle of the narrow road at full speed with zero respect for bicycles. Unwilling to stick to their side of the road, as a bicyclist you are left with mere inches of room and a choice to make – do I kill myself by throwing myself into a ditch at full speed or by staying on the road to let the gust of air created by the speeding bus throw me there?
Unlike it is in Vietnam, when you take a moto ride in Cambodia, the driver will not provide you with a helmet. That slaps the whole road safety right in the face and makes you extremely prone to serious injury. While it is allegedly required by the law for the drivers to wear a helmet, not everybody does and if they do, they are the only ones on the motorcycle wearing one.
You will see entire families, sometimes with as many as 7 members packed up on a scooter whistling away down the muddy roads. For the most part, there is either nobody with a helmet on it, or only the driver has one, the other passengers are without. It’s a massacre in the making.
Cambodians love honking horns. It has everything to do with compensating for their insecurities. Once they sit behind the wheel of a vehicle, they feel empowered and spend their entire time honking horns to let everyone know they are coming. Whether there is a reason to honk a horn or not, they do. The blaring of horns is a constant on Cambodian roads. Check out the horn crazy Cambodians in a video below:
Cambodia’s traffic safety issues are a serious threat to the safety of tourists visiting the country. While Cambodia is exceptionally dangerous for tourists because of its out of control crime, vast majority of tourists stays out of crime’s way by using organized tours and not venturing off the beaten touristy tracks and places. However, even if you’re one of the many who will be spared from becoming victims of Cambodian violent culture, you will not be able to avoid the dangers of Cambodia’s traffic. A combination of drunk driving, speeding and lack of safety helmets, doubled with severe disrespect for other traffic participants with nobody following any traffic rules makes Cambodian roads the most dangerous place you could find yourself in.