World ? Asia ? Cambodia

Cambodia: Health & Safety

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The days of the Khmer Rouge taking backpackers hostage are long gone, and the general lawlessness and banditry that marked Cambodia as inaccessible and dangerous only a short time ago has abated. Gun-toting thugs, once a common sight in any town, have been disarmed, but old habits die hard and, in general, travelers should take caution. Poverty in rural areas breeds desperation and a volatile climate. Below are some good guidelines.

Some Important Safety Tips

  • Remember that the police and military of Cambodia are not there to protect and serve. Any interaction with the constabulary usually results in frustration and/or you coming away short a few dollars. Contact your embassy for major problems, and call for police assistance only in cases of theft or extreme danger. Demand a ticket if threatened with a fine of any sort, although often, especially for small traffic infractions, it's best to just cough up a buck or two.

  • Rural travel is opening up, and you'll find a hearty welcome in even the most remote hamlet, but roads are rough and travel of any distance is best done in off-road conveyance with a sturdy suspension: Motorbike or four-wheel-drive trucks are best. Know too that you're really on your own out in the sticks, with no hospitals and limited support services. Banditry has lessened, but still be sure to travel by day (also because of road conditions).

  • Especially at night, travelers should stay aware, not unlike in any big city at night; purse snatching is not uncommon in Phnom Penh, and pickpockets are as proficient here as anywhere in the region, so take care.

  • Land mines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs) can be found in rural areas in Cambodia, but especially in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Pursat, Siem Reap, and Kampong Thom provinces. Don't walk in heavily forested spots or in dry rice paddies without a local guide. Areas around small bridges on secondary roads are particularly dangerous.

    Drugs

    Cambodia is one of the world's biggest producers of cannabis -- not to mention heroin, amphetamines, and other substances -- and peddlers abound. You might be tempted to buy or sample substances offered, but if caught, you could face a lengthy jail sentence, which is guaranteed to be uncomfortable. Enough said.

    Health Concerns & Vaccinations

    Health considerations should comprise a good part of your trip planning for Cambodia, even if you're going for only a few weeks. You'll need to cover all the bases to protect yourself from tropical weather and illnesses, and you will need to get special vaccinations if rural areas are on your itinerary. You should begin your vaccinations as necessary (ask your doctor how many weeks before your trip you need to allow to give them time to take effect). If you follow the guidelines here and those of your doctor, however, there's no reason you can't have a safe and healthy trip.

    Malaria is not a concern in Phnom Penh or any of the larger towns, but upcountry and even in and around Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, it's quite common. Many travelers take preventative medication. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at www.cdc.gov for current information. An antimalarial prophylaxis is recommended everywhere but in Phnom Penh. Take atovaquone proguanil (brand name Malarone), doxycycline, or mefloquine (brand name Lariam). If you plan to travel extensively in the rural areas on the western border with Thailand, primaquine is the only effective preventative.

    Other mosquito-borne ailments, such as Japanese encephalitis and dengue fever, are also prevalent. Your best protection is to wear light, loose-fitting clothes from wrist to neck and ankles, wear a bug repellent with DEET, and be particularly careful at sunset or when out and about early in the morning.

    Hepatitis is a concern as anywhere, and reliable statistics on AIDS are not out, but with rampant prostitution and drug abuse, Cambodia is certainly fertile ground for the disease. Recent efforts to educate needle users about the dangers of the substance and the importance of clean needles, as well as increased condom use, are positive signs, but recent statistics show that the tide of new AIDS cases is rising.

    Medical Safety & Evacuation Insurance -- The Cambodian medical system is rudimentary at best and nonexistent at worst. Make sure that you have medical coverage for overseas travel and that it includes emergency evacuation. There are a few clinics in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but for anything major, evacuation to Bangkok is the best option.

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