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?

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