How My Purse Was Stolen in Cambodia

There are a lot of warning signs to this story, that I wish I had taken more seriously. Maybe this could have been avoided. But I’d been traveling for about 5 months, and had gotten really comfortable..too comfortable apparently. Moral of the story is, always trust your instincts!

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I was traveling on the main tourist track through Cambodia with my friend Helen. We started in Siem Reap, and had a great time there. It’s very cute and walkable. There’s tons of adorable bars and $1 smoothie stands everywhere. We went to this amazing frozen yogurt shop every night called Project Y. Overall, we were having a great time, and expected the same thing of Phnom Penh, our next stop.

But when we arrived, I disliked the city right away. It just had a feeling to it that I knew wasn’t me, and I felt uneasy and wanted to leave. On our first day, we just walked around. It was super hot and there wasn’t anything great to see.

Strangely, nearly every time one of us had our phone out getting directions or taking a picture, a Cambodian man would come up to us and tell us to be careful with our phones. It happened at least 5 times. It was eerie and, honestly, made me wonder if those men were trying to trick us or something. I didn’t like it.

The next night, we decided to go to a night club called Pontoon Club. We had been going to bed early every night, so thought it might be fun to go dancing and stay out a bit later. We heard from others that this night club was a bit sketchy, so we were already very on guard. We just had a couple drinks, and danced, carefully holding our purses next to us.

On our way home, we turned onto a main street to get back to our hostel, Base Villa. This street was very busy and thriving during the day, but at night, it felt scary. It was the only leg of the walk that felt this way. I turned to Helen and said we need to be careful on this street. I was expecting a person to come up to us, maybe, so I was watching for that. But I wasn’t expecting what happened next….

Helen and I were walked side by side, briskly trying to get down this street. All of a sudden, a motorbike was next to me, and a tuk tuk was next to Helen, blocking us in together. Within a split second, they had cut my purse away from my body and were gone.

Then it was all quite dramatic. Once I realized what had happened I started screaming “they stole my purse!” I starting running after them (futile) but tripped and fell on the ground (I’ve never been very athletic.) A nice tuk tuk driver stopped and picked us up and drove after them (this was a bad idea because they could have been in on the scheme as well, but in my panic, I wasn’t really thinking). Anyways, there was really no hope of catching them…

I had heard of this happening before the trip, but motorbikes are everywhere. You get so accustomed to their presence. I never expected this, and it happened so so fast.

I lost my wallet with my license, credit card, debit card, $30, and my iPhone (luckily I had my iPhone data entirely backed up on iCloud). So then ensued the awful walk back home, the people at our hostel telling us there’s no point in contacting the police unless I had phone insurance (which I didn’t), staying up late calling my bank, canceling my cards, changing all my passwords….

I had another credit card hidden in my backpack in case something like this happened, but it was of very little use. It has high international transaction fees, and after hours on the phone with my bank, was still unable to withdraw money from an ATM with this card. Luckily, Helen generously lent me some cash so I could survive a few weeks while I waited for my new debit and credit cards to reach me in Laos (thank you mom for sending them!).

Later, I learned from other friends that Cambodia is very known for petty theft. So please be careful when traveling there. Although this can and does, of course, happen many places in SE Asia! And speaking of….

I mentioned in my blog post “How to Pack for a Year-long Warm-weather Trip Abroad,” that I purchased and have been using this purse specifically designed for travel. One of the ways it’s designed for travel is that the straps cannot be cut through. Seems great, except that….had I been wearing this purse when the incident happened, likely I would have been jerked forward, and dragged on the ground until the purse finally slipped off me (this actually happened to a friend of a friend in Bali). Luckily (I think), I was wearing a very cheap purse I had purchased at a market in Chiang Mai, so it cut away from my body easily. Now, I’m back to wearing my travel purse, but I’m really not sure how I feel about it now! I keep it tightly held to my body when I walk around so that no one can grab the straps.

The safest bet is probably to carry a cheap bag with a bit of cash in it, and keep your phone, cards, and more cash in a money belt around your waist. But I know that that is really quite inconvenient.

My friend Helen and I a few days before the incident

My friend Helen and I a few days before the incident

Whatever you decide to do, I hope this story can inform your decision. Stay safe and vigilant!

P.S. This is nothing against Cambodia! Helen and I had a wonderful time there (which I will detail in a future blog post), and actually most of the Cambodians I met were the most hospitable people I’ve met my entire time in SE Asia.