Lessons worth learning – Cambodia part 1
Cambodia: what a roller-coaster!
I think even though we were aware at the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, that we were finally in a majority world type of economy (meaning that we are the privileged minority) and that maybe we were not quite ready to deal with the change in travel conditions, it still caught us off guard and very quickly too. Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong had all had their quirks and challenges but safety had never been a concern. Even amongst the Hong Kong protests, in the very middle of the action there was really nothing to worry about, as long as we were aware and exercised common sense.
(Note: We were very much aware that we were experiencing history being made, on the scale that books and essays would be written about it as a turning point, for decades to come. A complete blog post dedicated to our time there amongst it all will eventually have to be written.)
My first attempt at describing the events surrounding the theft of my wallet, which happened within the first few hours of arriving in the capital and dictated the course of the following days, was too long and way too heavy. At least in the sense that it gave a disproportionately negative feeling of our time there. Certainly it was a rather traumatic experience that left me feeling vulnerable, violated, distrusting and paranoid. However, as far as traumatic experiences go and when it was all said and done, it was very very mild and more of a learning experience more than anything else.
I do think that there is some value in sharing at least a summary of what happened.
We arrived late in the afternoon, tired and hungry. Having booked a place to stay the night before while at the Hong Kong International airport, we had the extra stress of having been taken to the wrong hostel by the tuk tuk that awaited us (we booked with Me Mate’s Place and got taken to Me Mate’s Villa – a fair chunk of the city separated the two but you can understand the mistake). This serendipitous event would directly lead to eventually meeting an awesome chick named Ruth but more of that later on.
We were aware that Phnom Penh had a reputation and so we tried our best to prepare ourselves as we went out that night to fill our bellies. We ended up at the local night market, as by then we had developed a taste for finding and experiencing the local food, and within 10-15 minutes my bag that was strapped across my chest had been pick-pocketed and my wallet was stolen.
We then had a very stressful couple of nights and days, trying to get in touch with banks from a country that has less than reliable phone lines, crappy mobile phone coverage (at least with the one we went with) and no international operator which meant no reverse charge charge phone calls. This is where World Nomads Travel Insurance simply excelled. They made everything easy. From reporting the incident, to getting some tips on what to do next, to an easy and understanding ear (they also have an awesome Lisa :D), it was just great. But it was them staying with us for hours and connecting us to the various institutions that was just incredible (cheers Chris for those long hours :D).
One interesting aspect of the whole experience was dealing with the police. First, nobody seemed to know how to find them. We honestly tried with quite a few people and always using a map. After a while we started wondering if it was more of a case of language barrier and a lack of map reading skills that was preventing us from getting there. Or maybe it’s a case of people dealing with problems without trying to get the police involved. Then when we finally got there, thanks to an awesome tuk tuk driver, we were slightly unsure exactly how to act. You see in order to get the police report we had to pay for it, which we could kind of get our heads around. It was the fact that the price was… up for discussion, you could say, that left us on shaky ground. In the end, with some trepidation and some very controlled rush of adrenalin, we all agreed that the original asking price of US$45 would leave us with no money to get back to our hotel and we settled on US$25.
We then basically went back to our hotel to hide for a few days and recover. I was very fidgety and my unease translated to other areas. Tuk tuks are basically a three wheeled open taxi, that is a combination of a motorbike and a trailer. They are not safe, especially with the crazy driving you get in Cambodia but they are particularly susceptible to theft. Since most of them are open with nothing to stop someone from reaching in, you have to take real care where you place your bags and always keep a tight hold of them. Even this may not be enough because the roads are so busy and full of tuk tuks, bikes and cars squished in, when you stop at the lights, there is nothing stopping someone from stealing from your bag the way it happened at the night market and with almost as much ease. This makes you constantly on edge and on your awares, rather than just enjoying the ride.
Such was our state, when on the days following the theft we had a run in with a bike. While on a tuk tuk we noticed a motorbike approach us from the left, Lisa’s side, and make a move to reach out for us a few times. He finally managed to grab a hold of us when we stopped at the lights. What he was trying to do we will never know because just as he grabbed the tuk tuk and stopped next to us, our driver started forward again which pulled the bike off balance along with the passengers on it. When we looked back a family of three, a male driver, a woman and what looked like their young daughter were picking themselves up from the road, checking to see if they had head injuries, looking in our direction.
When our driver looked back to see what had happened we just quickly told him to keep going. We never stopped to make sure they were actually alright. We were so freaked out by the theft and the fact that we read that tourists often get pressured for cash or have their valuables ransacked when they get involved in road accidents, that we just… never stopped. It still feels like we let our fear dictate our actions on that afternoon and that still does not sit well with us.
Slowly, we came back to ourselves as the days went by and with the help of some awesome locals and immigrants, we learnt more and more about Cambodia and slowly but surely fell in love with the country and it’s people.