Cambodia is now pretty safe to visit with the major danger being from explosives: it remains one of the world’s most heavily mined countries and, furthermore, no one knows quite how much ordnance was dropped by the Americans over the country in the 1970s, or how much of it failed to explode. In the countryside, in spite of de-mining, it still pays to observe the simple rule of sticking to well-trodden paths.
On the whole, Cambodians are remarkably honest people (as attested by the money changers who sit unprotected on street corners surrounded by piles of notes), and crime is not a major problem. If you’re using public transport, good care will be taken of your bags, and it’s unusual to have anything go missing.
That said, pickpockets and petty thieves do operate, and it’s advisable to take good care of your purse or wallet, especially in markets, on motos or tuk-tuks, at Poipet border area and on the beach at Sihanoukville. Incidents of armed mugging are not unknown either (some committed by robbers masquerading as police), so after dark, particularly in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, it’s wise to leave most of your money in the safe at your hotel or guesthouse, taking just enough cash for the evening.
If you are held up by muggers or armed robbers, don’t resist and put yourself in danger, but do report the incident to the police as soon as possible – you’ll need a signed, dated report from them to claim on your travel insurance – and, if you lose your passport, to your embassy as well. In Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, English-speaking tourist police will help, but in the provinces you’ll have to deal with the local police, who are unlikely to have more than a smattering of English, so if possible take a Khmer-speaker with you.
Though the vast majority of Cambodian police will do their best to help in an emergency, a small minority are not averse to trying to elicit money from foreigners. If you’re riding a motorbike or driving a motor vehicle, they may well deem that you’ve committed an offence. You can argue the “fine” down to a few dollars and may as well pay up, although if you can stand the hassle and don’t mind wasting a lot more time you may feel it worth reporting such incidents to the police commissioner.
Road accidents usually attract vast crowds of curious onlookers, and if any damage to property or injury to a person or domestic animal has occurred, then you’ll have to stay at the scene until the police arrive. It’s the driver’s responsibility to come to a financial arrangement with the other parties involved. In spite of their general amiability, it’s not unknown for locals to try to coerce foreigners into coughing up money, even if they are the innocent party or merely a passenger.
The possession and use of marijuana (called ganja locally), cocaine and heroin are illegal. Although the penalty for drugs offences does not include the death sentence as in some other Southeast Asian countries, it is likely to entail a lengthy prison sentence (from 5 year to life) which, in the absence of repatriation agreements with other countries, will have to be spent in full in a Cambodian jail.
Land mines and unexploded ordnance
The UN estimates that between four and six million land mines were laid in Cambodia between 1979 and 1991, but no one really knows. The Vietnamese and the government laid them as protection against Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who in turn laid them to intimidate local populations; neither side recorded the locations of the minefields. While over two thousand minefields have now been identified (usually through members of the local population being blown up), these are thought to represent just a fraction of the total number with new locations regularly being reported. Several organizations are actively working at de-mining the countryside, and at last the number of casualties is decreasing; but given the scale of the problem, it will be many years before the mines are cleared completely.
The Angkor temple complexes are safe, but mines are still a risk in the countryside around Siem Reap. The border with Thailand, from Koh Kong to Preah Vihear, is particularly hazardous. In rural areas, take care not to leave well-used paths and don’t take short cuts across rice fields without a local guide. Areas known to be badly contaminated are signed with a red skull and the words “Beware Mines”.
As if this problem weren’t enough, in the 1970s the United States dropped over half a million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia. This began as part of a secret and illicit plan to expose the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by communist North Vietnamese troops, and ended up in a massive countrywide bombing campaign to support the pro-American Lon Nol government against the Khmer Rouge. Unexploded ordnance (UXO), or explosive remnants of war (ERW), remains a risk in rural areas, with the southeast, centre and northeast of the country particularly affected; in the countryside it’s foolish to pick up or kick any unidentified metal objects.