It finally happened. I was robbed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
When traveling full time, it’s easy to find yourself in situations in which your belongings are at risk. It can be a guest house without a safe, the trunk of a bus or even just walking in a busy street.
For obvious reasons, tourists are more targeted by pickpocket. A tourist has a lot going on: looking at monuments, finding himself in a new environment, figuring out the way to go, being tired from a long day or transfer; are all factor that increase the possibility to be catch out of guard and become an easier target. Another thing is that when traveling we normally carry a camera, or other digital devices that make the loot richer and more appealing for the thief. This is normal everywhere in the world, but it gets even more normal in developing countries where poverty is high and tourists are seen as a font of ‘income’. Cambodia is one of those countries and is where I become the target.
Jarel and I arrived in Phnom Penh after spending an incredible Christmas in the semi deserted island of Koh Totang. As you can imagine, passing from an island with a hand full of people to the capital of Cambodia, it came as a bit of a shock; so we decided to take things easy. On our first day in the city, we spent the morning chilling at the hotel pool and left around lunch time to get some food and start to tour the city.
After about an hour from when we left the hotel – it happened. We were walking along Street 19, just behind the Royal Palace. Being a hot sunny day, my hair were tied up but I had a single annoying hair hanging on my back that was driving me crazy. I stopped and twisted my body in a awkward position trying to reach the annoying misplaced hair, when I suddenly felt a sort of sting on my shoulder and lost my balance almost falling in the street. It took me a moment to realize what happened: did I get hit by a car? Impossible, I would be on the ground and the only hurting part was my shoulder that wasn’t facing the street. I looked around in confusion and then I saw it: my bag! The guy on the motorbike was swinging away in the traffic with my bag in his hands. I touched my shoulders and my hips, where my beg normally rests. Nothing was there. ‘My bag!’ – I exclaimed – and started running – like I could chase a motorbike.
The bag’s strap was across my shoulder and I normally walk my hand resting on it, but for some stupid reason, I decided to take care of my hair on the side of the street in a position that left my bag exposed. It’s true that wasn’t the most clever move, but it’s also true that it was the only second in which my guard was down. The two guys on the motorbike snatched away my vintage bag breaking the very old and weak strap – and I’m very glad it broke instead of dragging me down.
I honestly didn’t have any control on the situation. I was just jumping, running and stopping like a crazy person, unable to think clearly. Jarel brought me back to reality. 1) I couldn’t chase the motorbike by foot! 2) We needed the police 3) I could locate the Iphone in my bag through his phone. We asked to a woman for the police station and she told us that was closed because was Sunday (NOT TRUE). In the meantime a tuk tuk driver overheard the conversation and jumped on the situation: he would have follow the Iphone and take us to the thief.
The hunt started, with the tuk tuk getting stuck in the traffic and the phone getting farther and farther away. The thieves finally stopped in a village on the outskirt of Phnom Penh and switch off my phone. We got to the village, to the address where my phone was sein last with no police on site. I was petrified and kept saying to the driver that I didn’t want to go any farther, we needed to get out of that small alleys and wait for the police.
We finally got to a police station, where the driver act as a translator. I contacted the hotel where I was staying to ask for my passport number because they had the copy of it. The hotel staff member spoke with the police and sand someone to take care of everything, including paying the bribe. Of course the police didn’t do anything, but I needed the report for the insurance.
The story isn’t over. The tuk tuk driver ended up being the king of the scammer. He asked us lots of many for the day, which was fine considering the long drive and the translating job. The day after he offered to take us to the embassy and to buy a new phone. He wanted me to buy a cheaper ‘second hand’ Iphone 6 (that of course I would buy to increment this kind of market after being robbed!) at his friend shop. He ended up overcharging us for the day and, since we were going to Kratie, he pushed us to buy the tickets with his friend. The tickets were more expensive than anywhere else and we didn’t want to buy them with him, but we were drained from the day and he wouldn’t stop pushing us, so we just got them to make him shut up. Well, we ended up not even taking the more expensive ‘VIP minivan’ because we couldn’t fit.
Last but not least, there is no Italian embassy in Cambodia, meaning that getting a new passport wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.
As you might guess, I didn’t really enjoy my time in Phnom Penh and, after the episode, I didn’t do any sightseeing and didn’t go anywhere that was farther than walking distance. I wanted to leave and didn’t want to have anything to do with the city.
On the bright side, if we want to find one, I learned some things and the whole experience was an effective reminder of things that we tend to forget when we start to feel more confident on the road. Here is what.
1. It’s a pretty obvious thing, but it’s worth a reminder: it’s when you let your guard down that things happen.
2. Walk closer to the wall. This is almost impossible in Asia, where on the sidewalks there is everything except space to walk, but if you can avoid to walk on the side of the street, do it.
3. Always make sure that your bag is NOT facing the street (especially when you remove a stupid hair from your back!)
4. GET A TRAVEL INSURANCE. All what was in my bag was cover within less than 2 weeks from the accident.
5. Police is corrupted and will not care. Cambodia have a tragic past. A middle age policeman that lived through the Khmer Rouge genocide, has probably seen things that I can’t imagine. I honestly don’t feel like blaming him for not caring about the rich Western stolen phone.
6. Contact you hotel and trust them instead of random tuk tuk drivers. Tourism in Cambodia is a big source of income and, who work in the business, know that. They want you to have a pleasant experience in order to attract more people. That’s why they will try to keep you away from scammers and warn you about thieves. This might not always be the case, but for sure I wouldn’t trust another driver.
7. Do NOT carry your passport with you. I know this is obvious as well, but still worth a remind.
8. Do NOT carry your credit card: if it get stolen you will find yourself with nothing.
9. Make sure that you filed a police report and get 2 copies. You will not get anything from the insurance if you don’t have a report. You will also need it when you apply for a new passport. Some companies want the original copy of the report, that’s why it’s better to get 2 copies at the police station.
10. If your passport get stolen, you will need an emergency document valid for one month, issued by your embassy (bring passport picture, police report, copy of your old passport and USD35). If there isn’t your country’s embassy, you need to go to an affiliate one (French embassy if you are Italian). After that you will need a new visa to be able to leave Cambodia, for which you can apply at the immigration office (bring passport picture, emergency document from the embassy, copy of the old passport, police report and USD40). Now you are able to leave the Cambodia and enter your own country, but you are not allowed to enter any other country. If you want to continue your travel, you will have to wait for a new passport that will be issue by your embassy. Again, if you are Italian and you want to continue your trip, you will have to go to the Italian embassy in Bangkok in order to get a new passport. Normally you don’t need a Visa to enter Thailand, BUT you are basically traveling without a passport so you HAVE TO APPLY FOR A THAI visa before entering the country (bring passport picture, police report, emergency document and USD35).
11. I’m personally against bags with a metal line in the strap: they might be useful in other cases, but in this one, it would have probably add some medical expenses to my adventure
12. Do not chase your phone in the middle of nowhere. It’s true that violent crime is not as common in Cambodia, but you don’t want to take the risk of finding out if the statistic is true.
Your turn now, have you ever been robbed? How? How do you stay safe on the road?
PS. I still didn’t reset my phone, which is in lost mode. I sow it hanging around the central market a week after and it was turn on again over a month later in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam! It’s having a bit of journey in Southeast Asia and I’m wondering where will end up next.