Staying safe is always a top priority. Marissa Carruthers gets advice from the experts on the best ways to keep danger, and opportunist thieves, at bay. Photography by Rudi Towiro. (Some names in this article have been changed to ensure anonymity). 

It was an ordinary day for Sharon Yam, who was reading a book on her balcony during a lunch break. With the sun beating down outside, the 24-year-old left her front door open with the grill locked in order to let a breeze blow through her Phnom Penh apartment.

As she went inside to gather her things for work, the expat noticed her bag, with a purse and bankcards inside, wasn’t where she usually left it – on the table, close to the door. Her keys were on the floor and her sunglasses and a pair of shoes had disappeared.

Confused, she unlocked the grill and stepped outside. At the top of the steps to her second-storey home, she saw a one-metre-long stick with a hook taped to the end. “They must have reached through the grill with the pole and got my bag and the rest of the stuff,” she says.

Yam is just one of a number of expats and tourists targeted each year by opportunist criminals looking to get their hands on a quick buck.

Street Wise
Sit in a bar with a seasoned expat and they may well relay a string of anecdotal horror stories about people being pulled off motorbikes for their bags, unsecured homes being targeted by opportunist thieves, and belongings being snatched from tuk-tuks by passing motorbikes. 

In recent months, petty crime featuring foreigners has also hit national headlines. In May, a group of ambassadors and European Union representatives called for a meeting with Minister of Interior Sar Kheng in order to raise concerns over stolen passport data. 

The figures, which resulted from the compilation of embassy reports of passports stolen from victims of petty theft, showed an increase from 139 reports in 2011 to 190 in 2012. In 2013, the figure leapt to 332, according to Nicolas Baudouin, a French Embassy spokesperson.

When approached about the concerns, interior ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak told AsiaLIFE that petty theft involving foreigners was not on the rise in Cambodia, but urged people to both report crime to the police and to try and prevent such crimes from happening in the first place. “Prevention is better for everyone,” he says.

Indeed, security experts agree that there are simple measures to help prevent people from becoming the victims of petty street crime – like bag or phone snatching – or to limit its effects.

“People who are new to the country are prime targets. These criminals are opportunistic,” says aikido expert Lance Jackson, who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years and teaches self-defense classes across the capital. 

The Australian recommends holding onto bags at all times in transport, warning that people should “be prepared to lose what you’re carrying.” Other sensible measures include keeping two SIM cards, with contacts saved on both in case one is stolen, and avoiding saving sensitive data on smartphones.

Defense and security specialist David Minetti, a former member of the Foreign French Legion and co-owner of K-1 Fight Factory gym, advises people not to take out designer bags, or to try placing a nice bag inside a cheap plastic one to avoid unwanted attention while traveling on a motorbike. “When some people see an iPhone they see a year’s wages,” he adds.

Another common mistake, according to the Frenchman, is answering a phone while on the road or walking. 

“If you have to answer it and you’re driving, stop on the side of the road and hold it on the pavement side so anyone driving past can’t grab it,” he says, adding that jewellery should be kept hidden under clothing.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice states that although violent crime is rare, there have been a few reports of weapons being used during robberies of foreigners, with hotspots for petty crime in Phnom Penh including the riverside and BKK1 area. 

The body recommends remaining vigilant if travelling by night and sticking to well-used and well-lit roads. Officials have also warned of scams, including people being tricked into playing poker or blackjack and then being threatened at knifepoint to withdraw cash at an ATM.

For those feeling insecure, self-defense classes are available to increase security know-how and self-confidence. Sessions in the Krav Manga – a form of self-defense used by the Israeli military – are offered at K-1 gym. Derived from street fighting, it is famous for its focus on real-world situations and counter-attacks. Classes take place every Tuesday and Thursday, from 4.45pm to 6.45pm, at K-1 Fitness Factory, 131 Street 199, Phnom Penh. (No classes run from Jul. 6 to Aug. 30) 

Sessions in aikido, a Japanese martial art developed with the aim of remaining non-violent, are also taught by Jackson every Wednesday from 4.30pm to 7pm at the Royal University of Law and Economics, and at the Olympic Stadium, Monday to Friday from 5.45pm to 7pm, and from 8am to 10am on weekends. 

But the teacher, who has also held one-off self-defense classes at Phnom Penh Community College, recommends members of the public first try handing over whatever a thief demands before calmly walking away and only use self-defense techniques as a last resort if under the threat of violence. “You don’t know if they’ve got a weapon and you have to put your life first,” he says, pulling off some simple manoeuvres on mats laid out at the Royal University of Law and Economics. 

Happy At Home
In April, the tragic murder of Dutch expatriate Daphna Beerdsen in her Chamkarmon district home sent shockwaves through the capital, pushing the issue of home security to the forefront of many people’s minds.

While the shocking attack was an extreme and rare case, even petty theft can make people feeling insecure about their living arrangements. 

American Maria Suvez was sleeping with the balcony doors open when her second-floor home in BKK2 was invaded. Thieves scaled the front of the building, stealing the 24-year-old’s laptop from the bedroom while she and her boyfriend slept, emptying a wallet in the kitchen and taking clothes from the balcony.

 “We felt scared and violated knowing someone could easily get into our home at night and walk into our bedroom. At the end of the day, we were happy nothing worse happened and relieved to know we were moving very soon,” says Suvez.

Security specialists Phoenix Security Systems, a company that installs home alarms and provides security services, advises that doors should be kept locked and secured with a strong padlock. 

Managing director Dennis Foo also urges people not to open the door to strangers. If you are unsure about someone calling at your home asking for access for repair work or another reason, do not let them in or check their identity with an official at the company that they claim to be from. 

Indeed, securing homes is an issue that many Cambodians take seriously, with the majority of city homes coming complete with barbed wire on walls, bars on windows and grilles on doors. “There are many reasons for the added security, theft being one of them. These features do prevent vandalism damage and illegal trespassing,” adds Foo. 

With security a priority for some residents, many new apartment buildings and private villas employ security guards to boost the feel-safe factor. “The key benefits of security guards are that they offer reassurance, with 24-hour coverage,” Foo advises. 

Hiring private protection also remains a popular option among the country’s elite, and a service that Minetti offers through his firm in the form of a burly team of foreign former special forces or law enforcement officers. “We often get called to offer bodyguard protection by the country’s rich,” he says. “Some want 24-hour protection, protection while travelling with large amounts of cash or valuables or at luxury, VIP events.” 

On The Road
While the perception of crime can sometimes spiral out of control, it is Cambodia’s roads that are the country’s biggest killers. 

Crashes are the leading cause of death, injury and disability for people aged 15 to 44. Independent road safety specialist Chariya Ear estimates that around 2,000 people are killed on the Kingdom’s roads each year, with 85 percent being pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. More than 15,000 suffer non-fatal injuries.

Intervention measures, such as enforcing the laws regarding speeding, drink driving and wearing helmets, are essential to help combat road danger – as well as raise public awareness – and need to be more apparent, the expert says.

“Finally, greater efforts are needed to strengthen road safety legislation and bring the country’s laws in line with what is considered to be best practice, in order to offer the population as much protection as possible,” he adds, advising road users to follow the slogan “road safety begins with me”.

He emphasises that drivers should not speed, and avoid driving while under the influence of alcohol, over-taking in dangerous conditions, driving an overloaded vehicle or using a mobile phone while driving. 

Other important factors to stay safe on the road are keeping vehicles in good condition, following give-way rules and making sure that pedestrians and cyclists remain visible to other road users by wearing colourful clothing. 

Government spokesman Lt Gen Khieu Sopheak confirmed it is illegal for the driver of a motorcycle to ride without a helmet, and advised drivers to carry spare helmets for passengers. Traffic police are deployed on the roads to enforce the law and help in the case of an accident, he added.   

Get Protected
Insurance can also offer reassurance about potential financial loss. Protection is available from Cambodia’s rapidly growing insurance sector, with figures showing total premiums reached $22 million in the first half of 2013 – a 25 percent increase compared to the same period of 2012.

Charles Cheo, managing director of Forte Insurance, explains that car insurance (starting from $130 for third-party to $350 a year for comprehensive) is available on the market, with clients protected against the theft or loss of a vehicle, as well as third-party and accidental damage.

Home and burglary insurance (starting from around $100 a year) can protect belongings stolen or damaged during a break-in, but, according to Infinity Insurance, homeowners would need to have a full-time guard employed by an approved security company. Besides travel insurance, which is only available to tourists and not those living in Cambodia for more than 12 months at a time, there is currently no insurance to protect any property stolen during street thefts. 

If the worst happens and you become the victim, don’t panic. Interior ministry spokesman Lt Gen Khieu Sopheak recommends that people contact police in the commune office of the area where the crime took place – also an essential step for most insurance claims to be upheld.

“They should do this immediately, not wait until tomorrow or the day after,” he says. “Try and remember what they’re wearing, what they looked like and the plate number of the bike [in cases of bag snatching].”

In certain circumstances, foreigners can also gain assistance from embassies, such as in cases of serious assault, missing people, rape or kidnapping. 

According to the US embassy, which urges all citizens to be “mindful of their surroundings” when moving about in Cambodia, officials can contact friends and family, make special arrangements in the case of terrorism, civil unrest and natural disasters, and help with stolen passports. They are, however, unable to help citizens get out of prison, prevent deportation after a prison sentence, or get involved with criminal or court proceedings. Giving legal advice and investigating crimes also sit outside their remit.

And, with horror stories consistently making the rounds, try to remember that Cambodia by and large remains a safe place to live, with incidents involving violence and weapons rare. However, putting your personal safety first, no matter where you are in the world, is important too. As Minetti says: “You only get one life. You have to protect it.”