Events and travel options are changing rapidly around the world and there are greater fears of travel at this time and in that vein I thought I should write a blog post about my tips and experiences of travelling solo as a woman in Cambodia.
After spending over five years living and working in Cambodia I have seen and done a lot! Climbed mountains and found secret caves, had my camera stolen by an orangutang, been visited by snakes in my bedroom and met characters that wouldn’t be out of place as cast in the film ‘Apolocalypse Now’ but when actually travelling solo, no problemo!
I have spent over 90% of those journeys alone and you know what, I love it that way. I can go as I please, read as I choose, dawdle at local markets as long as I like, after twenty one years full time mothering it’s utter bliss!
I have travelled in the dead of night on the cheapest of local buses as the only white woman. I have hitched, with assistance from local village women, in a beaten up Camry taxi and shared the front passenger seat twos up with six in the seat behind me and 20 boxes of water bottle strapped to the roof. I have ridden pillion on moto’s on numerous occasions (I can do it side saddle, in heels with six bags of shopping and a pig strapped behind me…ok so I lied about the pig but I have done it with two cats in a box!).
Apart from one breakdown on a not so mechanically safe night bus in the pitch dark all has been well. On the road I have had no thefts, nobody touching me up and no problems with hawkers/beggers.
Now, I don’t travel carelessly however the list above seems! There are certain rules I keep to.
When travelling by local bus I make good eye contact and sit with local women. ‘Susdai = Hello’. Use it.
I dress fairly conservatively when on the road and always carry a wide scarf that I can cover bare arms with (or use as a cushion, towel, blanket etc). I never travel wearing anything shorter than knee length.
I keep red blessing ties on all my bags. Not necessarily because I believe they will protect me but in a country where it is believed red ties are blessed it’s a small but possibly potent thing that I have seen many people in the East do.
I act as if I have done it hundred times before even if it is my first time.
I have learnt enough Khmer to keep people guessing if I understand them or not.
I keep my cheap mobile phone handset close to me and use it (or pretend to) if I feel the need. (There’s a great story attached to this involving, through my own over eagerness and stupidity, the loss of my whole cam kit and tech, which was retrieved after pretending I was having a chat with the mafia….me? the mafia? that’s funny! Ask me if you meet me sometime!)
I don’t walk alone in unpopulated areas unless I know I have someone of safety watching me from a distance. E.g. When I am on the mountain shooting wild beasties.
I have self defence skills and yes, I have used them but again, that was because I wasn’t following my own rules. When being dropped off at night with a gate to unlock always get your driver to wait with you. Or have really, really good self defence skills…
For daily use I wear a very strong leather bag strapped across my body. Some wear bum bags. I find the across method safer and bum bags plastic straps are easier to cut.
My Top Safety Tips for you travelling solo as a woman in Cambodia follow
- Split your cash for the day and your important documents etc. Documents really are safer tucked away in your hotel safe.
- Taking the bus? Use Giant Ibis. It’s the safest especially for night bus travel. Arrange for your guesthouse to send an approved tuk tuk to pick you up if arriving at unusual times of the night. In Siem Reap a tuk tuk to your hotel should cost you no more than $4. A ride from Phnom Penh airport into town should be approx $8. A tip of a dollar if you are helped with your bags or you feel you have had a good, safe ride is a kindly thing to do. ‘Thank you very much = Arkoun Churan’ or you could say ‘Thank you big big = Arkoun Tom Tom’ if you want a laugh back.
- Taking the mini bus between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh? They go fast. Really, really fast. Dangerously fast. I’d advise not to take them and if you do, don’t sit at the back or if you do wear a cushion on your head. They bump! Hard!
- Taking a moto taxi? The cheapest form of transport and frankly the most fun, I don’t pay more than $2 for a ride across central Siem Reap. I now thoroughly enjoy riding side saddle like the local women but I wear a helmet. So should you. Having an accident in Cambodia where the medical care is so challenged is not wise. Be wise. Please. I have dealt with a number of accidents, it’s awful and phoning someones parents the other side of the world is not something I want to do again. Ever. OK.
- If hiring a bicycle or moto don’t ride solo at night. Sadly this is probably one of the most common ways that foreign women are robbed and being dragged off one along tarmac or dust roads by your bag strap is not a required part of your travel adventure. I know a woman with brain injury because of this.
- Learn some Khmer. ‘No Thank you = Atay Arkoun.’ This will prove helpful when you are being bothered by over zealous tuk tuk drivers looking for a job. Say it with a smile and laugh. I am known on the street in Phnom Penh where I lived as Miss Atay Arkoun. Now when they see me coming and they just shout ‘Atay Arkoun’ and laugh with me.
- Never get a tuk tuk at night outside X Bar in Siem Reap (X Bar has the best music jam in town, go, it’s one of the best places to go dancing in town especially if DJ Island is playing and if you like skateboarding, or watching, they have a half pipe on the roof!). But when you exit, turn left, ignore anyone wanting to give you a ride, just cross the main road (carefully!!) and use the tuk tuks/motos opposite. They are gentlemen, tough gentlemen. Look after them they will look after you. Tell them Tori sent you!
- Don’t fall for the milk scam in Siem Reap. A young girl or boy will approach you carrying a tiny baby and they will say ‘I don’t want money, I want miiiilk.’ Keep your hand on your bags/purse tightly (especially at night) and move on giving them as little attention as possible. They do not want milk, they want you to buy a tin of powdered baby milk that they can then return to the store and get the cash of which goes directly to the adults that ‘run’ the kids. The babies are drugged. Yes, I know, it’s utterly awful. Eyes up, walk away. Please.
Warnings – Let’s be realistic, where-ever we travel, in our home town or in Outer Mongolia there will always be someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Do what your parents taught you, raise your head high, keep your wisest wits about you, don’t get over drunk, keep your belongings close and tell the strong local lady or the nearest family unit if you are in trouble. If you don’t have any khmer language just point at the problem, you could say ‘Help = Chouy’ and reach out to hold their hand.
If you are a solo woman (or with friends, group or family) and would like to explore Cambodia but you don’t have five years to gain experience and find those special tucked away places that even the tour operators don’t know about. Then have a look right here (scroll it on down for some tour info, I’ll be updating it in the couple of days too, and use the contact form for further details). I’ve made a specialist tour just for YOU! And I can put my hand on my heart and promise you, there’s nothing like it, I’ve got things for you to see that the majority of locals don’t know are there.
Yes, you can travel solo, you can discover new wonders and you can put your Tomb Raider hat on!
So, head high, strap on, women explorers are go!