Staying safe in Cambodia

6 minute read
cambodia map

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What are the common security risks in Cambodia?

Petty crime and opportunists

Bag-snatching, pickpocketing and other forms of petty theft occur in urban centres, including Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Petty crime is less common at the Angkor complex, where scams for cash are much more common. These scams include selling overpriced books to tourists and charging excessive fees to act as a ‘hotspot tour guide’.

Unfortunately petty crime is a regional risk and you’ll find similar criminals operating through Southeast Asia.

cambodia mapPetty crime is most common in the capital Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap near the Angkor ruins and in the party capital of Cambodia, Sihanoukville.

Police corruption

Unlike the more militant police force in neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia’s police force is considered under-resourced and poorly trained. Reports of corruption are common – officials often stop both locals and foreigners under the pretext of traffic control and ask for bribes.

Limited rural infrastructure

The infrastructure and services across Cambodia are generally reliable, albeit more so in major urban centres than in rural areas. Out of town, electricity may drop in and out depending on both the weather and time of day, but you won’t face rolling blackouts or anything like that.

As with other countries in the region, Cambodia’s rural transport network leaves a lot to be desired with substandard roads and potholes.

Insect-borne diseases

Thanks to its hot, wet, muggy climate, you’re almost certainly going to encounter mosquitos at some point during your trip to Cambodia, which makes Malaria a real threat – albeit a manageable one, if you stock up on anti-malarial tablets.

Other mosquito-borne diseases you should consider getting vaccinated for (especially if you plan on staying in-country for more than four weeks) are Dengue and Chikungunya fever. Both are endemic in Cambodia and outbreaks are a risk during the May-November wet season.

cambodia templeThe ruins of Angkor Wat really are a sight to behold – but make sure you stock up on antimalarial tablets before visiting as it’s a hotbed of mosquitos.

Limited and substandard healthcare

A major concern for travellers is the poor standard of medical facilities in Cambodia as most are not considered adequate to address serious illnesses. This makes it extra important that you get the correct vaccinations before travelling and ensure that you have enough antimalarial pills to cover your stay.

Facilities used by expatriates include the Calmette Hospital and the Tropical and Travellers Medical Clinic, both in Phnom Penh. Outside of the capital medical care is largely unavailable, so try to take care of yourself because if you do suffer a medical emergency you’ll likely need evacuating to the nearest city or country with state-of-the-art medical facilities.

Cambodia also has a problem with counterfeit pharmaceuticals, which may pose health problems if consumed. We advise travellers to avoid independent pharmacies and to opt for chains such as ‘U-Care’.

Localised flooding

Thanks to being snuggled in between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is generally free of the torrential storms and typhoons that can wreak havoc in its neighbours. However, you’ll still experience heavy downpours during the wet season (May – Nov). These can cause localised flooding, especially if you are staying near the Mekong river or in the Mekong basin.

Landmines

As mentioned above, landmines pose a major threat to travellers in Cambodia, particularly in the northwest of the country. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimate that there are more than four million landmines still lying undiscovered, which means then any jungle treks you sign up to should only be undertaken with reputable companies only.

More than 20,000 people have died from landmines in Cambodia since 1979 and the country has the highest rate of amputees per capita in the world.

Road accidents

While it’s not quite as manic as in Vietnam, Cambodia’s roads are still very busy and can often come to a standstill during rush hour. Roads are relatively well maintained in cities and on popular inter-city routes (e.g. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap), but drop in standard when you get into rural areas.

If you prefer to hire a vehicle rather than barter for a Tuk-Tuk (and Cambodian drivers will try to drive the price up as high as possible), then be aware that overland driving can be a hazard due to a disregard for traffic and safety regulations amongst the majority of local motorists. Due to this, hundreds of road fatalities are recorded every year.


Preparing to stay safe ahead of your trip

Effective preparation is the basis of any successful trip, especially if you are heading abroad for months at a time. Below you’ll find some of our key preparation tips before travelling to Cambodia, but for a more in-depth info on travelling safety, check out our ultimate guide to staying safe while travelling.

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Learn a few basic phrases

cambodia street

Learning a few basic Khmer phrases will be super helpful if you plan on travelling to Cambodia. Not only will they ingratiate you with the locals, but you can’t guarantee that anyone will actually speak English. In more remote areas of Cambodia, knowing a few words and showing some manners to your hosts can go a long, long way.

Furthermore, having a few basic phrases in your pocket is also an easy way of flagging yourself out as a savvier traveller who is less susceptible to opportunists or common scams. A few key phrases to practice are:

  • Hello = Soos-a-day
  • Goodbye = Lee hi
  • Please = Som
  • Thank you = Ar-koon

Injections and vaccines

Due to the substandard healthcare facilities and risk of insect-borne diseases, we highly recommend that everyone heading to Cambodia gets vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, as well as for typhoid. If you plan on spending time outdoors or in contact with animals, then you should get shots for rabies and Japanese encephalitis too.

Although yellow fever is not present in Cambodia, the government requires travellers from countries where the disease is present to show proof of vaccination.

Mosquito-borne malaria is also common throughout Cambodia, except for Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap, so if venturing beyond the capital, it may be worth stocking up on anti-malarial tablets.

Familiarise yourself

Research your route and the places you plan to visit – how will you get to each location, where looks like a good place to stay, what should you know in advance that you don’t know already?

Familiarising yourself with your trip isn’t just a great way of getting yourself excited. It’s also an excellent way of creating a time and money-saving itinerary while identifying any potential hazards you need to be aware of.

Duplicate documents

Make multiple colour copies of your important documents such as flight tickets, passport, travel insurance, etc. Doing so ensures that you have the documents you need to get home if the originals are lost, damaged or stolen.

Leave one set of copies at home with your loved ones or friends and carry a set with you in your bags – but keep them separate from the real documents. You could also leave these duplicate documents in your hostel or hotel safe.

Alternatively, make digital copies with a scanner and send them to your email so you can access them anytime, anywhere (so long as you have access to WiFi!).

Travel insurance

A small payment up front can go a long, long way. Cambodian health facilities are shaky at best so it should be a no-brainer to sort out travel insurance before you jet off. It’ll also help you to cover and recoup the costs you incur if you do end up in hospital.


Staying safe in Cambodia

Keep your valuables hidden

As you would in any country where petty crime is a hazard risk, we recommend keeping your valuables close when in Cambodia. A bumbag or money belt worn under a t-shirt can be a discreet way of keeping your valuables safe.

Cambodia also has a problem with bag theft in urban areas, so wear your backpack on both shoulders and single strap bags across your body. It’s also possible to combine the above pieces of advice and put valuables into a zipped up backpack that you wear on your front – keeping your valuables discreet yet close at hand so you know they’re safe.

Alternatively, leave your valuables in the hotel/hostel safe or your room’s security lockbox if you don’t want to carry them around with you.

Respect local customs

One of the best things about travelling the world is experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. To minimise potential misunderstandings, try to abide by local rules and customs, especially in and around temples. This means no bare knees or shoulders when entering religious sites and no leaving your chopsticks stuck upright in your bowl (as it looks like mourning incense).

If you’re unsure about local Cambodian customs, we recommend reviewing the country profile in the CloseCircle app.

cambodia angkor wat close circleWatching the sunrise at Angkor Wat is special moment, but make sure to keep your knees and shoulders covered when visiting the temple complex so you don’t inadvertently upset locals.

Drive safe and look both ways

Whether you’re behind the wheel or trying to cross the road, you need to be extra vigilant when in Cambodia. Roads get busy but not as crazy as Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City does during peak hours, but you’ll still need to look both ways (at least twice!) to make sure you can cross the road safely.

If you opt to drive, then be wary of potholes and uneven surfaces on rural roads. Stick to clearly marked roads and paths as this is the best way to avoid inadvertently driving over one of the millions of undiscovered landmines that still cover Cambodia’s countryside.

Get a guide!

If you’re planning a jungle trek or want to get off the beaten track for a while then please, please, please take a guide with you. Cambodia is home to more than four million undiscovered landmines, which means there’s a real risk of exploding if you wander off by yourself in rural areas, especially in the Northwest of the country. If you’re not a fan of exploding, it’s best to hire someone who knows the area better than you do!

Dealing with corrupt officials

You’ve got two choices when it comes to corrupt officials and neither option is ideal. The first is to simply pay the bribe – usually disguised as an “admin fee” – and get it out the way.

The alternative is to refuse to pay the bribe/marked up price and call the official’s bluff. You may receive threats along the lines of ‘your transport won’t wait for you’ or ‘visa fees are more expensive at land crossings’, but if you hold your nerve you can usually avoid paying the bribe altogether with no negative consequences. There’s no guarantee that this works every time time though, so play it by ear as the situation develops.

Concerned about safety abroad? Keep yourself out of harm’s way by reading our ultimate guide to staying safe while backpacking…


Conclusion: Safe Travels in Cambodia

Cambodia is beautiful country, rich in history and tradition. With so many incredible places to visit, the urge to wander off the beaten track can be pretty strong…but don’t leave the beaten track! Not in Cambodia. The legacy of conflict looms large over the Southeast Asian country and as a result millions of undiscovered landmines lie undiscovered from years of conflict.

Life is slower in Cambodia compared to Thailand and Vietnam, which makes it a wonderful destination for backpackers. Aside from the landmines (which can be navigated with a reputable guide), you shouldn’t experience too much trouble in Cambodia, especially if you get the necessary vaccinations, stock up on anti-malarial tablets and keep your valuables safe when in busy areas.

If you need more travel advice, contact the CloseCircle team today..

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