IS PHNOM PENH SAFE?
Phnom Penh has a bit of a dangerous reputation among travelers, even though most guidebooks tell us it is safer than it looks. No doubt, the place feels a bit unsafe upon a first visit. Is it?
At night, many of the city streets are dimly lit, and shadowy silhouetted figures gather on the street corners. I am accustomed to utilizing the same judgment I would in an American city- where dark, empty streets are suspicious alone after dark, especially with others loitering about. However, coming here from other Asian capitals, I am so accustomed to walking freely with little fear. Is Phnom Penh different?
Given the amount of guns and Cambodia, along with the discrepancy between the income of the locals and the value of a tourist’s backpack, it is a wonder that there is not actually more crime in Phnom Penh. Certainly, the kindness of local strangers and crowds of local people have a lot to do with this, as most Cambodians are hospitable and endlessly helpful to tourists. I have heard that thieves caught in the act are often beaten and killed by mobs that flock to help.
“Phnom Penh is not as dangerous as people imagine” – Lonely Planet
Websites such as Wikitravel and travel guides such as Lonely Planet seem to downplay the dangers of Phnom Penh, encouraging travelers to spend time exploring here. Many established expats, who are less likely to be victims of crime on the streets, as local thieves can generally distinguish them from tourists, might even ridicule you for questioning the city’s safety. I have personally seen a few western expats chastising some backpackers for avoiding Phnom Penh.
I feel this nonchalance towards crime here is misleading.
The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to quantify the true amount of crime in Phnom Penh. No one knows. The police may only investigate a reported crime with some payment from the victim, and they often cooperate with criminals to get items such as passports back to the traveling victim. One common occurrence is that the thieves report to the police that they have a passport to return their victim, and then the police meet with the thieves, while the victim waits nearby, to give the victim’s payment (maybe $40) as an exchange for the much-needed passport, which has little value to the thief. This exchange often puts the victim in the middle of another frightening situation.
Additionally, the Cambodian government has little incentive to be upfront about actual crime statistics, seeing astourism is now a necessity to its economy. Because of a lack of trust in police, Cambodia has one of the lowest rates of reporting crime to the police, with approximately half of all crime going reported. (http://rechten.uvt.nl/icvs/pdffiles/PhnomPenhSummary.PDF)
I have spent nearly two months in Cambodia on three separate visits. I have enjoyed about ten days in Phnom Penh, and though I have never been a victim, I have seen some uncomfortable situations. I have also met many reliable victims of crime who have told me their stories. By word-of-mouth, I feel it’s apparent that Phnom Penh is more dangerous than any other east Asian capital, with the possible exception of Ulaan Bataar (which I’ve never been).
Possibly the only method I have to assess the dangers of Phnom Penh may simply be word-of-mouth by speaking to other tourists.
Ready for some anecdotal evidence? I have met:
In Kampot, a young British woman who was ‘kidnapped’ in a Phnom Penh tuk tuk (additional thieves unexpectedly hopped in) during the daytime and forced to withdraw the maximum amounts allowed on her ATM card with threats of violence. She said she feared for her life, and I believed her
En route from Kampot to Phnom Penh, I met two young American women who had their bags stolen en route from the bus station to their guesthouses (in separate occasions)
One frightening night in a cheap hotel where I could hear screams in various rooms late at night. The hotel managers seemed to be aware of this, and I could not find a police station or an open internet café to direct me to a police station
One young Brit male who was nearly pulled off a motorbike when someone tried to snatch a bag he had secured in front of him (in the daytime). Had the bag been on his back, he could have been seriously injured.
Personally, after four years in Asia, I have been robbed once (Manila), but heard of few other incidents against tourists. Over a year in China and I have heard no stories of violence or robbery among tourists I’ve met. Same for Vietnam (4 months there), Taiwan (6 months), Korea (8 months), and Japan (2 months)- other places I’ve spent lots of time. I have heard of crime rising in Thailand, but I am less experienced there, so I can’t personally make much of an inference.
From my experiences of travel and meeting other travelers, Phnom Penh has more crime than any other east Asian capital. Of course, this is my experience. I am not an authority on the matter.
Is it worth visiting: yes, but take every precaution you can. Here are some safety suggestions:
try to schedule a daytime arrival into the city
Get a local SIM card and call your guesthouse or hotel to send a reliable tuk tuk to pick you up at the bus station (or, airport), whether arriving in the day or at night. This may be a free service. Tuk tuk drivers who hang out at the bus station may be unreliable. (After agreeing to a $2 fare to their guesthouse, my friends were once driven to a quiet nearby street and “asked” for $10 from the tuk tuk driver. When they refused, more drivers showed up, nearly surrounding the carriage. My friends got out and walked away, feeling confident to stand up to the intimidating situation. Things could have turned ugly. I would recommend avoiding any situations with unknown tuk tuk drivers who hang around the bus station).
Avoid carrying a bag whenever you can, especially at night. If you have to, always keep it on the side opposite of vehicle traffic. Western women are particularly vulnerable to bag thieves, who have the ability to pull you off a moving motorbike
If thieves demand your belongings, cooperate to avoid violence. Slowly raise your arms and they have no incentive to hurt you. Try not to carry anything your instinct would fight to protect.
Remove expensive watches or jewelry before going out. It is safer in the hotel’s safe, or even in your room.
If carrying a bag or luggage, keep it ‘hidden’ in the middle of the tuk tuk. If carrying a bag on a motorbike, keep it between you and the driver and as out-of-site as possible.
Especially at night, everything you have is safer in your hotel room than it is on your person. I would recommend picking an established hotel or guesthouse, such as The Europe Guesthouse (clean rooms from $10), so you can lock up your things with little worry.
Be very careful crossing the street and walking in the street. Many big Lexus SUVs are above the law and drive recklessly, often drunk. These drivers will honk at fluffy clouds and hit pedestrians just to prove a point. Even if you have the ‘right-of-way’, assume anyone will hit you here.
I hope you can have a few days to enjoy Phnom Penh as I have. As I said before, I do believe that many travel guides do tend to downplay the dangers here. However, the vast majority of visitors here have no problems, but it never hurts to be extra cautious.