After dark Phnom Penh's streets are dead, motos are hard to come by and there are
more stories starting "did you hear what happened to me last night..."
The previous friendly relationship between Khmers and expatriates is giving way to
hostility as tensions rise along with the crime rate.
Even speaking out about the problem can be hard. One aid worker was criticised earlier
and prefered not to be named now.
"You feel threatened because you don't know who's who and what they want from
you," she said.
"People used to stroke your skin out of curiosity but now you get pinched and
"I've become more unfriendly which I regret very much but it's for self-defense.
I don't feel safe anywhere anymore."
She has now stopped driving altogether because she is uncertain how to react if confronted
by a gun. Part of the problem, she feels, is that she would not want to quietly hand
over the keys.
The days are gone when a foreigner could accidentally leave a bag in a restaurant
and have it returned within the hour . Or be indirectly involved in a traffic accident
and have the victim refuse all offers of compensation.
"Now the attitude is if you can't get it honestly, get it dishonestly. If you
have a gun it's easy to steal," she says, laying some of the blame at UNTAC's
In common with many long-term foreign residents, she believes the influx of money
turned people's heads.
The behavior of some UN personnel also caused resentment. The increase in prostitution
and cavalier driving alienated many Khmers.
"UNTAC did not understand the people. There has been a lot of suffering...and
at some point it will explode. People are confused and impatient and they can't wait
so they help themselves," she said.
Although the city's police force has been strengthened in recent months, few people
feel confident enough yet to rely on their protection alone.
Reuters correspondent Mark Dodd says the police do not have the training nor the
resources to deal with the changing face of crime.
"They could cope with the civil war because they were military-trained, but
now they're dealing with affluent society crimes," he said.
"The increasing numbers of 'haves and have nots' has led to the situation we're
now seeing. Armed violence is all too easy."
The Reuters office recently suffered a break-in and some electrical goods were stolen.
"Now we have two guards and our front gate is always locked. We've really tightened
up," said Mark.
The changing atmosphere was recently brought home dramatically to a teacher from
the Australian Centre for English. Melanie Leathers and her boyfriend were walking
down Street 240 at 9 pm when a moto veered towards them. When she instinctively moved
her clutch bag away from the moto's path, the passenger punched her hard on the arm.
"It was deliberately spiteful whether they intended to steal something or not,"
she said. "I stopped carrying a clutch bag and now carry things in my pocket."
Despite her increased awareness, Melanie had her purse stolen soon after. She is
now worried that the house keys and identity card it contained may entice criminals
directly to her home. She now padlocks her door and has been forced to think about
security at every level of her life.
"I carry enough money with me for the evening and if I lose it, I lose it,"
People who do not like to take their vehicles out at night are often forced to rely
on cyclos and motos. But this, too, has its hazards.
Horror stories of aggressive moto-drivers arguing prices with customers abound. And,
with so many moto-drivers being shot off their bikes at night, a growing number are
A British military observer was forced to hand over $12 when threatened with a weapon,
and two French journalists had a gun pulled on them by a moto-driver outside the
Heart of Darkness bar.
They paid him 1,500 riel but he demanded another 500. When they refused to pay, he
followed them into the bar with a gun.
One of the journalists, Natalie Prevost, said the Khmer bar manager realized what
was happening and stepped in between them and paid the man off.
There is also another side to the changing attitudes with which Cambodians hold expatriates.
One British journalist had a bizarre close-encounter with an amorous cyclo driver.
John Westhrop said at first he thought the man wanted to take him to a brothel because
he had been making "lewd gestures". Eventually, he realized what he really
wanted and tried to turn his potential suitor down gently. But when he stepped off
the bike, the driver made a grab for his groin.
"At that point," said John. "I realized the driver was offering sexual
services so I pushed him away and only paid for the journey home."