When George Cooper walked out of Phnom Penh’s fanciest hotel one evening last February, he noticed right away that something was missing. Namely, his 1990 Honda Accord.
Cooper, an American legal adviser to Legal Aid of Cambodia, had been inside the Hotel Le Royal for about an hour, working out in the sports club he has belonged to for a year. He had left his car in the hotel’s parking lot, inside a walled enclosure and under the theoretically watchful eye of hotel security.
But gone it was.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” said Cooper, who is suing the hotel in Phnom Penh Municipal Court for negligence. “I found later that several cars have been stolen from the same lot before my car. If they had notified guests and patrons about a car theft problem, it’d have been prevented.”
For its part, the hotel, which charges up to $200 per night for a room, says it is not liable for Cooper’s loss and will not pay. When Cooper e-mailed the hotel saying he might publicize the situation, he got a letter back from a hotel lawyer threatening to sue him if he hurt the hotel’s reputation.
“Like other hotels in any country, our hotel is not responsible for any loss or damage,” said Gilbert Madhavan, general manager for Le Royal and the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap. “We’ve always indicated that guests may park their cars at [their] own risk.”
Hotel industry officials and security experts say car thefts and vandalism at the capital’s prestigious hotel properties are not uncommon.
Chris Berger, director for the international security company MPA Security Services, said that the hotel industry is “the number one target” for his business, because “there is a serious security problem, especially car thefts at parking lots.”
According to municipal police, car thefts from hotels aren’t usually reported. But the police acknowledge the issue is serious.
“Car theft is one of worst problems in Phnom Penh,” said Sim Hong, deputy chief for the Judicial Military Police. “The car control system in Cambodia is too weak to prevent such incidents.” He pointed out that many cars are unregistered or without valid plates.
Svay Thoun, deputy chief of the Don Penh district police, said based on his professional experience three scenarios might be at work in car thefts: hotel staff is involved in stealing, a former owner or renter steals the car, or the owner himself arranges for the car to be stolen.
Pichlea Phiny, front office assistant manager for the Cambodiana, confirmed two car thefts occurred last year; both vehicles were found and returned to the owners, she said. After the incidents, the hotel began issuing parking tickets to guests, which has stopped the thefts, she said.
The management of the Inter-Continental also acknowledged car thefts have happened in the hotel’s parking lot.
“We can’t deny it. It happens here and everywhere,” said a hotel spokesman who refused to give his name. “But it’s not our responsibility. People should take care of their own properties, taking precautionary measures.”
According to Le Royal’s security department, about 30 car parking spaces are available inside the hotel compound, with another 100 spaces right next to the hotel. Hotels guests can park their cars in those areas free of charge but at their own risk, said security manager Vong Sophal.
Several guards patrol the area around the clock, he said. But somehow three cars have been stolen since last year, he confirmed, including two this year. Only one has been recovered.
A Toyota Camry belonging to Frederick Gervais, who works with the SDV freight service company, has been missing since the January night he parked it at the Le Royal for a business dinner.
Gervais is on vacation overseas, but a colleague said that when Gervais complained to hotel management, he was told a “park-at-your-own-risk’’ sign in the parking area absolved the hotel from responsibility.
An Asian accountant whose Toyota Camry was vandalized while he attended a wine tasting late last year said he doesn’t recall any warning sign. He said he returned from the wine-tasting event to discover that his front windshield, two side mirrors and two headlights had been taken.
“Le Royal is such a prestigious hotel. It’s a serious security problem,” he said. The hotel should take some precautionary measures on the matter.”
While Gervais and the Asian accountant let the matter drop after complaining, Cooper wants to be compensated for his car’s value of $5,520, on the grounds that hotel security was negligent.
Madhavan said the police found no evidence that his staff was involved in the theft or was negligent. “But we are very proactive on the security matter,” he said.
“We started a few months ago giving guests a registration number tag for their cars.”
In recent weeks, the hotel does appear to have boosted security, with guards now handing out parking tags.
Tourism officials were surprised to hear of such problems at the city’s top-line hotels, and suggested hotel management take quick action.
“We haven’t heard any reports on car thefts,” said So Mara, secretary-general for the Tourism Ministry. “It would damage their images and reputations. Hotels should [improve] their services to prevent such incidents.” (Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)