What I Learned From a Thief: Some Tips on Getting Robbed in Cambodia

Last week, I mentioned in my post-Christmas note that Andrew's iPhone had been stolen when we crossed the border back into Cambodia. Now, I don't want to make a big deal or cast ourselves as victims or take up an offering for money to replace the phone (as you'll see below, that's not necessary - but thanks for thinking of us). We've never had iPhones or even smartphones until September this year, when we bought them in the States. My dad has had a smartphone longer than I have. I'm not sure if I should feel ashamed of myself or proud of him - maybe both.

I will admit that being robbed came as a bit of a shock when it happened, for a lot of different reasons. Andrew has more experience in this area, as he was held up by gunpoint outside his old apartment in Kansas City, Kansas, before we were married. Processing those emotions provided some important lessons for us, both practical and personal. I thought you might enjoy reading about what it feels like to be robbed, how to protect yourself from further collateral damage, and a few reasons why God might have allowed this to happen to us.

But first, the scenario:

Photo of the Thai-Cambodian border at Aranyaprathet, Thailand and Poipet, Cambodia
The Thai-Cambodian border at Poipet

Andrew and I had been traveling since seven o'clock that morning, back from our holiday in Krabi, southern Thailand. By "traveling", I mean taking an hour long flight to Bangkok, taking two taxis to our van stop, waiting for the van in a crowded fume-filled parking lot, then riding for five hours on a bumpy road with crazy traffic and only one stop. By the time we arrived at the Thai-Cambodian border, we were wiped out, and the sun was setting.

We have crossed this border at least a hundred times. Although we warn visitors about getting robbed, we have become pretty lax about our own personal safety. But it happens all the time in Cambodia. In fact our first year here, someone attempted to rob our house, though they were unsuccessful. Nearly all the foreigners I know, and a good number of Cambodians, have been robbed at some point in their lives here.

We walked up a long unlit walkway that leads to the Thai immigration office. I was walking in front of Andrew, and his hands were full, carrying our bags. A group of Cambodian teenage girls began walking beside him, then started asking for money.

That walkway is always crowded around dusk with Cambodians returning from working in Thailand. Andrew thought nothing of it, til he reached the end of the walkway and the girls began running away. Within seconds, he realized his phone was gone out of his pocket. He dropped the bags, ran after them, shouting in Khmer they had stolen his phone. But everyone else, including the border guard, just looked at him and did nothing. Andrew managed to catch one of the girls, but she didn't have the phone on her. The rest of the group disappeared into the crowds. There was nothing to do but pick up our bags and cross the border into Cambodia.

What made the lift even more amazing was that Andrew had a special case for the phone, which his headphones (which were around his neck) actually screwed into with a thick electric cord. I have the same case for my phone, too. Somehow, without him feeling it, the girls cut through the cord, took the phone, and left his headphones dangling.

An example of the cut cord. Lifeproof case and aqua chevron decal on Amazon (affiliate links)

That night, Andrew contacted our insurance company, which provides renter's and personal property insurance, and they said our policy actually covered theft. After getting a police report from the Cambodian police and filing some paperwork, our insurance gave us $100 more for the phone than we paid for it. Chalk it up to a good Craigslist deal.

So, lessons from this?


1. Don't make yourself a target.

I am a paranoid person when it comes to safety, but I never thought twice about putting my phone in my pocket and having headphones in or around my neck when walking through crowds. But that is a flashing signal to a pickpocket, HELLO!!! There's something in my pocket you'd really like to take home!!! We've never been robbed before in Cambodia, but we've never had iPhones or expensive stuff like that to steal. When you're traveling, you don't want to make it obvious to everyone around you what you're carrying around. Just like you would never fan yourself with a stack of hundred dollar bills on a hot day.

It also helps to be aware and alert, especially when crossing an international border at night time in crowds of people. We were exhausted, a bit stressed out, and ready to be home. We weren't thinking about risk at all. We weren't expecting anyone to steal from us. But it's always a possibility, especially in developing countries. I'm white, I'm obviously richer than most Cambodians, and they know it.

Of course, sometimes you can't protect yourself 100%. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city, it's common for thieves to ride by on motorcycles and literally swipe a phone out of someone's hand as they're standing on the street making a call or looking at a map. So maybe you should just handcuff it to your wrist if you're really afraid of losing something.

2. Check your insurance policy.

We had no idea our insurance policy covered theft and called them on a whim. We have USAA (thanks to Andrew's military background), and they made it pretty easy to get enough money to purchase a new phone. Andrew is still on the fence whether he wants to buy a new one and is waiting a bit. But you do have to file a police report. So make sure you cover your bases.

3. Use a passcode.

I know this may sound obvious, but use the stinkin' passcode on your phone (which Andrew did). I've had friends who don't use it, and when their phone was lost, they panicked. Anyone who picked it up could access all the information on their phone. Now, in Cambodia, it is a bit different. Pickpockets (most of the time) just want to sell your phone to a shop and get money for it. They don't have the resources or knowledge to hack into systems and steal your identity. But there have been rumors of Cambodians selling photos of foreigners found in phones or left on the hard drives of photo print shops. And it was our Cambodian friends who warned us about it. I don't really want my face showing up on...well, anything. In America, identity theft is much more a worry - so there's no reason not to use a passcode.

4. Install "Find My iPhone" on iCloud.

As soon as we crossed the border, we popped open our Mac and looked for the phone. If the battery hadn't have been dead when it was stolen, we might have been able to find it. But we also had the option to wipe the phone clean remotely, which was comforting. And all our photos from vacation downloaded onto the iCloud, so we didn't lose any memories (only some awesome underwater videos  and my moment in the spotlight singing karaoke in Krabi town).


We learned how to deal with anger. Anger is not good, but it's the first reaction. Anger that someone would take what we bought with our own money. Anger that no one was interested in helping us. Anger that, honestly, we are here to help Cambodians, and Cambodians stole from us, taking advantage of us in our weakness. But human anger doesn't accomplish anything, and we had to pray for God to help us let go of our anger and forgive.

Forgiveness is another thing. It can be difficult to forgive someone you didn't even really meet and probably will never see again (hopefully). But I don't want to hold onto resentment and bitterness towards anyone. There's no excuse for anyone to steal something. But reasons? Those girls probably make $5-10 a day (except for that day, when they made a lot more). They think we can easily replace anything they take. And they may see it as a way of balancing out the universe: we're a bit poorer, they're a bit richer.

But in the end, people who don't know Jesus will do whatever it takes to get ahead, to gain security, to survive. They have no hope outside of their own efforts and no reason to give anyone else grace - because they've never received it themselves. And am I not the same? It's so easy for me to think getting ahead in life and accomplishing what I want to do is up to me. But it's not. I'm nothing without Jesus, and it's delusional for me to think I have any hope outside of him.

I firmly believe that God lets everything happen for a reason, and that he uses all circumstances for our good as believers. And "good" means becoming more like Jesus. He really is in control. So when "bad things" happen to me, I need to ask, what "good thing" is God trying to work out in my life? And if we pursue him, he'll show us.
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