The story you are about to read recounts one of the worst experiences I’ve had in all my years of living abroad: in August of 2016, I was robbed in Cambodia on the streets of Phnom Penh.
It left me feeling vulnerable and violated. But this story is about so much more than that. What I really learned that hideous August morning two years ago was a lesson about the kindness of strangers and the interconnectedness of all humans. I only survived this episode because of the kindness of the Cambodians in my life.
At the end of the post, I’ll include some lists of what I learned from this experience, including what to do if you lose your passport abroad, how to get a new visa to Cambodia after you get robbed, and how to stay safe when traveling.
But for now, here is the story of the time I ended up stranded in Phnom Penh with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and how I survived.
At the time this happened, I’d been living in Cambodia for about six months. My friend and co-worker, Kimleng, a young Khmer (Cambodian) woman, was spending the summer near Phnom Penh organizing a summer camp for the NGO we worked for. I decided to visit her.
Because I only had a weekend for the trip, I made the rather unwise decision to take the night bus. Several people told me not to take the bus, that it was dangerous. But I wanted to have as much time as possible with Kimleng, so night bus it was. I popped a couple sleeping pills to help me get through the 6 or 7-hour bus ride from Battambang to Phnom Penh.
When we arrived my mind was wrapped in a sleeping pill-induced fog. It was the hour just before dawn, the sky a deep royal blue, the horizon only just hinting at the hot day to come.
I hopped into a tuk-tuk to go to my hotel. As we puttered down the main boulevards of the city, I leaned out of the tuk-tuk, gazing around at the magnificent embassies and luxury hotels. This city was so wildly different from Battambang, the contrast stunned me. My small pack, the only bag I packed, sat forgotten on the seat next to me.
As I’m looking around, I hear a motorcycle approaching from behind. Two men are seated on it. I turn to watch them pass and I see the one sitting on the back reach into my tuk-tuk, grab my bag, and swipe it off the seat. They drove around the corner and my bag was gone.
I stared at the empty space where my bag had just been. My mind faltered, unable to comprehend what had just happened. For a few seconds, I sat in shock, unresponsive. Then the truth hit me and I did the only thing I could do:
What Did They Steal
That backpack they stole had been the only bag I had carried with me for the weekend, and unfortunately, I had packed most of my expensive possessions. Here is what they stole:
My MacBook Pro
My wallet with $800 cash, my debit card, and my driver’s license
The loss of the passport hurt the most. For the obvious reason: it was my only form of valid identification and documented my legal status in Cambodia. But also, that passport that had traveled all over the world with me. From my first day moving abroad to Korea, to my first trip to Japan, my six-month backpacking trip around 12 countries, Australia, my year in Peru, and now my life in Cambodia, this passport recorded it all. It was my most treasured possession. And it was gone.
You may also be wondering why I was traveling with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash. The explanation is simple: I was working for an NGO in Cambodia who paid me in checks. I wanted to open a bank account in Cambodia so that I wouldn’t constantly be cashing checks and keeping hundred dollar bills in an envelope in my bedside table. It wasn’t a good look.
I cashed the check in Battambang but didn’t have time to open the bank account. I told myself I would do it in Phnom Penh, with Kimleng there to help translate. But to open a bank account, I needed to have the cash and my passport. So I got on a bus with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash.
So this was what was all running through my head as I sat screaming in a tuk-tuk, in the middle of Phnom Penh, at five in the morning.
What Happened After I Was Robbed
My screams alerted the tuk-tuk driver to the fact that something was not ok. His first concern, once he understood my situation, was how I was going to pay him. I feared, at that moment, that he would leave me right there on the sidewalk, alone and abandoned, with nothing but the clothes on my back and the plastic water bottle I was holding.
The depths of my desperation and sense of vulnerability are not something I wish to relive, ever.
After a long period of confusion and negotiation, and many, many, many tears on my part, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a hostel and explained what had happened to the kid at the front desk. The kid gave me his phone and I used it to reach out to Kimleng, my Cambodian friend. She immediately hopped into a tuk-tuk and drove for an hour to come to get me.
Meanwhile, I walked to the U.S. Embassy and demanded to speak to the on-duty officer. It was a Saturday so most of the embassy was closed. The Cambodian guards there tried to send me away, but I insisted, strongly, and through tears, that I speak to an American. It took some convincing, but they finally put me on the phone with whoever was on duty that Saturday morning and she calmed me down, helped me make an appointment to get a new passport, and told me everything that I needed to do.
Walked back to the hostel where Kimleng found me. She took me to the police station to file a report, calmed me down when I cried, steadfastly listened to me rant about how much I hated Cambodians in that minute and gave me enough money for a bus ticket back to Battambang the next day. Kimleng saved me that day.
Once back to Battambang, I had access to my credit card, which I had left in my apartment building, a photocopy of my passport taken at work, and some cash I’d stashed in my apartment. Slowly, over a period of months, not days, I recovered emotionally from the theft and moved on with my life.
So now, let’s get into the hard stuff, the lessons I learned from this experience, what to do if this has happened to you, and what you can do to make sure this does NOT happen to you.
What to Do When Someone Steals Your Passport Abroad (For U.S. Citizens)
- Stay calm and know that everything will be ok.
- Go to the police and file a police report. The U.S. embassy will need this.
- Go to the U.S. Embassy. If it is a weekday, you may be able to speak with a representative almost immediately. If it is a weekend, ask the guards to put you on the phone with an American citizen. They can make an appointment for you to come back later and get a new passport or discuss your options if you need to travel across international lines immediately.
- You will need a copy of your stolen passport, a copy of the police report, and the fee in USD. If you do not have a copy of your stolen passport, don’t panic. They will find a way to verify your identity and get you a new passport.
- It may take up to a week for your new passport to arrive. You will need to return to the embassy or consulate to retrieve it. Emergency same or next day papers can be arranged.
Once you have your new passport, you’ll need to get a new Cambodian visa. Sit tight, because this is a complicated process.
How to Renew Your Cambodia Visa After Your Passport Is Stolen
- You need to get an exit visa. There is only one place in all of Cambodia to get an exit visa and it is not convenient. Go to the immigration office across the street from Phnom Penh Airport. The exit visa costs $30 and they usually do not ask for a bribe. It takes 3 working days for them to process this visa. You need to return after 3 days to retrieve your passport.
- From the day they issue the exit visa, which may not be the day you pick it up, you have 7 days to leave Cambodia. Be sure to check the date on your exit visa. If you try to leave Cambodia with an expired exit visa they may send you back to get yet another one.
- You must leave Cambodia within 7 days of receiving your exit visa. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to go to Thailand.
- Once you leave Cambodia, you are now able to re-enter. You will have to purchase a new tourist visa and, if you’re entering at a land crossing, pay the associated bribes.
The whole process will cost you over $100 if you choose to re-enter. It will be less expensive if you simply continue your trip and do not return to Cambodia.
Tips to Stay Safe in Cambodia
- Avoid taking night buses whenever possible.
- Always hold onto your bags firmly when riding on motos or in tuk-tuks, especially in Phnom Penh.
- Keep valuables out of sight.
- Always have more than one way to access your money. Whether that means a credit card and debit card, traveler’s checks, or other option, make sure if one card is stolen, you can still access money another way.
- Don’t keep all your money in one place. If your debit card is on your person, keep your credit card stowed somewhere else.
- Bring a lock and store your belongings in a secured locker in your hotel or hostel while you are out on day trips.
- Always have a photocopy of your passport. Keep a PDF version in your email.
- Don’t carry your passport unless you absolutely need to. It is safer locked up securely at your hotel.
What if my passport and money are stolen far from a main city or embassy?
- Don’t panic.
- Trust in the kindness of others. The majority of the human race is inherently kind. People will help you.
- Ask for help. Talk to other travelers at your hotel or hostel. Talk to the staff. Find someone who is willing to help you.
- Call the US Embassy and report the theft from there. Ask for assistance.
- Find a friendly local with decent English, have them come with you to the police to file a report.
- Travel to the capital city and get to the embassy as soon as possible. The staff there will help you.
Overcoming the Emotional Trauma of Being Robbed in Cambodia
Long after I had recovered financially from the theft, I was still recovering from the emotional trauma.
People generally respond in one of two ways when they find out you’ve been robbed. They either pity you and say things like “oh, so terrible! I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Or they say, “Oh, well you should really be more careful.” (or they say both).
If you are like me, this second response will wear you down. It implies that it is your fault for not being careful enough. It is your fault that you were robbed.
Now, sure, every traveler needs to take steps to secure their own safety while traveling. But it is not your fault that thieves are selfish, cruel, or motivated by whatever greed or hardship causes them to steal.
It is not your fault you are a victim.
Give yourself time to feel. You will feel vulnerable, violated, and angry. You will go into denial, you will wish it had never happened, and you will struggle to cope. You may become angry and mistrustful of the people around you. Let yourself feel these things. It is ok.
But be open to the love and kindness that you will experience as well. In the minutes, days, and weeks after you are robbed, people will come forward to help you. Their kindness and selflessness will blow you away. Ultimately, you will recover and return to the joys of traveling and it will be due, in part, to the kindness of strangers.
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