The ugly side of Phnom Penh

The man calmly dismounted the back of his friend’s motorbike and strode to aid of his fellow thief, who was struggling with a middle-aged woman over a bagful of money he had taken from her minutes earlier in central Phnom Penh market. 

He raised his arm and, in a Youtube account posted for posterity, shot the woman in the head.

Then he calmly walked back to his friend’s bike, the money under his arm, and drove off.

Dozens of people stood by, watching. No one so much as stepped forward to help her, leaving her to die alone on the sidewalk. 

It’s just another day in Phnom Penh, another gut-wrenching example of the violent underbelly that is omnipresent yet hidden. It’s like having beers and burgers with a neighbor and one day learning that he is a serial murderer – “He always seemed like such a nice guy…” 

Lately, we seem to have witnessed more than our share of the tough stuff,and it’s seriously tainting my view of this place.

Tonight, while riding home in a tuk tuk at an intersection close to our house, I saw the residue of one of Phnom Penh’s countless motorbike accidents ahead. There was an unusual amount of yelling and gesturing, though, and I took note as a young man ran past our tuk tuk in the opposite direction, a horrified look on his face.

Close behind him strode a tall, slender Cambodian male with a grim look on his face and a handgun clutched in his right hand. Oddly, the crowd that routinely gathers to gawk at accidents didn’t seem surprised not uneasy about the presence of a gun. Neither did my tuk tuk driver, who shrugged and muscled his way into the intersection to take me home.

While walking to dinner a couple weeks ago, we watched in horror as two kids on a motorbike rode up aside a carful of teenagers and tossed a brick through the car’s side window. The motorbike did an abrupt u-turn and, followed by the car in hot pursuit, sped off.

One of my colleagues shrugged when I related the incident to him the next day. “It’s just kids,” he said. “Kids doing stupid things.”

In broad daylight? In front of hundreds of people? And no one objects, moves to help, or confronts these people.

Several months ago, word got out in the ex-pat community that groups of entitled “Khmer Riche” – the offspring of the well-heeled, lawless elite – had taken to cruising the Riverside in their Lexus SUVs, tossing rocks and bricks at groups of foreigners as they walked along Phnom Penh’s most popular tourist destination. Word got around that if you want to walk along the river, it’s best to stay clear of the road.

At times, it is very much the Wild West here..untamed Cambodia stands in direct conflict with the population we know and love as affable, easy-going, friendly and fun-loving.

It seems that necessity breeds crime here, much as it does in the United States and elsewhere. Sometimes it’s for fun; sometimes for drugs or booze. Sometimes, I am told, people take to stealing to raise money for family needs or celebrations. The upcoming Pchum Ben holiday (festival of the ancestors) is notorious for a surge in petty crime, according to a friend who is close to the action.

It’s gotten personal here, too.

Two weeks ago, four guys on two motorbikes targeted Gabi and me as we walked back from dinner. It was about 9 p.m., and we were two baraing (read: walking ATMs), one with a purse slung over her shoulder, both oblivious and unaware of the lurking danger. 

We never heard them coming. One guy grabbed her bag and ripped it off her shoulder, snagging her watch and breaking the band in the process, and sped off. The second bike with two guys aboard rode close to me, elbowing me out of the way and ducking as I swung my umbrella at them. 

They got her wallet (and about $100), her cell phone, camera and a couple of flash drives. They seriously rattled my wife and pissed me off. And there was not a thing I could do about it but watch as they sped away, clutching my wife’s handbag and glaring at me.

I’m told that thieves on motorbikes work in tandem like this all the time. The front pair grabs the bag and the backup team runs interference should the victim somehow fight back. Guns and knives are quickly produced if need be. Word is, it’s best to just let them take what they want and be off.

Most people shrug and say they know dozens of people who’ve been robbed. It’s part of the landscape. A cost of doing business in Cambodia.

But incidents like these – whether they happened to us or we were simply witnesses – stain our view of Cambodia and make it hard to approach each day with renewed positivism and hope for the work we do and the life we have created here. 

They got some cash and stuff from us, yes, but they also took with them a chunk of innocence and a big share of our wide-eyed love of Cambodia, leaving a bilious taste in our mouths as we were reminded, yet again, of how little we know about this place.

      5 comments

      • Phyllis Boulter

        Thank God you were not hurt. It is always better to give them what they want. Be safe!

      • I’m really sorry to hear that and being one of Cambodians I would apologize of what they did on you. Robbery, fighting, screaming…are happening in Cambodia. It did give a bag reputation to the nation and I hope that there will be a firm action and solution from our government to get rid of the issues. However, I hope you all continue keeping the good feeling of Cambodia and its beauty, where many other good people are also there.

      • As with most of your posts, this one leaves a picture that will not easily or soon be forgotten. I pray for your safety as you continue doing your part in making a positive difference.

      • Andrea Fidurko

        So happy to have found you and Gabi! What a wonderful adventure for both of you. I cannot say I am surprised to see that this life agrees with both of you.Liam (almost 12!) and I have tickets to see Emily as Tink on Saturday night! So excited. I told Liam that I knew her when she was his age! She is all over the papers in MA as you can well imagine. I hope all is well with both of you and your families. I plan to stay tuned to this blog fo your amazing adventures!Andrea

      • Saigon Dude

        This is pretty alarming. Is there any pattern to these attacks? Has there been any change to Phnom Penh’s security since these attacks occurred?Hope you’re not too scarred by the attackers. In Melbourne, Australia (2009), I myself had to fend off 3 armed thieves (#1 female distractor, #2 light grab-n-run guy, #3 heavy muscled guy to defend grab-n-run guy). Fortunately, I was at an extremely public pedestrian boulevard so I (loudly!) held my ground and they eventually got nervous, stopped threatening me, and fled the scene. I honestly don’t know if I could every really enjoy returning to that city.

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