When I worked in Hong Kong, several family and friends came to visit. Not so many have come to Cambodia, partly because many perceive the kingdom as a dangerous place although it probably is no more dangerous than most other destinations.
When I first arrived in Cambodia in early 2000, the Khmer Rouge army remnants were still active and we received a weekly security bulletin detailing the location of their attacks and ambushes. No one traveled after dark, and the report listed the dangerous roads to avoid and the starting times required to reach another city before nightfall.
Even within Phnom Penh, the capital, there were no nighttime activities, no social life after dark, no night meetings. (For a priest from Louisville, accustomed to one or two meetings every night, that was like heaven!)
Part of the reason was for safety. Guns were everywhere and street crime was common. When Maryknoll had its weekly Wednesday meeting and Mass and dinner that ended after dark, someone always accompanied the women lay missioners to their homes.
Home was not always safe, though. In the first house I lived in, not knowing any better, we kept a balcony door open upstairs for ventilation, and one night a cat burglar climbed up and came into my room and took my camera and other items while I was sleeping. Another night in another house, the screen in my bedroom window was cut as someone pushed the curtain aside to look for valuables reachable through the bars on the windows.
In a strange incident, an Australian deaf woman advisor at our deaf program was talking in sign language on a webcam with her friend in Washington, D.C., late one night and the friend asked who the man was she saw come in the third-floor balcony door behind the advisor. Going to investigate, the advisor was knocked down by an intruder running to escape.
The streets were and are not so safe either. Many women passengers on motorcycle taxis have had their purses or bags snatched by thieves on motorcycles. Several women were injured when they didn’t let go of their purses and were pulled from their moving motos.
One day, as I was coming home, two guys on a motorcycle started forcing my bicycle toward the curb. As I tried to keep control, the guy on the back grabbed my backpack, with my wallet and camera, from the bike basket. I had heard of that ploy but always thought I could just reach out and grab my backpack if anyone reached for it. Wrong.
Now, near the airport, discerning thieves look for the newly arrived tourists going to their hotel, excited about their first ride in a tuk-tuk, and then the thieves ride by on motos and grab phones, cameras, and even suitcases. Foreigners are an obvious target for thieves because they have money and don’t know the language and local street smarts.
In the past, each newly arriving Maryknoller got a regular moto-taxi driver to take us around. Hiring a permanent driver meant we knew whom we were riding with, he knew where we wanted to go, and the drivers saw themselves as our protectors.
Cambodians are not more prone to crime than other populations but they have experienced the breakdown of law and order after a half-century of warfare. The Khmer Rouge destroyed the social and moral infrastructure of the country, and the population focused just on survival. Rebuilding has been slow and difficult and has been complicated by decades of poverty.
And it’s not only the locals who cause problems. Two different times I have had bodyguards with me for several months when foreigners — upset when we cut them off for scamming our St. Vincent de Paul Society — were threatening me.
Things are better now. Society is changing and Buddhist values and morality are being reintroduced. We still need to be careful but it’s not like the old days.
Father Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.