5 travel scams to avoid in Cambodia and our tips for family safety
We are not ones to over-worry about travel safety, but we do ALWAYS take preventative steps including having travel insurance. Today we want to talk you through what happened to us in Cambodia, how we minimised our losses and how you can prepare for safe travels – wherever you are travelling in the world.
This post is part of our Travel Advice and South East Asia Destinations series.
Captivating Cambodia – the wrong way
Culturally fascinating, steeped in history and emanating a bustling vibrancy, we were determined we would love Cambodia. With the warm Asian air hitting our faces on arrival into Phnom Penh, we were completely lit with excitement. Sadly, a few days after our arrival we became victims of a ‘snatch and grab’ motorbike incident which marred our experience and memories of this beautiful country – you can read more below about exactly what happened.
Far from putting us off, we have returned to Cambodia again but would like to share a few words of wisdom so that an incident like this doesn’t happen to you. Cambodia IS a beautiful country crying out to be explored but it does suffer from its fair share of scams and petty crime.
Tourist Safety in Cambodia
So with one eye on the magnificent sites, another on the kids, where else should your eyes be looking?
Most issues in the country revolve around petty crime and corruption. It remains an incredibly poor country and tourists are often seen as easy targets for money earned the wrong way. A few other things to be aware of, or to allay any concerns:
- For families, things like health and safety standards may not be the same as we are used to. In your accommodation look for things like gaps in balcony railings, portacot safety or if taking a boat check that they do have working infant life jackets.
- Fair-hair touching – not much you can do on this one, this is Asia. But be vigilant and know when enough is enough.
- Only very remote areas that tourists are extremely unlikely to venture into still have issues with land mines.
- The most common petty crime in the country remains bag snatching – far more common than in other parts of Asia.
5 tourist scams in Cambodia to be aware of
Most issues we had in Cambodia were on the nuisance end of the scale rather than scam, but none the less be aware of these things. Speak with your children if they are old enough so they understand the potential for things to go wrong and why extra caution may be needed.
- Visa scams: Many travellers, especially at land border crossings have been forced into paying bribes. The best way to avoid this is to purchase your visa online in advance. Allow yourself plenty of time at the border and do not feel forced into getting a “helper” who will get you around the queue faster using his Visa service. Know exactly what documents you need and only hand that passport over once you know it’s a Government official.
- Fake banknotes: When exchanging cash, make sure you flick through the entire pile of notes yourself and see that they are all intact, no fake or broken notes; don’t just let the cashier skim them past you in a bundle. You are safer using an ATM which lets you withdraw both USD and Cambodian Rial – checking that no one is watching and nothing looks suspicious about the machine.
- “Fake cops” asking for your identification: If you have not been involved in a crime, there is no reason to hand over your passport on the street to a police officer (it should be safely locked in your room safe!). If they are insistent, ask for their police identification number and tell them it can be arranged to be handed over via your consulate.
- The broken taxi meter: Time and again you will find the meter is not working – if even in existence; Do your research on taxi and tuk tuk prices to know the going rate, don’t just rely on what your accommodation tells you as they may also have a deal with the regulars parked outside. You can read more about taxi scams here.
- Accepting gifts from children: Your own children are most likely to fall for this one, being handed friendship bracelets or postcards by other children. They, of course, assume it’s a gift, the children will play and have fun for a while, then the hand shoots out for cash when you go to leave. Getting your kids well trained in the art of saying “no thank you” will greatly assist in getting you around Cambodia.
If the worst does happen and you do need to report a crime, weigh up the costs involved with this too, versus what you’ve lost. The costs of getting there (we had to try two police stations before we were in “the right precinct”); the cost of an interpreter as everything official will be in Khmer (this ended up being our tuk tuk driver!); the cost to file the police report. None of these little added extra costs are likely to have paperwork to support them.
A group on motorbikes came past us in a relatively well-frequented, but poorly lit tourist area and used our children as a decoy to snatch our bag (this worried me FAR MORE than the fact they took our daypack!). One girl leant down off her motorbike to pick up our youngest and kiss him – not an uncommon occurrence when our blondies visit Asia – but not when you’re still on a revving bike. I ran to make sure my baby was OK and my husband quickly grabbed the other two children to pull them to safety. It took literally seconds for us to be distracted and the bag taken from beside where we had been sitting on a park bench.
Thankfully, our bag contained limited items of value but it was still a huge inconvenience to our trip. It could have been a lot worse as we did take a number of safety precautions and pre-planning steps to keep our valuables safe. What we lost was minimal and for the most part, replaceable. We talk you through here a few of the things you need to consider when travelling to Cambodia (though incidents like this can happen anywhere!!).
Steps to prepare before an overseas trip
- Take out travel insurance! Check for personal item coverage and 24-hour assistance.
- Read government advisories on safety precautions to take before travelling. For example, this is the current safety warning for Cambodia from Smartraveller. You can also see US Home Office advice here. It pays to have an awareness of where your nearest consulate is at all times too.
- Always keep the insurance details with you; not only saved on your phone keep a physical copy of the important information such as 24-hour claims hotline number and your bank’s phone number with you and in your hotel safe.
You can see our full checklist of things to do before an overseas trip here.
Steps to keep your belongings safe while travelling in Cambodia
Get a room with a hotel safe and USE IT! As soon as we arrive somewhere, we lock up all passports and valuable items that are not needed during our stay.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – or cards! or cash! The purse that was stolen from my bag only had a small amount of emergency cash in it and one bank card. Most cards and notes were in hubbies pocket, so he was able to go immediately to a police station to report the theft. On many occasions especially when holding the kids we might be tempted to put everything in one person’s bags/pockets but splitting these items up paid off.
Only take with you on day trips items that are necessary – so this includes not only your cash but items in your day bag. You minimise what can be stolen by what is carried on you. The children only lost one toy each from my bag, a baby bottle and a dummy; thankfully we had a back up of everything in the room to get us through the night at least. I had also thought to leave things like the health cards as well as passports in the safe. Had we had these stolen this would have been a cumbersome and costly process to replace.
Take a sensible bag – something that can go across the body is always best for travellers. If you are travelling in a tuk tuk, be mindful not to leave items on the floor or near the edges where they can be easily grabbed from the sides by a passing motorbike. Likewise, if walking on a footpath, steer clear of the road. If there is no footpath, walk facing the oncoming traffic and keep your bag facing AWAY from the road – yes even if this is a little cumbersome walking with the kids.
DO NOT leave bags or any valuables hanging off the back of the stroller – even if your nappy bag or daypack has little in it, it’s still an attractive target. If you use a baby carrier this is a great way to keep things close to your body.
Have that list of emergency numbers safe – even though I was incredibly lucky not to lose my smartphone on this occasion (snuggly inside my baby carrier), it made me realise I would have been lost without it – the ability to quickly jump on the internet for one! But it also had all my saved phone numbers and bank card details. I did not have a backup source of emergency numbers for things like my bank kept in the safe too, I would definitely do this as a future back up plan.
Cambodia Emergency Numbers
If the worst should happen, these are some important numbers to know.
- Police: 117
- Fire Service: 118
- Ambulance: 119
- Tourist Police – Phnom Penh: 023 726 158 / 12 942 484
- Tourist Police – Siem Reap: 012 402 424 / 012 696 991
Read more about our adventures in Cambodia with young kids – it’s not all negatives, I promise!
Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Southern Cross Travel Insurance. All opinion, as always, are our own. This page may contain affiliate links to third parties. If you make a purchase through these links we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Are full disclosure policy can be found here.