Is Cambodia a safe place to travel? What about for solo women travelers? While it’s impossible to answer the safety question definitively – bad luck happens all around the world – the issue of travel safety in Cambodia is pretty polarized at the moment.
Despite its many charms – natural beauty, welcoming people, awe-inspiring temples – it seems a number of travelers have had negative experiences in Cambodia. Many, though not all, are female, for example Absolutely Lucy, Sheree Milli, and Adventurous Kate.
These ladies are experienced world travelers and yet they tell of being robbed, ripped off and harassed in Cambodia. Not a promising picture! I worried about this as I planned my solo bicycle tour through Southeast Asia toward the end of 2018.
What did I do? I went anyway. Foolish perhaps, but my curiosity got the better of me. Besides, a part of me wanted to believe that it would be different for me, alone on a bicycle, out on the quiet country roads and away from the tourist towns. Yet when I crossed the border from Laos into Cambodia I was worried. Would all those horrible things happen to me?
I’m happy to report that during 16 days of riding a bicycle, alone and female, back and forth across Cambodia on everything from empty rural lanes to the busy streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I had zero issues in the personal safety and security department. (Aside from the traffic – that’s another story!)
Am I saying Cambodia is a safe country? Nope, I’m not qualified to make that bold statement and I can’t deny that some nasty stuff has happened to other travelers there (as it has to travelers in many places). I also think believing a place is “safe” as a blanket statement is one of the best ways to get into trouble while traveling. We should always be assessing our safety when in unfamiliar places. The last thing I would want is for my writing to convince someone to show up in Cambodia and stop paying attention because he/she believes it is a “safe place.”
I’m going to share my personal experience below in hopes of helping other nontraditional travelers, particularly female cyclists or other women who travel in unusual ways or to off-the-beaten-track places, to make decisions about where they want to go. I want to create what I was looking for when planning my own trip: a positive counterpart to the negative stories, something to bolster my courage and remind me that things might actually work out after all. If that’s what you’re looking for, read on!
Why the different experiences?
First a clarification: I am absolutely NOT saying I think the authors of the negative posts are incorrect or did anything wrong. I believe their experiences 100% and I’m saddened by the fear and frustration they felt. Why did we have such different experiences while traveling in Cambodia? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I have a couple guesses.
I believe luck is a huge factor in one’s impressions while traveling, especially when spending a relatively short time in a new place. Every country in the world is full of mostly good people with a few bad people mixed in. It seems I had the good luck to not run into any of Cambodia’s bad people, at least not at vulnerable times. The authors of the negative stories, I suspect, had some bad luck in this department.
Safety is always relative to who you are and how you travel. Many people think bicycle touring is more dangerous than backpacking. After all, cyclists spend most of our time away from other tourists and tourism infrastructure, out on rural roads and in poor villages, vulnerable and alone.
I beg to differ. In places like Cambodia where tourism is common, the few bad people out there have plenty of easy and predictable targets. If you’re a backpacker arriving in Phnom Penh at night via the usual buses and looking for a tuk tuk or hostel in the usual places, any dishonest person in the city knows exactly where to find you and how to spot you on the street.
On the other hand, when I pass by on a bicycle, I’m too weird to be an easy target. Most people in the countryside are simply going about their business and not in the frame of mind to hassle a cyclist who may as well be an alien dropped into their village from another planet. A woman alone? Even weirder! I believe it would take a ballsy criminal to consider interrupting my ride in most places.
Another factor is how we spend our time. Many backpackers spend a lot of time out at night in large cities in places where tipsy and vulnerable foreigners are known to congregate. No judgment, going out can be good fun. But when cycling or traveling alone I spend most of my nights going to bed early, in an unassuming guesthouse, in a small town that might see a foreigner every few days to weeks. That’s a completely different risk profile.
So, if you are a female backpacker considering a trip to the most common tourist cities in Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville – then you should take my story with a grain of salt, just like I do when I read stories written by those who travel differently than I do. We move through entirely different worlds, and my experiences may not mean much for you. But if you travel independently by bicycle, motorbike, rental car, or you like taking decrepit local buses to random towns off the usual tourist trail, then read on for some encouraging words about solo female travel in Cambodia.
What I loved about Cambodia
Let’s get to the positive part! I had a great time throughout most of my trip in Cambodia and here are some reasons why.
Many Cambodians I met, especially in the rural north of the country, rivaled even the famously welcoming Lao people for their genuine friendliness. Wherever I went I was greeted warmly, and not in that annoying way that feels like a game sometimes, but in a way that felt like they really just wanted to interact.
The matriarch of a house full of women shared rice with me. A man in a Red Cross truck handed a water bottle out the window on a blistering hot afternoon. Kids played with me. Many people politely smiled and then left me alone. I generally got good vibes coming in my direction.
Yes, a few roadside vendors charged me a bit more than the locals’ price for food. But most did not, though they easily could have.
The friendly vibes did decrease a bit once I got south of Phnom Penh, toward Kampot and the border with Thailand. Maybe they’re more used to tourists down there, or maybe the culture is different. For whatever reason, the northern part of Cambodia was one of the friendliest places I experienced in Southeast Asia.
OK, Cambodia isn’t known for its jaw-dropping scenery. It doesn’t have the dramatic mountains of Vietnam or Laos, or the endless beaches of Thailand. But, there is beauty to be found in the muted colors of plains stretching to the horizon in the north. And some of the rivers in the south are just as breathtaking as any in Laos.
While I feel people who only visit Cambodia for the temples are missing out, it’s true that the country’s impressive collection of Angkor-era ruins and reconstructions is worth the visit all by itself.
Angkor Wat in Siem Reap was amazing, though I personally had a hard time navigating all the crowds of tourists. Being used to plenty of solitude on quiet roads, it was a bit too much for me. I will say that Siem Reap felt like a pretty safe city (though I know petty theft does happen) and I wandered around during the day and evening with no issues whatsoever.
My favorite temples were the charming and nearly empty ruins at Koh Ker, well worth a visit if you prefer a bit more peace and quiet to contemplate these wonders of a past world.
Cheap and plentiful food and lodging
People who say lodging is cheap in Thailand probably haven’t been to Cambodia! Staying in small towns off the tourist trail I rarely paid more than $7 USD per night for a room, often (not always) a comfortable private room with en suite bathroom. Granted, these were fan-only rooms (no AC) with cold showers, but that’s a good combination – who needs a hot shower when it’s a million degrees outside?
Conveniently, even most small towns in Cambodia have at least one of these guesthouses and people will be happy to point you in the right direction (make the “sleep” gesture by putting your hands palms-together, tilting your head to the side and laying your cheek on the back of one of your hands). I often used Maps.me and found the data to be quite accurate for Cambodia.
In the cities, granted, prices do go up. But the cities also tend to have hostels, which means you can still pay the same or less for a cheap place to lay your head if budget is an important factor.
Cambodian food, well, it’s great in some places and so-so in others. In small towns you may be eating lots of fried rice, or noodle soup, or whatever they’ve cooked up in the big metal pots sitting out front. It’s usually cheap though, often just $1 – $2 per meal unless you’re eating at tourist restaurants. And it’s nearly everywhere along the roadside, along with cold drinks, which are amazing while cycling on a hot day.
Fewer tourists (it’s all relative in SE Asia)
For some reason Americans don’t travel to Southeast Asia as often as Europeans and Australians. So, being an American myself and not knowing many people who’ve gone, I was surprised by the number of foreigners there. Of the four countries I visited (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand) Cambodia was definitely the least “touristy” of the bunch. I always appreciate this because local people interact with you differently, and you see a different side of a place, when the foreigner/local ratio is low enough.
There are exceptions of course. Places like Siem Reap are absolutely crawling with foreigners. Parts of Phnom Penh are too, and smaller towns like Kampot. But elsewhere, in towns like Battambang, Sisophon, Stung Treng, Pursat, and Preah Vihear, I saw very few foreign faces and appreciated the feeling of genuineness this allowed. I enjoyed the sense that I was seeing a place as it really was, not somewhere that was created to please me and make money from my presence.
Potential hassles in Cambodia
What could possibly go wrong? Here were my experiences.
Sexual harassment: nope (I think)
Sadly, most women deal with this both at home and when we travel, nearly everywhere in the world. So I was relieved and pleased to experience basically none in Cambodia. Heck, even Vietnam was worse for me in terms of sexual harassment.
In general Cambodian men did not approach me, say inappropriate things to me, make rude gestures at me, proposition me, or hassle me. Often, they smiled or nodded politely at me (I think being on a bicycle had a lot to do with this). Occasionally they offered to help me. If nothing else, they ignored me. Not bad!
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say I suspect one Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver might have shouted something inappropriate as he drove past one afternoon. But I’m not sure if I heard him right and his demeanor was hard to read. He was fairly far away and I never felt in danger. If his goal was to harass me, he did a poor job of it.
Nothing was stolen from me in Cambodia, nor during the rest of my trip in Southeast Asia.
I know Phnom Penh and Siem Reap see their fair share of bag snatchings, just like many cities in the world. Common sense says to always be aware of your surroundings and belongings, carry them in a way that makes them unappealing targets for passing pedestrians or motorbikes, and don’t carry valuables that you don’t need.
When walking around Phnom Penh and Siem Reap I sometimes carried a small backpack, but usually only my phone and some cash in my zipped pockets.
At temples and shops I sometimes had no choice but to leave my fully loaded bicycle parked outside and unattended. I always locked it with a cable lock and took all valuables with me. Not too surprisingly, no one decided to fiddle with my panniers and rifle through my dirty laundry to find something to steal. I hear it happens though, so I was careful to park near a guard or shop where I knew potential thieves would be worried about getting caught.
Aggressive touts: no, just normal touts
I’ve read that some people were bothered by persistent tuk tuk drivers and vendors who would not take no for an answer when offering their services and wares.
My own experience was that touts did occasionally address me, most annoyingly the ladies selling food and clothing at the temples of Angkor Wat, and a few tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh. Would I call them aggressive? Absolutely not. Someone who asks once or twice but then leaves me alone after a simple “no thanks” or – worst case – twenty seconds of ignoring them is not what I would consider aggressive.
Aggressive is bush taxi drivers in West Africa jostling with each other to take the pack off my back and put it in their specific vehicle, which is definitely going to leave “Right now! Hurry hurry! Buy ticket!” but obviously won’t leave for at least another hour. Aggressive is women shoving baskets of fruit in my face (and everyone else’s) and yelling “mangoes!” for a full ten minutes while we sit captive inside a sweltering bus.
I did not meet a single Cambodian in Cambodia who I would describe with the word “aggressive.”
Sex tourism: yes, unfortunately
Some of the stories and comments I’ve read about negative experiences in Cambodia refer to the dodginess / sketchiness / whatever your local term is for red light districts, brothels, and sex tourism.
This is a very sad problem in Cambodia. It’s sad for the women and sometimes underage girls who are trapped in the industry. It’s sad that so many men, locals and foreigners alike, indulge in this harmful practice as recreation. There are many, many sad things about it. And I saw the creepy dudes who came there for it.
That said, I don’t believe this makes the country dramatically less safe for female travelers, who are viewed in a completely different light (unfairly) from local women.
This is a good reminder to all of us that we need to think about safety as rationally as possible. For example, in realizing that the budget motel we’ve chosen is actually a brothel, we might be tempted to leave immediately. And yet, if it’s late at night and the “motel” appears to be a safe place to spend the night behind a locked door, I would argue it’s best to stay the night and then find alternate lodging in the morning.
Traffic accidents: yes, definitely a risk
Unfortunately one of the bloggers who had a bad time in Cambodia was involved in a bus accident, and after cycling there I can see why. Cycling in Cambodian traffic felt far more dangerous to me than cycling in Vietnam, Laos, or Thailand. My only accident of the trip, a minor one fortunately, happened in Siem Reap when I was clipped by a motorbike full of school boys.
I’d encourage anyone visiting Cambodia, whether solo or in a group, male or female, to be mindful of your transportation situation (especially avoid being on the roads at night) and have reliable medical evacuation insurance. If something does go wrong you’ll want to at least get to Bangkok ASAP for any medical care.
General lawlessness? Maybe, but I didn’t see it.
I’ve seen a number of blog and forum comments refer to the general “wild west” or lawless nature of Cambodia. One even mentioned “guns everywhere.” Though I went in expecting this, I have to say, I didn’t really feel it. I saw very few guns in Cambodia, in fact I can’t remember a single one. I do believe some of the police are corrupt and not necessarily able to help foreigners once something bad has happened, which can be scary but is not all that unusual when traveling.
It’s certainly worth remembering that Cambodia has some very serious tragedy and genocide in its all-too-recent history. This is bound to create a generation or two of challenged people who may struggle to create a life for themselves by turning to unsavory lifestyles. Before traveling to Cambodia, research the history so you will understand the experiences of older Cambodians and the ripple effect they can have on younger generations.
However, as a traveler, I did not feel the weight of this history very heavily. It seems the country is moving forward admirably, though obviously not without its challenges.
Your results may vary
I’ve written here about my experience. I can’t say what your experience will be, but I can tell you the following details to help you decide whether my experience might be relevant for you. By no means am I saying a traveler should need to do all these things to be safe, or that if you do these things you will definitely be safe. Safety is a tricky, slippery thing. I’m just giving you the full story so you can make up your own mind.
These factors may or may not have played a role in my lack of negative experiences:
I didn’t spend much time in cities.
Only two nights in Phnom Penh, four nights in Siem Reap (but I camped at the Tourist Police station instead of staying downtown), and skipped Sihanoukville entirely.
I didn’t use typical transportation.
I never once took a tuk tuk. I took one bus into Phnom Penh because the highway traffic felt unsafe. They overcharged a bit for my bike but otherwise no problems. I mention this because I think tuk tuks, motos etc are involved in a lot of petty crime that tourists encounter.
I didn’t do nightlife.
No bars, no clubs, no wandering streets late at night. I’m not against it, it’s just not my scene in the middle of a solo bicycle trip. I’ve read some warnings about tourists getting their drinks spiked and then getting robbed or worse, and I don’t doubt there’s a dangerous scene in Cambodian cities that is easier to stumble into if you’re indulging in nightlife. I just didn’t have to deal with this stuff.
I looked weird.
Ok, we all know that how someone looks is never an appropriate justification for hassling or harming them. But it’s true that people sometimes use others’ dress as a way of predicting how they will react in certain situations, including whether they might be an easy target for malicious acts.
Sadly, I wonder if it helped that I didn’t look like a normal female tourist. My cycling uniform was baggy knee-length shorts and an athletic t-shirt. After 2000+ miles of riding, they were dirty in a way no amount of guesthouse sink washings could fix. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I smelled bad. I probably came across as an unpredictable target. This may be the one and only advantage of feeling like a gross and grubby cyclist for months at a time.
I’m experienced with travel in challenging developing countries.
I traveled alone for five months through parts of east and west Africa earlier this year. My trip included countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, places where a white tourists gets a whole lot more attention than in Southeast Asia and which make Cambodia feel relatively developed by comparison.
I have a lot of practice staying aware and making fast judgment calls about my surroundings and people I meet. I can put on a “don’t f**k with me” attitude that shields me from all but the most aggressive touts. The occasional tuk tuk driver asking if I want a ride doesn’t even begin to bother me anymore. Not that I always get everything right – I still make mistakes and try to learn from them – but at least this stuff is not new to me anymore.
So is Cambodia safe for travelers?
Can I promise you’ll be safe there? Of course not! But for any person with a bit of travel experience and a willingness to think rationally and stay aware, I personally think Cambodia is worth a visit.
Even solo female travelers? Yes, even solo female travelers.
I have a hard time understanding some of the very negative experiences that have been written about, though I don’t deny that they happened. Perhaps I was simply very lucky in an unsafe place. But that’s not how it felt to me.
I would still absolutely suggest taking basic safety precautions, as I would to anyone traveling anywhere in the world. While there is definitely some luck involved, I believe there is a lot one can do to minimize the chance of something bad happening while traveling (or at home for that matter).
If you’re reading this, then you are doing your own research and making your own decision, which is great. If you do end up visiting Cambodia, I suggest taking some time to get away from the cities and see more than just the tourist hubs. And I hope your experience turns out to be as positive as mine was.
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