This was my second day at Angkor Archaeological Park, but I have already noticed several people with disposable cameras. I could not help but wonder what in the mighty heavens they were thinking – flying all the way to Cambodia to see Angkor temples and bringing only a measly disposable camera with them? It made no sense. But then while I was at Ta Prohm, I was approached by a couple of girls who asked me if I would take a picture of them in front of that picturesque spot with blind door where massive tree roots grow over the structure and a brief conversation with them made it all clear. They handed me a disposable camera so I got an opportunity to strike a conversation and ask why they would come all the way to Angkor without bringing some kind of decent device to capture their memories on.
Given that at this time I have already been in Cambodia for a little over a week, I should really have known without asking. I already had a thief attempt to steal my bicycle but I had my guardian angel on duty that night so he only got away with stolen keys from the bicycle chain lock. I had to carry the bike on my shoulder to the shop to have the lock cut and get a new one, but at least I still had the bike. Theft problem is very prominent in Cambodia (as are other forms of crime) so the real reason why I saw so many people with disposable cameras at Angkor should have really been clear to me straight of the bat but for some reason I needed a heads up from those girls as a slap on the forehead. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Where are you guys from? Girls: Denmark. Me: Beautiful country, continuously ranking as #1 country with the highest standard of living in the world. But why would you come all the way to Angkor, from Denmark and bring nothing but a disposable camera with you? Girls: We had nice cameras, but they were stolen along with our money and passports in Phnom Penh.
Oops! How could I have possibly not figured that out without asking? While Cambodia is not the only country in the world with theft problem, the number of Cambodian thieves on the loose looking for a foreigner who’s had a long day and is too tired to stay fully alert is staggering. After the experience with the Danish girls, each time I saw a person or a group of people with a disposable camera at Angkor, I didn’t go to ask why, I went straight to have the suspicion of theft confirmed.
Since I spent virtually every day of the rest of my stay in Cambodia at the Banteay Kdei temple and the Sras Srang moat, I had a chance to meet and speak with hundreds of Angkor visiting foreigners every day. The numbers of those who were victims of theft were alarming. You could see the sadness and horror in their eyes. You could see they only came to Angkor because they already had the ticket, but they could not wait to get the hell out of Cambodia before something more serious happens.
The stories of how it all went down varied, but the outcome was the same. Devastated individuals, couples and families who will definitely never consider coming to Cambodia again and I don’t blame them. Out of hundreds of people who had their cameras and other effects stolen, there was only one couple who didn’t think they were victims of theft. They told me they’d forgotten their camera on the table of the restaurant where they had eaten that day.
The couple realized they were missing the camera shortly after leaving the restaurant. Being new to Cambodia, they didn’t suspect any foul play and simply thought they must have left it on the table. They returned to the restaurant hastily, but the camera was not there. I asked them if they glanced over the table the way people do before leaving the restaurant and they both said they did but thought that the camera just didn’t stand out among the plates and silverware scattered across so they missed the sight of it and left without picking it up.
What really happened to them is hard to know for sure at this point. The only person who would know for sure is the one who took it. While dining, the couple was approached and bothered by several pestering touts who approached them in an attempt to sell them postcards, bracelets and other stuff Cambodian touts sell. Whether somebody saw a camera on the table and stole it while they were still there, or whether it was taken by someone after they’d left leaving the camera on the table is truly irrelevant, though. Honesty and will to help another are not traits commonly found among Cambodians. Greed and malice, on the other hand are omnipresent.
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.
We drove a kilometer or two east of San Pedro de Macoris to get to a place where the girl who looks exactly like the one I described as thief of my laptop lived. The guy who knew her got off the car and went to ring the bell of the house. When he came back he said the girl was not at home. Her parents opened and told him that she left for Santo Domingo on Friday evening and has not returned yet. This information alone was a hit on the head of the nail. Friday evening is exactly when I picked up a girl who was hitch-hiking to get to Santo Domingo. Pieces of puzzle started to fall into each other and offer bigger picture. According to the boy, this girl looked exactly the way I have described and according to her parents, she left for Santo Domingo exactly on the day and at that time when I picked up the thief. This sounded just like the suspect I was after. My investigation was yielding some results, which was giving me hope that I could eventually recover my stolen laptop. And since Dominican police care less about investigating, I had to do it myself.
A visit to suspect’s house didn’t bring me closer to my laptop, but it suggested that things are moving in the right direction. We have returned back to the traffic circle to drop off that guy and I asked Domingo if he’d be interested in going to grab a beer with me. I was so stressed out as result of my stolen laptop I really needed a cold one. Domingo said he had a wife at home waiting for him, but he could do one beer. I really grew to like Domingo. He was a sincere guy, nothing like the thief who stole my laptop. His actions, his words, his eyes – none were lying. He was a sincerely good guy who felt really sorry for me and was willing to try to help regardless of reward. I lost near all hope in the Dominican Republic after this theft, and here I found a friend with whom I felt comfortable and didn’t have to worry about being robbed again. I was glad he accepted my invitation to go for a beer.
As I was done talking to Domingo, we went across the street to talk to the guys who were at the spot where I picked up a hitch-hiker who stole my laptop. Since these boys are there every day, they were the ones most likely to match the description of the thief with an actual person. Domingo was always by my side interpreting from English to Spanish and vice versa making everything go smoothly. When he translated my offer that I would pay a $1,000 reward for information that would lead to recovery of my stolen laptop, I noticed that the eyes of those guys instantly popped and their ears were listening faster than Domingo was able to speak.
I made it absolutely clear that I wanted my laptop back and was able and willing to pay a reward to a person who could get it back for me. $1,000 reward may not seem like a big deal to most western people, but it is a huge chunk of money in the Dominican Republic. It was clear that if I am able and willing to pay such reward, the Dominicans will instantly be able and willing to go out of their way to deserve it. I once again went through thorough description of the thief making my best to give as much information as I could recall, even though as a driver I kept my eyes locked on the road, not on my passenger so my memory of what she looked like is very sparse. Afterall, I am a responsible driver who realizes that my own safety as well as safety of all other people aboard are in my hands and I don’t take that lightly. Unfortunately, because of that I did not gawk at the thief so there were only sparse details.
Several key points I have mentioned instantly rang the bell of one of the boys from the area who said he knew who the girl was and knew where she lived. He said he remembered her because she comes here hitch-hiking for Santo Domingo often and spoke to her on several occasions. As somewhat friend, he knew her family and address so we got in the car and drove to where he said she lived. The reward I offered for recovery of my stolen laptop was a massive motivator so these boys were on their tiptoes to find the way to recover my laptop. Off we went to the house of potential thief.
I got to San Pedro de Macoris the following day just before dusk. I made my way to the traffic circle where I previously picked up the hitch-hiker who stole my laptop and parked the car at the opposite side of the road so I have good visibility of the spot where she was standing to hitch a ride but so I am not visible from that spot. San Pedro is the city of more than 200,000 people and this traffic circle marks the beginning of the highway leading to the Dominican capital Santo Domingo so traffic was quite busy and many people passed around. I noticed a great number of young males on motorcycles swishing up and down the streets. Dominicans seem to come out of their houses this time of day, perhaps as it’s after work and there isn’t anything better to do so they meet up to kill time after dark.
I was sitting inside of my rental car while keeping my eyes locked on the spot where hitch-hikers stand to see if I can spot the one who stole my laptop. At the time there were two people standing there, but the thief was not one of them. As time went by, my presence was noticed by one of those young men who swish around on old motorcycles and curiosity got the best of him, so he pulled over by my door and stared inside. I rolled window down and asked him if he spoke any English. He didn’t but said he had a friend who did. Few minutes later he was back with a girl on her own motorcycle. She spoke a little bit of English so I started talking to her but her understanding was very basic so she wasn’t able to follow. Seeing that I had something important to say, she said she knew an English teacher and told me he was gonna be here in about 10 minutes. So I waited.
Sure enough, a little while later a group comes back on motorcycles with a new young man among them. He opens the door and I ask him whether he speaks English. He said in quite clean and unaffected English: “More or less!” This was my man. I asked him if he would like to take a sit on the passenger’s seat, claiming that I had something important to say and needed his help, but had a reward for a person who could help me. Young man took a seat and introduced himself as Domingo.
Domingo teaches English at a college in San Pedro. He has a very sincere voice and eyes and his English was better than just “more or less”. He was the best English speaking Dominican I have ever met and that meant there were no obstacles in how I needed to express myself which made everything easier. Domingo listened carefully and with interest and when I told him everything about what happened and how my laptop got stolen, including the plea that I would pay $1,000 to anyone who can get me my laptop back, he said we were going to go across the street right on the spot where I picked up the hitch-hiker who stole my laptop to talk to the guys who are there. Domingo said that these guys are there every day as this is their bread. They organize buses and gua-guas (cheap but not very comfortable form of transportation in the Dominican Republic) and help travelers with bags for which they get a few pesos to help them get by.
This was it. My intentions to trace my stolen laptop with my own devices was off to a good start. Finding someone who speaks good English in the Dominican Republic is a tough task. Doing it in a town like San Pedro de Macoris which is not a tourist trap because it doesn’t have anything interesting for foreigners is even more difficult yet thanks to Domingo the English Teacher who learned to speak English on his own out of his own interest this became a no issue. I had a person to help me communicate with others despite my non ability to speak Spanish. The first, very important step on my way to trace the whereabouts of my stolen laptops and/or the person who did it went down smoothly and made everything that went down from this point on so much easier. Domingo the English teacher was the best thing in whole of the Dominican Republic.
I have only been in the Dominican Republic for a day when my laptop was stolen. I had a whole week ahead of me and as I realized how much of a loss I was looking at, there was no way I could possibly enjoy my time in the country. Stolen laptop is not only about stolen monetary value. Stolen laptop also means stolen documents, stolen photos, stolen videos, stolen contacts, stolen financial institution informations, stolen traces of personal and professional life. Laptops bear lots of important data, including personally identifiable information and saved passwords that can be used for identity theft. I also had my digital SLR camera with expensive lenses with me. Had the thief stolen my camera, the financial loss would be greater, but my grief would be lesser as camera doesn’t bear such important data. Wide angle lens I had mounted on my Canon is worth twice as much as this laptop, even though it’s one of the best that was available at the time of purchase in mid 2009, yet it would be way lesser a loss if this lens along with the camera was stolen instead of a laptop. With laptop gone, all of my memories I had in pictures were gone, all of my emails I sent or received up until January 15, 2010 were gone, all of the work I was working on was gone – so much of it gone I can’t even begin to express my sadness and desperation.
Since it became clear that the Dominican police won’t do anything about the theft and since there was no way I could enjoy the rest of my stay after this horrible experience in the Dominican Republic, I have decided to initiate my own stolen laptop trace. It only made sense – if I could make it to Canada, I would be able to use other computers available to me there and take care of everything that needs to be taken care of since my laptop is gone, but I would be away from the Dominican Republic where nobody will do anything to recover my laptop. So I decided to try to use the time I had still in the country where my stolen laptop was located to launch my own investigation and do my own stolen laptop trace.
The first thing I did was going back to San Pedro de Macoris – a town where I picked the hitch-hiker up. Santo Domingo where I dropped her off after she stole my laptop was irrelevant as it was not a viable lead. She obviously asked to get dropped off as soon as she had the laptop safely in her bag to not risk spending any more time in car with me in case I notice that laptop is gone while she’s still there with laptop inside her bag. She clearly needed to get off my car right after she made the pull, hence the drop off location means nothing and is related to nothing about the thief. However the pick up location is definitely related to her in some close way.
She was hitch-hiking at the beginning of the highway to Santo Domingo in San Pedro de Macoris on Friday evening after dark. That could mean that she either lives in San Pedro and wanted to go to Santo Domingo for the weekend, or works in San Pedro and wanted to go home after work. Other options were possible, but I was certain that either of the two were the most likely ones. If she needed a lift from San Pedro to Santo Domingo once, she may need it again and have probably done it a few times in the past. Keeping an eye on the area close to the traffic circle where she flagged me down, especially at around the same time when I picked her up could get me some leads that may help trace my stolen laptop down.
Furthermore – I have decided to utilize the fact that almighty Dollar has a lot of power in the Dominican Republic and use it to my advantage. The plan was to find local thugs where at least one of them speaks English so I can safely deliver my message to them and offer them reward for information on a woman that matches my description. I would also promise them high payout for any information that would lead to recovery of my stolen laptop. To make it simple, I decided to give $1,000 reward to a person who gets me my laptop back. $1,000 is a lot of money in the Dominican Republic and such reward would definitely motivate people of all walks of life. Especially since what I’m asking for doesn’t require involvement in any criminal activity, such as delivery of drug packages. It only involves information or whatever other action may be needed to help recover stolen property. It’s an easy task for locals, it’s not a criminal activity and it involves high payout most of them will never collect in their whole lives. I thought this plan was gonna reap response and so it did.
This is an exact location of where I picked the laptop thief up on a navigable Google map:
As soon as I have realized that I just had my laptop stolen by a hitch-hiker, I drove back to the area where I dropped her off and desperately cruised around to see if I can spot her somewhere. It was clear that she is in no way related to this area. This wasn’t her destination, this was simply where we were at the time she made successful pull and moved my laptop from the rear seat into her bag. Once the laptop was in her bag, she obviously needed to get off the car immediately to make sure she’s gone before I can notice anything. I tried to see if I can spot her but it didn’t work. After such successful pull, she had likely got into first available cab and had herself driven away – anywhere but here. Trying to find her now was futile. Next stop – reporting this crime to the Dominican Republic police.
They have two types of police in the Dominican Republic – one is National Police (Policia Nacional) which deals with all internal affairs involving local Dominicans and then there is Politur which is the police especially dedicated to serving the tourists. Politur officers speak at least one foreign language to make it easier for foreigners to report crime, because Policia Nacional officers only speak Spanish so as a foreigner, unless you can speak it too, you won’t get very far. Politur was the response of the Dominican government to attract more tourists and give an impression that Dominican Republic has it taken care of so foreigners can feel safe. Unfortunately, existence of Politur changes nothing on the fact that so many Dominicans are criminals who don’t hesitate to steal from you even if you are helping them.
I was in Santo Domingo – capital city of the Dominican Republic. I drove up and down the main highway that goes across the city to see if I can either spot a Politur officer or their office but no luck. I tried to ask several people but everyone was completely useless. After more than an hour spent trying to report the crime to the Politur I eventually gave in and headed for the Policia Nacional head office which had a sign pointing towards it from the main highway.
It was already almost midnight. I parked my rental car just outside of the National Police headquarters where an armed officer guarded the gate. I pointed in to let him know that I need to see the officer inside to report the crime. There were three officers in main hall but none of them spoke English. One of them asked me if I had “passporte” which I could make out despite my lack of Spanish skills so I headed back to the car to get it, since I didn’t have it on me.
As I was coming back with my passport, I was taken by one of the officers to another office in a small building standing separately from main palace. Two men were inside and as they found out I couldn’t speak any Spanish, they called upon their colleague from the room next door. I thought that since I was taken to this building and since they called an officer from another room that it was because he could speak English, but I was wrong.
As a foreigner, reporting crime to the National Police in the Dominican Republic is as difficult as rumors have it. There is little help from their part and you are constantly subjected to jokes on your behalf. They say things they know you can’t understand and have a good laugh clearly showing that they are laughing at you and you can’t do nothing about it. But at least I was reporting it.
I wrote on a piece of paper information that was in what I believed a universally understandable language. I used sign language to make it clear that it’s a laptop I’m talking about and that it was stolen by a hitch-hiker. I wrote serial number on the sheet, wrote where I picked said hitch-hiker up and where I dropped her off. I have included the name and model of stolen laptop, showed them what color it was by pointing at the object that was plain white and as I was trying to describe what a woman who stole it looked like, the police report was ready and was being printed out.
Obviously, National Police of the Dominican Republic knew they were gonna do absolutely nothing about this crime. I was there, so they filed a report, but they showed me clearly that once filed, it will be put on a shelf and never looked at or dealt with. They never wanted to know what the thief looked like or where I picked her up or dropped her off (this information, although provided was not added on the report – too much to type, you know).
All in all, even though National Police accepted me as a foreigner to report a crime with them, they did not show any intention to do anything about it and made me feel that I can forget about ever getting my laptop back. They would simply not do anything about it. Dominican Republic is the country full of thieves from the bottom of the barrel. Thieves who have no troubles stealing from people who help them out. And the police will do nothing about it, not even an attempt to make it look like they would try. What a country…
The serial number that appears on the report is incorrect. I had the original receipt from Future Shop where I bought the laptop in August of 2009 with me as I carry those in case there is a warranty claim and that’s the number that accompanied the brand and model names on the receipt. As I found out upon my return back home, this is not the serial number, but at the time it was the only number I had, since actual unit was stolen so I wasn’t able to just flip it up and look up the serial number that’s on it. What kind of random numbers Future Shop adds on their receipts is a mystery to me.
I was hoping there would be some rapid response from the police as I had reported the crime shortly after it was committed but this was the Dominican Republic I was in. Not only was there no interest from the police to attempt to do anything about tracing down the thief, they acted like nothing will ever get done about it now or in the future. I was defeated. Completely drained of all hope that there is some good in the Dominican Republic, I was faced with 7 more torturous days to spend in that country as my flight back to Canada where I could report the crime to actual police was not schedule until Thursday next week. I had the worst week of my life ahead of me and I had to spend it in a country that put me into this torturous position. And this was supposed to be a vacation for me where I was meant to recharge and unwind.