Best see it as an occupational hazard to living here I suppose…


It is a depressing truth, but we volunteers keep being got in the bag-snatching battles.  Now, let’s put this in perspective.  It is a reality that a sizeable proportion of we volunteers have either actually had our bags snatched and/or been targeted unsuccessfully. It is horrible for those to whom it happens, inconvenient and, expensive.  However, it is NOT a reflection on Cambodia as a whole.  Also, it is worth saying that, even for those who have been targeted, they have so far described the assaults as being very much about the property not the person.  (Almost) no-one has felt physically threatened, and no assault has been on the person.  It’s also extremely quick, so there isn’t time to feel afraid.  Afterwards upset and angry of course, but it doesn’t seem to have made anyone afraid to go out and about, though it has made us all a lot more wary about how we carry our stuff and what we carry with us.

So, for the record, thefts so far:

Volunteer one:  female, lost smart phone; sizeable amount of cash (she was on her way to pay her rent); cards; keys in a bag snatch by two guys on motorbikes just near the volunteer house on her way to school. Mid afternoon I think.  CWF were good about sorting things, getting a police report, changing the locks on the property, but that is not really the point.

Volunteer two: on the same day, a guy on the back of a moto made an unsucessful attempt to snatch my bag, but then aborted the mission because I sensed them and turned at just the right time.  I wasn’t even sure that I’d been targeted until they sped off, and I saw the deserted street and realised my instinct was right.  There was no other reason why two guys on a bike would need to swerve across the road and brush past me, there was nothing in their path.

Volunteer three: At night by the riverside, one of the male volunteers was mid making a call on his mobile phone, when a passing guy on a bike reached across and grabbed it.  Amazingly, the volunteer hung on.  He threw a punch (a terrible idea by the way, you don’t want to get involved in a brawl in Cambodia whatever the provocation) but missed, but it was enough to dissuade the assailant from having another go.

Volunteer four: another unsuccessful attempt.  Well, more accurately partially successful.  A female volunteer had her bag snatched by a guy on the back of a motorbike.  It is always the same modus operandi, two people on a bike, the driver swoops in close, the guy on the back makes a grab.  On this occasion, they got the bag, but upturned it as they shot off.  The bag wasn’t properly shut, and the contents spilled out on the street. This volunteer was able to retrieve everything that had bounced out onto the road, but not the actual bag.  Lucky

Volunteer five:  this is a horrible one really.  Walking back from eating at night near to the Russian Market, she was deliberately approached by a bike coming towards her with the headlight on to blind her.  Normally and approach is from behind. They made  a grab, but because she wears her bag across her chest, couldn’t get it, there was quite a tussle, she screamed out and quite a few locals and tuk tuk drivers rushed across.  She kept her bag and the assailants got away, but it was a nasty one, because it wa a bit botched. I’d have been scared by that – though the involvement of concerned locals is a reassuring postscript.

Volunteer six: the worst for losses.  A female volunteer a couple of days ago walking back to the volunteers house from school was targeted. She admits she wasn’t really concentrating, having ear phones on – but it is such a short walk it is understandable, and I don’t know that it would have changed anything. She also had her bag on the traffic side of her body.  It is best to walk facing oncoming traffic and with your bag on the pavement side (although I use the phrase pavement loosely in this context).  She was particularly unlucky, as unusually she was carrying her passport, having just returned from an overseas trip over the short break.  She lost bank cards; smart phone; passport – everything.  Two guys on a bike snatched her tote bag as they passed.  It sounds like she put up a hell of a fight, screaming, hanging on to the bag and calling out. Shocked locals looked on in stunned silence.  She did hold the bag strap for a while, but it ripped, and the moto riders got away with their prize.  She instinctively ran after them, even contemplating hoping onto the back of the next passing moto and shouting to ‘follow that bike’ but it was the adrenalin talking. There is no point. There are no consequences for these thieves, and the pickings are rich.

It is disheartening, that’s more than a third of us who have been targeted, and it’s only been two months.  Locals are targeted too, to that extent it is not personal. However, you do begin to worry if some crooks have got wise to the fact that this school uses foreigners who turn up all naive and carrying new cash and smart phones every few months.  It wouldn’t be hard to watch for us returning from classes at the same time each day. It doesn’t take a criminal genius to work out that we represent a soft target.   It is opportunism, it isn’t personal, but it is a hazard.

However, before we get to all doom and gloom, this isn’t the whole picture.  These criminals are a minority, a persistent one, and a pest, but they are not Cambodia.  It should absolutely not stop anyone from traveling here, though I would suggest you consider very carefully what you carry with you and always use a bum-bag or locked backpack in favour of a tote bag or shoulder purse of any description.  Incidentally, I have a purse on a chain that I keep in my pocket but attached to my belt.  Seems to work well, and prevents me losing it by being dropped as well as keeping it away from the eyes of opportunistic thieves.  Anyway,  I will conclude this post with a story with a happy ending.

Volunteer one – got targeted again.  You might think once bitten twice shy, but it doesn’t really work like that. You need to carry something with you, and there is a limit to how you can protect yourself short of not going out at all.  Even in a tuk tuk  people will reach in and grab bags from you.  Anyway, she had her purse snatched in the identical way. She was sad about this, but philosophical. Her purse on this occasion contained only a relatively small amount of cash, enough that she could afford to lose it.  Her main reaction was probably ‘here we go again’.  However, miracles happen.  Seconds after the bike vanished out of sight in a cloud of dust, her purse in the clutches of the thief, it apparently reappeared.  I don’t know quite what happened.  However, it seems that a friend of the thief had seen what happened and was completely horrified.  They remonstrated with the culprit saying basically ‘you can’t do that, it is a horrible thing to do and she is a girl!’ (I haven’t noticed that as being a deterrent for theft before, but hey ho!).  Anyway, they shamed the thief into returning the purse, which he did.  The whole incident, theft and return took only a couple of minutes!  Bizarre, but true, and cheering too. (Point of clarification. The victim on this occassion saw and heard the thief and his friend arguing. The friend was remonstrating with elaborate gestures and shouting in Khmer, clearly upset and angry, so the explanation is what she deduced from the interaction whe witnessed.  Of course we don’t know if he was actually saying ‘$20 – that wasn’t worth risking being caught for, you might as well take it back you loser!‘ but I’m thinking not!)

Most people in Cambodia in my experience are hard-working, honest and far more likely to be the victims of crime and exploitation than perpetrators of it.  I have lost count of the number of stall holders who have painstakingly selected the right notes in reil for me or counted out change from a dollar when I had no idea what the actual price was and they could easily have taken advantage of me, and yet they do no.  It is true it is is disheartening to be a target of bag-snatching, it stings a bit particularly as we are all here as volunteers.  There is a sense of please give us a break – and it is definitely a real hazard, however, it is one that should be put in perspective.  Remember that thief’s friend and his demand for decorum and to do the right thing.  That is the part of this post to focus on.   Local people deplore this crime wave, and are mortified to hear we have been targeted, but they share their own stories of being got too, we are not special, but we are visible.  To be fair the thieves are right, we are comparatively wealthy, it must be quite a struggle to drive on by in the face of such temptations if you are of a criminal bent.  So if you are coming to Phnom Penh, take sensible precautions, if you are got, be upset and angry by all means, but then take a deep breath and step out again with caution yes but without paranoia.  There is so much more to the city than that.

If you want to find out more then check these links, but maybe don’t because it might put you off, and yet this is still an amazing place to be, and the people are great.  This is only one aspect of life in Phnom Penh.

move to Cambodia robberies and bag snatching

FCO advice on travel to Cambodia

Phnom Penh Post article on bag-snatching (historic June 2014)







One response to “Best see it as an occupational hazard to living here I suppose…

  1. Pingback: On navigation | Cambodia Calling·

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