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FAQ (and not so FAQ)


Most recent update: January 24, 2009

1.) Are land mines a problem for tourists?
2.) Is Phnom Penh safe?
3.) Is the countryside safe?
4.) What should I be concerned about in respect to personal safety?
5.) Is Siem Reap safe?
6.) What about critters like snakes and scorpions and such?
7.) I'm a single, 19-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American girl traveling alone, will I be okay?
8.) Tell me something about fire safety.
9.) Are elections a real dangerous problem?
10.) What about the riots in Phnom Penh and the problems between Thailand and Cambodia?

Q: Are land mines a problem for tourists?

A: No. In the last four years alone nearly three million tourists have walked around Cambodia and nobody stepped on a land mine (though a few probably stepped in human excrement outside Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh). To this day, there have been no reported incidents of any foreign visitor stepping on a mine in Cambodia (well, not including Vietnamese military personnel). Not one. The major tourist areas are absolutely mine-free. 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? I think the answer is 'no'. Even if you step into the bushes to answer nature's call, you're almost certainly going to walk along a well-worn path. So relax. According to the head of the HALO Trust in Cambodia, you'd have to drive at least one hour from Siem Reap to find a mine placed in ground you might walk upon.

But - with the safety situation so much improved throughout Cambodia, more tourists are venturing deep into the countryside and into mined areas. For the record, I have been in several heavily mined areas. On a motorbike trip through the Cardamom Mountains I was warned by several CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) workers that parts of the road from Veal Veng to Koh Kong were lined with mines. Was this a problem? No, we simply stayed on the road and only ventured off if there was physical evidence that others had done so already. Remember, a land mine can't jump out of the bushes and attack you.

If it's your desire to get out into the sticks, by all means, do so. There are some great experiences to be had, but you do need to exercise some common sense. If possible, seek information from either a CMAC or HALO Trust worker if there are mine clearance activities presently underway in the region you are in. If not, check with locals and most importantly, stick to areas that have signs of recent human activity.

But if you're only wandering around Angkor you have *NOTHING* to worry about.

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 land mine warning signs. Sorry to tell you they aren't land mine 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 land mine casualties has been dropping considerably. In 1996 there were 3000 incidents. In 1999 that number was down to a 1000.

For more information on land mines in Cambodia and the reality of the situation, you can read an interview I did in November 2002 with Richard Boulter, the head of the HALO Trust mine removal organization.

Q: Is Phnom Penh safe?

A: Phnom Penh has for a long time had the reputation for being a dangerous place due to all too frequent incidents of armed robbery. This reputation is not entirely undeserved. But it's gotten a lot better in the last couple of years. Information is largely anecdotal as any statistics offered by the police in respect to crime would be of highly questionable accuracy. However, we just aren't hearing stories of robberies like we used to.

Still, use common sense. Do not walk anywhere 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. That said, I go out regularly at night and have never been robbed. My suggestion is don't let fear of robbery keep you in at night. If you want to go out, then by all means, do so. Just leave everything but a bit of cash back in your hotel.

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. In Siem Reap, there have been cases of females walking along the side of the road and having bags ripped off their shoulders by passing motorbikes. If by any chance you are robbed you have three options:
Option #1: Scream "Jau! Jau!" which means 'thief'. If you're lucky somebody will knock the two young men (it's always two young men) to the ground and a group will form and the mob will kill them. But you'll probably get your bag back.
Option #2: Go to the police, pay them money, file a report, and still never see your bag again.
Option #3: Forget about the whole thing and vow to keep a tighter grip on your stuff next time.

But while it's now rare to have a gun stuck in your face, we are hearing more reports of physical assaults on foreigners, particularly in Phnom Penh. Whether these are truly random or whether some Cambodians are now less tolerant to take crap from ill-mannered foreigners has yet to be determined.

Q: Is the countryside safe?

A: 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 is the odd kidnapping and case of highway robbery, but in both instances they are preplanned actions with specific targets. Still, I wouldn't go wandering alone on a deserted road with thousands of dollars in my pocket. While nobody's waiting in ambush anymore, the temptation of a lone foreigner in a deserted area might be too much for someone who's bored, broke, and armed.

Q: What should I be concerned about in respect to personal safety?

A: 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 land mines as well (see above), and when I say sticks, I'm talking Preah Vihear, Anlong Veng, Cardamom Mountains, and not the back side of Angkor Wat or Ta Prohm!

Q: Is Siem Reap safe?

A: 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. Still, people do get robbed here and ever so occasionally assaulted.

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 guesthouses 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. Most guesthouses do not have locking screens so it's only a matter of carefully sliding the screen open. However, even if the screen locks, thieves can very quietly cut a screen. Said crime will almost always occur at night while you're asleep, with three to five a.m. seems to be the witching hours.

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 pre-described manner.

However, room break-ins, and any other form of surreptitious form of robbery, is much more likely to be perpetrated on an expat resident than on a tourist. We follow relatively predictable patterns, our comings and goings and doings are easily tracked and when we leave an opening, inevitably somebody gets in. If you plan on living here then you will need to take your security much more seriously than if you're only visiting for a few days. And that applies to Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, and anywhere else, really.

Despite all I said, Siem Reap is a very safe place, just not as very very safe as it used to be. By and large, the people most likely to scare tourists into believing that Siem Reap is dangerous are a few unscrupulous guesthouse owners who'd like to see their guests stay in and eat and drink all their food and beer and the tourist bus operators who want to facilitate getting you to stay at the guesthouse they have sold you to. One of the most outrageous lies told to tourists is that the Khmer Rouge still kidnap people at night. This would take a quite a feat of time travel as the organization ceased to exist in 1998. Visit Siem Reap and feel free to walk around the town and patronize the numerous businesses open there at any hour of the day or night. You'll find plenty of opportunities to spend your money in a variety of places and find an equal variety of people to spend it with. Do enjoy.

Q: What about critters like snakes and scorpions and such?

A: 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, 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 anytime, most particularly getting run over when you cross the street. But here's a quick rundown of what's out there:

Snakes: I have personally seen three different kinds of poisonous snakes. The variety 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. However, if you do annoy one, they tend to go for the neck and head area when they bite and while not considered a lethal snake, the implications of a poisonous bite to the face are not pleasant. Although I have not seen them, Cambodia does have some other, more formidable vipers lurking about.

Cobras are common as well, though you're much more likely to see the smaller Asiatic Cobra then the king of all venomous snakes, the King Cobra, which is technically an entirely different species of snake. The Asiatic is, like the Green Tree Pit Viper, a generic name that covers a number of different subspecies - all of which can kill you and some of which are in Cambodia. Unlike the Green Tree Pit Vipers, cobras are both significantly more agressive and deadly. A solid bite from a cobra, if not treated promptly with the correct anti-venom, can have fatal consequences. And cobras do live in the Angkor environs. I saw one in Preah Khan in 2001 and I have friends who saw one on a road near the West Gate to Angkor Thom.

I had the luck once on the road from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel to see a Banded Krait slithering across the road. Unmistakable in appearance, it's just as well, these guys are deadly. Fortunately they are rare.

Pythons are around. I saw one near the Tonle Sap a number of years ago, it was fairly small at about three meters in length. 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 nor easily as it pumps your arm with all sorts of nasty bacteria.

Q: I'm a single, 19-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American girl traveling alone, will I be okay?

A: 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.

Sexual assaults do occur but there is no greater frequency here than wherever it is you came from so stick to the same precautions you'd take at home. Also, see a couple of questions up about bag snatching.

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 traveling with friends as well. And if you go to the beach, for cris-frigging-sakes, keep your tops on!!!!!

Speaking of the beach, Sihanoukville is not immune to sexual assaults on foreign tourists and I do not recommend that you seek out some secluded stretch of beach far from prying eyes and drop your top, because you won't be free of prying eyes, you just won't see them. If you're lucky, it's only some motodriver hiding off in the bushes pounding his pud, at worst... well, let's say it's not how you want your holiday to end. Therefore, do I need to say it again? KEEP YOUR TOPS ON!!! THIS IS NOT THE RIVIERA!!!

Also, the fact that you're American is, like around most of the planet, irrelevent to everyone but yourself. No one, other than perhaps some pissed-up Brits, cares. Most Cambodians like Americans, they all seem to want to go there, and they come across as being somewhat in awe of the country. Rather remarkable when you consider what the US did to Cambodia in the early 70s.

Q: Tell me something about fire safety.

The folllowing answer was provided by Matt Jacobson, ex-fireman and author of Adventure Cambodia.

A: The tragic, recent shopping mall fire in Paraquay that has claimed the lives of more than 450 people, along with the scores of fatalities that resulted from fires in recent years at hotels and guesthouses in Manilla (Philippines), Jomtien Beach (Pattaya, Thailand), and the Outback of Australia, makes us think that common sense dictates thinking a bit about fire safety during our travels.

Smoke and heat are both killers in a building fire and they show no sympathy in taking 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:

1. 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 smoke present so that you have a fighting chance to get yourself out alive.

2. Think twice about staying in a room with windows that are barred and not openable 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.

3. 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.

4. Think carefully before staying in a room above the 3rd floor. You may be forced to jump in the event of a fire (Royal Jomtien Beach Hotel, Thailand).

5. Crawl on your hands and knees if there is thick smoke present as the the air is the most user-friendly near the floor - choking smoke and intense heat rise.

6. 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 extinquish the flames.

No, while we may be what the other sex might call hot (wishful thinking), we usually don't spontaneously self-ignite. I did, however, personally witness a Cambodian singer wearing way too much flammable hairspray ignite her hair while she was singing near a fire prop. She did get some nasty 2nd degree burns to her face before I tackled her down to the stage floor. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to the quip, "She had a bad hair day".

Q: Are elections a real dangerous problem?

A: Only for opposition candidates. In 2008 we survived yet another election year and other than a few possible political assasinations, all was peaceful and at no time was there ever any danger to tourists. There is no reason to cancel any vacation because of an election.

After the elections it's a different story. In 1998 after the election results were announced the opposition, on account of the fact they lost, declared the results "unacceptable", launched massive demonstrations and a few dozen protestors were killed and the city was a mess for a couple of days. However, no foreigners were involved, though possibly inconvenienced, and no Cambodian wants to involve a foreigner in these matters. After both the 2003 and 2008 general elections the opposition once again declared the results "unacceptable" (they lost again), but there were no public demonstrations, random acts of violence, or what have you.

In the event anything ugly does occur after an election, the problems will almost always be confined to Phnom Penh, so don't even give it a second thought if you're visiting Angkor. And what does happen usually only lasts for a couple of days at most.

Local commune elections, as took place in 2007, had absolutely no effect on tourists.

Q: What about the riots in Phnom Penh and the problems between Thailand and Cambodia?

A: In the end of January 2003, anti-Thailand riots took place in Phnom Penh doing an estimated $25 million US damage to Thai-owned property all because a Thai actress didn't say Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. I guess it made sense to somebody. For one week thereafter and again in March, the borders were closed to commerce and locals but foreigners were allowed to cross as usual.

Although animosity still simmers below the surface, and likewise between Cambodian and Vietnam, all is quiet on the western front and whatever does occur is entirely a Thai-Cambodian issue that takes pages and pages of analysis to understand properly.


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