Motorcycle Cowboys: Purse Snatching in Southeast Asia

I’ve been quite lucky on my travels – the worst that I’ve had happen out of all the things I’ve been warned about was getting overcharged by 70Baht (so maybe $2 whole dollars) at a 7-11 and…that’s about it.

Everyone warned me ad nauseum: “Watch your purse – guys on motorbikes will drive by and snatch it.”

Guidebooks everywhere reminded: “Prepare to let go versus getting your arm broken.”

And I get it: be cautious. But I rolled my eyes at every warning – I’m not stupid, I don’t walk around alone at night in dark scary deserted neighborhoods, I don’t flaunt money around, and I don’t dress inappropriately. I’m cautious, but I don’t believe in living in fear. How careful could I possibly be?

And then on my way to a bus station in a tuk tuk in Cambodia, I saw something that would replay itself in my mind for the next week and changed the way I handled my belongings while I traveled.

In the back of a tuk tuk, Siem Reap, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
In the back of a tuk tuk, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It was myself and two other women in the tuk tuk, on a main street in Phnom Penh; it was almost midnight and besides the occasional motorbike or pedestrian, the streets were quiet.

Up ahead I could see two girls walking in the middle of an intersecting street, heading away from us, and I saw their reactions before I saw the motorbike.

It seemed to come from between them, and they turned with it as it passed, in confusion and anger and shock. The passenger on the back of the bike seemed so impassive, I was sure that it was some sort of accident.

I could see something like a strap connecting the bike to the girl walking on the right, and I thought that maybe she got caught on something on the bike, or that the motorbike got caught on something of hers. Except then there was a scream, and the girl holding on to that strap was falling on her elbows, chest and knees, and then was being dragged behind the bike on the cement.

View of Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
View of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Luckily, she let go immediately, and I turned back in the tuk tuk, shocked and confused. It wasn’t until one of the women riding with me said, “I think he grabbed the girl’s purse,” that I actually realized what we had seen; that I’ve just witnessed the ‘motorcycle cowboy’ phenomenon I’ve heard so much about.

It was terrifying, and that guttural scream reverberated in my mind all night.

We all sat in silence the rest of the way to the bus stop. Was there anything we could’ve done?

I hope that girl’s alright, but I’m grateful I saw what I saw because it smartened me up a bit: it made me realize that things like this do happen, they’re not just urban legends or stories mothers tell you to scare you from traveling.

Did it scare me from traveling? Of course not, but it made me think.

If the girls had been on the sidewalk, if they’d been keeping their belongings hidden, keeping them close, if, if, IF – could this have been avoided? How careful can you possibly be?

I, for one, stopped letting my wallet-purse swing around my shoulder wildly on its centimeter-wide strap when I walked around, and started paying attention more to my surroundings.

Buddha Statue in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat
Buddha Statue in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The thing is, I still don’t believe in living in fear, but there’s really no need to tempt crimes of opportunity.

Have you ever been a victim or witnessed any crimes during your travels? How did it affect your usual attitude towards safety while abroad?

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The Haunting Memory of S-21

From the outside it could be just another high school. It could be your high school. Except that it is fenced in by a barbed wire, surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, and is what remains of Security Prison 21 during Pol Pot’s reign.Highschool. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).

In 1975, Tuol Svay Pray High School became S-21, the most secret of the almost two hundred interrogation and execution centers in Cambodia where anyone considered a threat or accused of leading the uprising against Pol Pot’s regime was detained.

The classrooms were turned into cells that worked as cages for the prisoners with an iron bed, blanket, cushion and mat, and a bucket for bodily waste. Some classrooms were divided into smaller brick cells; others were kept open for mass detention. A fishnet of barbed wire covered each building to prevent the desperate prisoners from jumping and committing suicide.Barbed wire. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe detainees were brought here, their photographs taken, their arrival elaborately documented, often without knowing the reasons for their arrest.

Once at S-21, they were tortured until they not only confessed to their nonexistent crimes, but also disclosed the names of family members and friends that were supposed accomplices.

Structures around the school were turned into interrogation machines; shackles, knives, whips and electroshock were used for torture.Gallows. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatMany of the large cells were left as they were found in 1979, mostly empty with steel beds, some with pillows, some water cans, others chains and ankle bars.

Blown up photographs mirror the rooms they are hung in, a record of how each room was found so many years ago. In black and white, the disfigured corpses lie barely identifiable in pools of blood, but the bludgeoning is obvious. To see it is almost too much to bear; to stand in a room and know what the body looked like right there…is chilling.Ankle bar and can. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatAnother building is filled with small brick stalls where the prisoners were leashed. Row after row, room after room. In one, a green chalkboard still hangs, faded, and I’m transported: this used to be a high school. It used to be carefree.

There are scratches and numbers on the wall and I’m not sure what they mean but at that moment it is the saddest photograph I’ve ever taken, and I can’t hold back my tears anymore.Brick cells. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThe galleries are in the next building – mostly mug shots of the prisoners, some defiant, some resigned, most just wondering ‘Why?’ Interspersed between them, photographs of people, so many, just lying there, bloody, gauged, dead. And I can’t look anymore.Prisoner photograph. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat

Why? Why do these things have to happen?

Prisoner records estimate that the Khmer Rouge killed about 20,000 people at S-21, many of them children. Out of everyone that entered, only seven are known to have survived. With a third of Cambodia’s population wiped out, Pol Pot’s regime was responsible for one of the largest genocides in history; ‘keeping the memory of the atrocities committed on Cambodia soil alive‘ as the pamphlet urges, is crucial in preventing them from happening again.

I didn’t see the last building. I couldn’t. But what I learned I will definitely never forget.Numbers. Toul Sleng Genocidal Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKatContinue on to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.

Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.

Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum is on the corner of St. 113 and St. 350 in Phnom Penh city. Tickets $2.

Other Things to do in Phnom Penh

One of the complaints I heard during my short stay in Phnom Penh was that there was nothing to do in the city other than drink. But Phnom Penh offers a long riverside for strolling, cafes and lounges for relaxing, and the options and venues below for nights out, too.

1. If you’re feeling posh, Nagaworld is a hotel and entertainment complex that oozes glitz, and the lobby is first and foremost a sweeping casino. You’ll find everything from Roulette to Baccarat, old standbys like Texas Hold ‘Em and Blackjack, as well as a few foreign games in between (note: no Craps!). Different tables have different minimums so you can choose your level of fun.

Ferris wheel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia - YourLocalKat2. DreamLand – You can’t miss the 45 meter ferris wheel looking out onto Chaktomuk River. Inside this amusement park, there’s also a maze, coaster, a dinosaur garden, a variety of shows and more. Open 9:00-22:00 everyday. Tickets start from $2USD for ‘big kids’.

3. Whether you’re in the mood for action or education, one of the four main movie theaters is sure to please. Expat-favorite Flicks screens blockbusters and classics at three different theaters for $3.50 a day. Open-air MetaHouse plays Cambodian and international documentaries for free almost everyday. And premiere theatres Legend Cinemas and Sabay Complex both feature Hollywood and Asian blockbuster movies starting at $4.

4. Check out some live music. The Show Box by the Toul Sleng Museum sporadically puts on shows, as do other venues like the FCC, the Local II and MetaHouse (above). Check the Leng Pleng Gig Guide for more info.

So, what is there to do in Phnom Penh? The question is – what are you in the mood for?

No One Was Safe: The Choeung Ek Killing Fields

When in Phnom Penh, a must-visit if you can handle it, is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known to tourists as the Killing Fields.

Commemorative stupa, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatTourists are often surprised to see that the sign on the gate has no reference to ‘Killing Fields,’ but what they’re about to learn is that this is because this is only one of over three hundred fields in Cambodia used for this purpose during the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

But that’s only the beginning of this awful story.

Bracelets on a mass grave, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKat(Note: In case you’re fuzzy on the history, I’ve summarized the context of how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power here).

When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, effectively coming into power over the country, the first step towards a pure, loyal, and self-sufficient country was to deport citizens out of the cities and into the countryside in order to put them to work. Those that refused, or were simply too slow to leave, were murdered. Lake, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatThose that made it to the work farms were put to slave labor, including the task of tripling the country’s rice production. But the task was impossible; the people often had no training, and were routinely overworked and starved to death. This is why these farms are now known as the Killing Fields.

Mass grave of 450 victims. Killing Fields, Cheung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatBut it wasn’t only workers that ended up in Choeung Ek. Prisoners from the S21 detention facility were also brought here, often under the guise of being transported to a new living space.

Some knew what was coming and were relieved: the hell that they had been going through – the torture, sickness, loneliness and hopelessness – was finally going to come to an end.

Upon arrival they would be forced to sign a false confession, in essence signing their own death warrant, and then would be taken to the pits.

Mass grave holes, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKat Note: The following paragraphs are gruesome, graphic and real. Please PLEASE don’t read if you are easily disturbed, or would simply prefer not to have these images in your head. Click here to skip (beware the skulls).

Regardless of where they came from, everyone was subject to the horror within.

Revolutionary songs would wail over the speakers, blending with the diesel generators and effectively covering the screams of the victims. Death did not come easily. Bullets were expensive and the Khmer Rouge used whatever was cheap and available, often beating and hacking the victims to death with anything from hammers to shovels, blunt objects, or the sharp teeth of sugar palm leaves. DDT would be poured over their bodies to finish the job and mask the smell. Sugar palm saws, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNo one was safe, not even innocent babies, whose heads were smashed against the ‘baby killing tree’ before they were tossed into pits. Pol Pot required assurance that no one would come back and seek revenge for their family members’ deaths, so families were always murdered whole.

The children beating tree, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatNote: Gruesome part over.

A commemorative stupa now stands at the front center of Choeung Ek welcoming visitors to the site. It is a lovely structure from the outside, but inside are the skulls and bones of about 9,000 victims, reminding every generation that passes through of the savagery that transpired barely 40 years ago under Pol Pot’s paranoid and fearful reign.

“Who were these people that they were such a threat?” The voice on the audio guide asks.

I’d like to know, too.Victim skulls in the stupa, Killing Fields. Choeung Ek, Cambodia - YourLocalKatContinue to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum – Coming Soon

Back to the eventual end of Pol Pot’s reign.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center is 15km from Phnom Penh center, and is best reachable by tuk tuk. It is open everyday from 9-18. Allow yourself at least an hour to walk around, and up to 3 hours if you invest in the comprehensive audio guide. Entrance: $2. With audio guide: $5. Note: The audio guide is led by a survivor and will take you through each of the important stops, adding in context, background and personal experiences to the tour. It is well worth the time and money.

Context of the Khmer Rouge Reign

The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot (from his nom de guerre ‘Politique potentielle’[1]) didn’t blind-side Cambodia, but rose to power by slowly but surely gaining supporters. Here are the very quick ‘coles notes’ on the history of the civil war, and the context of the Khmer Rouge reign.

The Viet Nam War[2]

Starting in the 1800’s, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all fell to French rule. In Vietnam, movements against the French began with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) party. Under Germany occupation during World War 2, France lost its foothold on Vietnam, which was taken over by Japan but released again after Japan’s surrender. Ho Chi Minh used this opportunity to take over Vietnam declaring it its own country, but France refused to recognize the country as its own republic. France drove Minh’s forces north and the Geneva Accords divided the country into a communist north Vietnam and a French backed south Vietnam.

America, dealing with the Cold War with Russia, opted to back South Vietnam fearing the Domino Theory that communism will spread from the north to the south and then the rest of Asia. Despite various interventions, puppet leaders, thousands of US troops in Vietnam, and Nixon’s bombing of Viet Cong sites in neutral Laos and Cambodia, the north stepped up its attacks and Saigon in the south fell to communism at the end of April 1975.

Meanwhile in Cambodia[3]

Cambodia was dealing with its own resentment of French rule, and was being aided in its efforts by communist north Vietnam when pro-American Prime Minister Lon Nol ousted Cambodia’s anti-French Prince Sihanouk.

The Khmer Rouge, supporters of Cambodia’s Communist Party, were associated with Sihanouk, against both French rule and American involvement, and battled against Lon Nol’s forces in order to regain control of Cambodia. As the civil war went on, many who thought they were still supporting Sihanouk, and those who lost family members as a consequence of the US bombings, became Khmer Rouge supporters and even joined the revolution. Gaining more and more power, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge finally captured the capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and under Pol Pot’s reign, Cambodia fell into darkness.

The Khmer Rouge Ideology

Pol Pot strived to make Cambodia a self-sufficient community loyal only to the State. Ultimately under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge followed an ideology of extreme nationalism, fueled largely by anti-French, anti-American and even anti-Vietnamese sentiments, and worked to instill a primarily agrarian society, which closely resembled a form of communism they preferred over the bourgeois of the Chinese and Vietnamese nations.

The way to go about this was to rid the country of city dwellers and intellectuals – teachers, political figures, religious figures, professionals, people with glasses, or those who knew another language or had soft hands – as they were considered corrupted by western and capitalist ideals and therefore a threat to the new classless society he had envisioned. Any minority – Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai – was also considered a threat and disposed of. By retaining only children – the revolutionaries – and the poor peasants, whom he called the “old people,” Pol Pot aimed to create a Year Zero from which the country could start anew.

Continue to the Killing Fields

Continue to Toul Sleng Genocide Museum – Coming Soon

An Eventual End

Pol Pot was paranoid, and by 1978 the Khmer Rouge regime was disintegrating from mismanagement and impossible expectations. They were overthrown and chased into the jungles by Vietnamese forces in 1979 but remained recognized by the United Nations as the country’s leaders. Pol Pot was eventually placed under house arrest in 1997 but managed to have a decent life until then, retaining power and spending time with his grandchildren. He died a year later having barely served his house arrest sentence.