Safety in Cambodia used to be a concern because of the country’s turbulent history. Here is a guide to the most commonly asked questions that first-time visitors to the country ask.
Are landmines a problem in Cambodia?
In the last ten years alone over ten million tourists have walked around Cambodia and nobody stepped on a landmine. To this day, there have been no reported incidents of any foreign visitor stepping on a mine in Cambodia. The major tourist areas are absolutely mine-free although there are groups still actively working to neutralise mines usually from areas deep in the Cambodian countryside.
While the guidebooks still suggest being careful, even around Angkor Wat, the question you need to ask yourself is – do you plan to go bushwhacking through the trees, treading upon land no human has walked upon in years? For most people, the answer is ‘no’. Even if you step into the bushes for a good angle on a photo, you’re almost certainly going to walk along a well-worn path.
With the safety situation vastly improved throughout Cambodia, more tourists are venturing deep into the countryside and into potentially mined areas. There is still very little risk posed in these provincial areas as long as you use a little common sense and only walk or drive on paths previously ridden or walked on. Remember, a landmine can’t jump out of the bushes and attack you!
For the visitor who likes to get out into the sticks, there are some great experiences to be had, but again you do need to exercise some common sense. If possible, seek information from either a CMAC or HALO Trust worker or take an organised tour with a reputable tour company who will ensure that you experience wild Cambodia without any risks.
Also, if you’re coming in by land from Poipet to Siem Reap you’ll see these signs posted every ten feet or so along the road which you won’t see quite clearly enough to figure out what they are and like a lot of tourists, you’ll probably assume they are landmine warning signs. Sorry to tell you they aren’t landmine warning signs. They buried a communications cable recently and these are signs simply informing the locals not to dig there otherwise they might snap the cable.
The number of landmine casualties has been dropping considerably in the last 20 years. In 1996 there were 3000 incidents, in 1999 that number was down to a 1000 and in 2016 the number dropped below 100.
Is Phnom Penh safe?
Phnom Penh used to be known to have a reputation for being a dangerous place due to all too frequent incidents of robbery. The situation today is vastly improved due to the fact that the country has developed massively in the past 15 years meaning that fewer people are put in a situation where they steal.
Still, use common sense. Stay in busy areas at night and never carry anything you aren’t willing to lose. Anything you have, wallet, passport, etc will be safer in your hotel room than on your person.
In more recent crime news, it seems that long-term bane of Saigon, the motorbike bag-snatchers, have reached Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In the past year or so there has been an increase in cases of motorbikes pulling alongside another moto carrying a foreign passenger, which by all reports is almost always female, and the pillion rider snatches her bag and they speed away. So girls, if you’re riding on the back of a moto in Phnom Penh do keep your bag close and tight.
Is the countryside safe?
Absolutely. The Khmer Rouge ceased to exist back in 1998 so nobody’s being abducted anymore and PM Hun Sen came down hard on the banditry problem – as most incidents were perpetrated by military personnel. The old problem of people jumping out of the bushes and randomly robbing passing vehicles is just that, an old problem that ended some seven years ago. There are isolated reports of kidnapping and highway robberies, but in both instances, they are preplanned actions with specific targets.
What should I be concerned about with respect to personal safety?
If you want something to worry about, then your number one concern should be traffic accidents followed by a stomachache. If you’re venturing out into the sticks, consider landmines as well.
Is Siem Reap safe?
Yes, it’s safe, but it’s not the nearly crime-free haven it once was. But if you looked at the number of robberies in relation to the number of tourists passing through I think you’d find the crime rate to be extremely low.
The types of crime to look out for are passing motorcyclists ripping bags off of foreign pedestrians or from foreign passengers on the back of motorbikes. This is most likely to occur in the early evening around town or returning from Angkor Wat after sunset. And if you are riding a bicycle, don’t just drop your bag in the basket, but make sure it’s secured to something and if you’re on the back of a motorbike, hold your bag tight, as well.
Room break-ins do occur from time to time and if you are staying on the ground floor of a guesthouse check the windows and screens. Although almost all guest houses will have some sort of metal grating that will prevent someone from entering the room, tricky thieves can, however, using a variety of implements attached to the end of the stick (usually a hook), pull small objects out of the room and into their hands such as wallets, telephones, etc.
The moral of the story is that if you’re on the ground floor of a guesthouse, keep your valuables someplace where they can’t be surreptitiously removed by a thief in the method described above!
What about dangerous animals like spiders, snakes and scorpions?
There’s no hiding from the truth, Cambodia has some nasty reptiles and bugs. In Phnom Penh you’re not too likely to see anything worse than a city rat, a large spider, or a giant cockroach, but just about anywhere else in the country and all sorts of slithering varmints lurk about, and that includes Siem Reap and Angkor.
Now before you go into a panic, just because the wildlife is there, your chances of getting bit are far more remote than many other dangers that could befall you at any time, most particularly getting run over when you cross the street. But here’s a quick rundown of what’s out there:
Snakes: The species you’re most likely to see is commonly known as a Green Tree Pit Viper, which is a rather generic name that covers a number of species of pit viper that are green, live in trees, and are usually between half a meter and one meter in length. Their bite is serious but rarely fatal. These snakes spend most of their time in trees and having seen quite a few in Cambodia, my general impression of these snakes is that if left alone they will not bother you. Please note that if you are to annoy one, they tend to try and bite the neck and head area, while not considered a lethal snake, nobody wants a poisonous snake wound inflicted on their face! Although I have not seen them, Cambodia does have some other, more formidable vipers lurking about such as the Malayan Pit Viper.
Cobras are found throughout rural Cambodia although you’re much more likely to see the smaller Asiatic Cobra than the King Cobra, which is technically an entirely different species of snake. The Asiatic Cobra, like the Green Tree Pit Viper, is a generic name that covers many different subspecies. Unlike the Green Tree Pit Vipers, cobras are both significantly more aggressive and deadly. A solid bite from a cobra, if not treated promptly with the correct anti-venom, can have fatal consequences. This being said, even the relatively aggressive cobra is still shy and will only bite as a last resort if threatened.
Pythons are around in the countryside areas and are often sought out by Cambodian’s as pets or sold into the illegal pet trade. Given the desirability of catching these snakes, it’s highly unlikely a python would have the luxury of living long enough to grow to a size large enough to be particularly dangerous to humans.
Insects: The two varieties you are most likely to encounter are scorpions and centipedes. Though rarely fatal, getting chomped by either one of these would result in a day or two of extreme discomfort and localized swelling, if you consider your entire arm blowing up as localized. Scorpions tend to hang around in old wood piles and such, centipedes also enjoy hiding under things.
Geckos, that is, the speckled lizards that grow up to about a foot in length, make a lot of noise, and tend to hang around on walls at night have a nasty bite but will generally do everything possible to avoid using it. So don’t corner one and you’ll be fine. If one does get a hold of you it’s not going to let go very quickly or easily as it pumps your arm with all sorts of nasty bacteria.
I’m a single, 19-year-old girl travelling alone, will I be ok?
Yes, you’ll be fine. In general, Southeast Asia is not an area where solo women are hassled, and if anything, you’ll find plenty of Khmers concerned for your well-being. Once you get here, you’ll hardly be alone and you’ll have minimal difficulty in finding a travel partner or two if you so desire.
Just keep in mind that Cambodia is a conservative country and you ought to cover yourself up a bit more than you would in the west – and that goes for women travelling with friends as well.
Cambodian fire safety
Smoke and heat are both killers in a building fire and they show no sympathy in taking a life during daytime or nighttime hours. Please stay safe and enjoy your holiday. The following are some simple, but very effective ways to do that:
- Bring along a small, travel-sized smoke detector. These are available from online travel gear outfits, as well as travel gear stores. They will give you an early warning of the smoke present so that you have a fighting chance to get yourself out alive.
- Think twice about staying in a room with windows that are barred and not open-able from the inside. You may just have to use that window to escape through in the event of a bad fire in or outside of your room that keeps you from using the entry door of that room.
- Check the floor layout and find the fire exits for the floor of the hotel/guesthouse that you choose to stay at. Familiarity means that you know where to exit to safety even when choking smoke may hinder your sight. If an exit hallway, stairway or stairwell door is blocked or locked, request that the management rectify the situation. Check out if they don’t – your safety is not something to take lightly.
- Think carefully before staying in a room above the 3rd floor. You may be forced to jump in the event of a fire.
- Crawl on your hands and knees if there is thick smoke present as the air is the most user-friendly near the floor – choking smoke and intense heat rise.
- On the same note; remember the very basic words, Stop, Drop & Roll, if your clothing catches fire. If standing, your body acts like a chimney to pull killer heat and smoke upwards to your face and inside your lungs. Stopping movement (which fans the flames) and lying on the floor while rolling over in a log roll fashion stops that and can extinguish the flames.