SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – An award-winning documentary filmmaker from South Africa says he was robbed of camera equipment worth thousands of dollars on an overnight bus to Sihanoukville – and that neither the company nor police will investigate.
Marius Van Straaten said he was robbed on a Virak Buntham Express bus from Siem Reap that arrived in the coastal town on July 27. Multiple police officers in Sihanoukville refused to investigate the alleged robbery, file a report or even take his statement, he said.
Instead, senior officers called him a liar, said the filmmaker who has worked on productions such as “Survivor,” “I’m a Celebrity” and “Fear Factor.”
He said that lack of assistance from local police prompted him to bring his complaint to the attention of Sihanoukville’s police chief and write to the Anti-Corruption Unit in Phnom Penh, raising concerns of police negligence and possible complicity.
Mr. Van Straaten said he arrived in Sihanoukville on a Virak Buntham sleeper bus at 6 am to discover that a bag containing his camera gear had been emptied and stuffed with blankets belonging to Virak Buntham Express.
“The blankets were [used] to make it appear full so that we would only discover the theft once we opened the bag at our hotel,” he said.
Mr. Van Straaten was awoken when the overnight bus stopped in Phnom Penh. He noticed that the driver and his assistant were moving luggage around. “It was late, and most people on the bus were still asleep and completely unaware that the staff were moving the luggage,” he told Khmer Times.
Staff at the company’s Phnom Penh office declined to discuss the allegations, saying they were unaware of them. They did, however, say luggage is usually shifted in Phnom Penh because some passengers switch to buses to Vietnam and other destinations, or only take the bus to the capital.
After the Phnom Penh stop, the bus continued to Sihanoukville, Mr. Van Straaten said.
“When we arrived in Sihanoukville, I couldn’t find my second bag and the bus driver strangely went from being helpful and civil to aggressive and impatient,” he recalled.
He said that Virak Buntham Express staff who had spoken English to him previously began to pretend that they could not. They also appeared edgy and impatient, he said.
“I finally found our second bag at the back of the bus, on the floor, emptied of $6,000 worth of equipment, presumably in Phnom Penh,” Mr. Van Straaten said.
After telling the driver that his camera equipment was missing, Mr. Van Straaten said the driver became aggressive towards he and his girlfriend after they insisted on accompanying the bus to the company’s Sihanoukville office.
“Eventually, we spent an hour at the office explaining what had happened to a manager, at which point it was admitted that they had taken our second bag to the back of the bus as there was not enough space in the front,” he said.
Mr. Van Straaten insists this was “an outright lie,” saying there was ample space for his luggage closer to him.
The manager of Virak Buntham Express’s Sihanoukville office eventually suggested that Mr. Van Straaten, along with the driver and his assistant, should go to a tourist police outpost. Once there, however, a major told them they first needed to “make a statement” at another police outpost before he could help.
“All of us spent an hour waiting at the police station for an English-speaking officer to arrive. Finally, we were able to explain what had happened and the officer asked us to wait for his boss from the immigration office.”
After waiting another two hours, Mr. Van Straaten was handed a phone and told by a senior police officer that they would not be taking his statement because they “didn’t believe him.”
“I tried to explain to the officer that the police didn’t need to believe me as a prerequisite to taking my statement, I just wanted to give them my version of events so the theft could be investigated.”
The senior officer hung up the phone, Mr. Van Straaten said.
“We were dumbfounded,” he recalled. “Not only by Sihanoukville police refusing to take our statement, but also the fact that none of the driver’s details were taken.”
Mr. Van Straaten said the only details the police were interested in were the contents of the bag and their monetary value.
Virak Buntham’s Response
After their experience with Sihanoukville law enforcement, Mr. Van Straaten and his girlfriend continued appealing to the bus company, sending emails and making phone calls.
To date, the couple say they’ve received no response.
“We actually returned to their Sihanoukville office 10 days after the incident for feedback. Disappointingly, in the 10 days since we were robbed, it was obvious they’d made no effort in helping to solve the problem.”
Multiple attempts by Khmer Times to obtain comment and information from Virak Buntham’s management had been ignored, prior to yesterday when the company noted that luggage was often shifted in Phnom Penh.
Mr. Van Straaten and his partner are not the first customers to complain about Virak Buntham Express, which has routes throughout Cambodia.
Multiple posts on the Lonely Planet’s website as well as Tripadvisor strongly advise against using their sleeper buses. Several former customers of the company have said they were robbed while travelling on its buses.
Interviews by Khmer Times reveal cases of alleged theft and robbery, at least one serious assault by bus staff as well as reports of ticket and “tax” scams. The company’s staff are frequently described as “unprofessional, aggressive and rude.”
Several tourists arriving in Sihanoukville have reported being robbed of valuable possessions, including passports, while on Virak Buntham Express sleeper buses.
Mr. Van Straaten, who has left Cambodia, says he is still waiting for answers from authorities.
“Our experience with the police [in Sihanoukville] and Virak Buntham was the lowest point of a long trip around Asia, a continent we mostly loved,” said Mr. Van Straaten.
“Being robbed was bad, but the way the police treated us – calling us liars and not even taking a statement – has really affected the way we see Cambodia.”
The Virak Buntham Express bus on which a documentary filmmaker says he was robbed.