(well, I’d be significantly better off…)
Everyone knows that when you go abroad, you must keep your passport safe at all times. Many people don’t like keeping their passports on them, for fear that they could be mugged, pickpocketed, or they could just misplace it whilst out and about. Accordingly, most people choose to leave their important belongings in a safe or locker in their accommodation while they are out exploring.
I am writing this post because I learnt the hard way that my British passport is the most important thing I own.
As a British national, I am guilty of taking my passport for granted. With that little red book, I can travel to pretty much any country in the world with ease. And I have been lucky enough to go to loads of places abroad – I even lived in France and Italy while on my year abroad! Travelling has always been a number one priority of mine. If you gave me £100, I’d much rather spend it on a budget weekend away in Europe than any new possessions. And (until March this year) I have always been very careful with my belongings, especially with my passport. I kept it in a bumbag or locked in a safe whilst abroad, and always knew where I would be able to find it.
But for some reason, taking mine and James’ passports out of my handbag and putting them into my evening bag completely slipped my mind on the evening of 11th March 2015. It was 5pm and we had just arrived in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, after a hot, uncomfortable bus journey. We were only planning on being in the city for the one night so we were eager to get out and explore. We had each booked a bed in a dorm room in a hostel in the city centre for the night. After sprucing up, I put my handbag into my rucksack and padlocked it shut with my combination lock, before padlocking it into the locker provided in the room, and put the key in my evening bag before heading out to see the capital.
Oh how I wish I had just taken my handbag with me! How I wish we had checked into a different hostel, a different dorm room, or had arrived on a different day!
Like I say, I have always been careful with my belongings. On our Southeast Asia trip, we had always kept our passports safe, either taking them with us while out and about, or leaving them securely locked in our accommodation. In every other hostel we had stayed at during those six precious weeks, we had had no problems at all, but on that particular evening, we were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another guest at the hostel, whose name we do not know (since he checked into the hostel under a false identity), broke into my padlocked locker with a hammer and screwdriver, and then used a knife to break into my (padlocked) rucksack. Many of my belongings were stolen, including our precious passports.
As someone who has dealt first-hand (unfortunately) with this situation, I believe it is important for other travellers to know what steps to take in order to get things back on track as quickly and efficiently as possible.
1) As it’s inevitable, panic. Just for a few minutes. Have a little cry. Then pull yourself together and get your shit sorted.
2) You will need to get a police report within 24 hours of your passport being stolen/ discovering it has gone missing in order to be able to make a claim on your travel insurance and in order to get back to the UK. If the police speak your language, great! If not, you’ll need a translator – ideally someone who is linked to the place the passport went missing, like a restaurant manager or hotel owner.
3) Contact the relevant Embassy to inform them of the theft. They will declare it stolen, meaning no one will be able to use it fraudulently. Of course if you find it again you will need to contact the Embassy again.
4) Consider your options for future travel
Depending on your type of travel, you will have a couple of choices regarding what to do next. You might be on a short holiday, with your flight back home already booked; you may, as we were, be backpacking around a number of destinations, reserving travel as and when it best suits you.
5) Call your Travel Insurance provider to explain what’s happened
Losing your passport abroad is, undoubtedly, a minor nightmare, but the problem can be quickly solved by taking the above tips! The Embassy will have dealt with similar situations before and will be there to advise you on your options.
Mine and James’ experience was unfortunate but it could have happened to anyone. We learned – the hard way – that if somebody wants to steal your belongings, they will do so. We later found out that the same man who broke into my locker had also stolen various other travellers’ passports in the Cambodian capital as little as two nights before he stole ours. The last I heard was that the criminal had been caught and was awaiting a court trial, but I have stopped following information about it, as it just makes me angry and it won’t bring my things back.
In our case, we very, very, very reluctantly decided to cut our trip short. We hadn’t yet booked any onward travel but still had so much planned. Because photocopies of our bankcards were stolen, we had to cancel our credit and debit cards, meaning we no longer had the financial means to book any onward travel. I can’t explain how frustrating it is to know that you have enough money in the bank, but aren’t able to access it! We used Western Union for our parents (saviours) to transfer us some emergency cash, but could not make this a habit because a valid passport was the only accepted form of identification to receive the money. We were told that a new passport to be issued in Cambodia would take 12 weeks(!!!!!!), meaning we would overstay our visas in Cambodia and encounter who-knows how many fines!
I will be completely honest here – initially, I felt like I had failed. I had failed James because I had lost not only my own passport but his as well. I had failed my friends and family, who I had ensured nothing bad would happen. But mostly I had failed myself for making such a stupid mistake, in leaving the passports at the hostel. Possessions can be easily replaced; I bought a new iPad and new make up and new clothes, but without those little books we were completely stranded in a foreign country with no money. I can honestly say that I have never felt so scared in my life as to what I felt on the morning of 12th March when we arrived at the Embassy.
Instead of risking hefty Cambodian fines and me completely losing my marbles, my mum booked James and I a flight home to the UK for the following week. Arriving back on British turf, we immediately applied for a new passport (which I had in my hand just seven days after posting my application!) and decided what to do next.
If there is one thing I have learned from this experience, it is that my passport is my most prized possession. I was naïve when I assumed that the British Embassy in Cambodia would be able to take care of everything for us, and I foolishly thought that our travels would be scarcely interrupted by the fiasco. I was naïve in subsequently thinking that a padlocked locker, containing a padlocked rucksack, would be enough to keep my belongings safe. I was naïve in assuming that no other traveller would be so unkind to physically break into my locker in order to steal my belongings. My rose-tinted glasses have been well and truly discarded, which is gloomily humorous because he nicked my Gok Wan specs too.
If you are travelling abroad, be it for a long-term trip or just a weekend break, I urge you to ensure that your passport is safe at all times. If that means paying extra for a safe or wearing a money-belt, do it. It’s not worth the risk of losing it!
N.B. I know that it would have been possible, albeit difficult, to stay in Cambodia whilst we sorted everything out, but James and I felt like the best option FOR US personally was to go back to the UK, regroup, and try again. All information is correct at the time of writing.
Thanks for reading,
Note: None of the photos used in this post are my own, apart from the photo of my emergency passport.
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