The Time I Got Taken In Cambodia…
It was a hazy day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. I stumbled into the brown air and traffic-ridden streets, shielding my eyes as they adjusted to the midday sun after spending the whole morning in my dingy hotel room. I made my way towards Happy Herb Pizza, a little hole in the wall restaurant that had gained a bit of fame among backpackers and travelers. The tiny joint adjacent to the waterfront of the Mekong River had established such notoriety because it’s proprietors, aside from making a decent pie, where happy to add a topping of herbs that would otherwise be illegal if one where to purchase them in a bag. Yep, for a smile and a few extra Cambodian Riel, they would make a “happy” weed pizza.
As I walked the few blocks to my lunch destination I replayed the events of the previous night in my head. I had broken up with my girlfriend that I had been traveling with at the time after she’d thrown a wild punch at me in a crowded tourist nightclub. I went straight back to the hostel room that we were sharing, collected my things and left to check into a different hotel. Upon finding a room and settling in, I logged online, only to receive a message that my dad had been checked into the hospital back in the states due to a rare blood disease and that the doctors weren’t sure if they’d be able to do anything.
It was a sleepless night that bled into a noisy day. In the morning I took a tuk-tuk to the other side of town and checked into yet another random hotel. The only person I knew in the country was my now ex, and the only place I knew was a pizza parlor that served hash as a topping. I wasn’t about to contact my ex, so my choice of what to do for the day was obvious.
I walked, trying to ignore the fact that my world seemed to be crashing down around me, determined to stay in the moment while a grim recent past and a bleak future taunted the periphery of my imagination. I stumbled down the street with my head down, oblivious to all the sights and sounds of the big city around me.
I arrived sweating from the muggy afternoon heat and took a seat just inside the door. I made sure to sit off the sidewalk to avoid the children that inevitably come by and beg for money from the patrons that are naive enough to take a table outside the establishment. I sunk into the chair and held the laminated plastic menu up to my blurry eyes.
The waiter came around with a big smile eager to take my order. “Can I help you?” he asked in pretty good English.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll take a medium 4 cheese pizza, extra, extra happy. I’ve had a rough few days and I need something to cheer me up.” I passed him back the menu with a wink.
He took it from my hand and winked back. “Of course sir. And a drink?”
“Bottled water,” I told him flatly. He nodded and disappeared behind a curtain in the back.
I gazed out the window, my thoughts jumping back and forth between the fact that I was now single, and that I may have to cut my travels short and return home to see my dad for the last time. While these thoughts raged away in my head, a middle-aged man pulled up on a motorbike outside. There was a kid with him, about 15 years old, riding on the back. They parked and took a seat outside the establishment. After my food arrived I continued to look on as they gestured and struggled to give their order to the waiter, indicating to me that they weren’t Cambodian, although they did look East Asian.
I was just about done with my Pizza when the man looked over at me and said, “My nephew likes your tattoos.”
“You look like Wiz Khalifa.” The boy said with a grin.
“Thanks… I guess,” I said with a tight-lipped smile.
“You look like a nice man. Do you mind if we join you?” The man asked.
I looked down at the last slice on my plate and started to do the math. I had about 20 to 30 more minutes before my “happiness” kicked in and I would barely be able to move, let alone have an impromptu interview with a foreign stranger and his nephew. On the other hand, it’d been a dreary 24 hours, and maybe a little human interaction was just what I needed.
“Sure man, I could use some company right now actually.”
They got up and moved over to join me at my table inside. They introduced themselves. James, the uncle was visiting his sister in Cambodia with his nephew Nick and some other family members from the Philippines. He told me his sister had married a Cambodian man and that she lived there in Phnom Penh now.
When he found out I was traveling alone, he excitedly told me he had a niece that was my age. He invited me over to his sister’s home and offered his niece to take me out for the night. I looked down at my plate, now only happy crumbs remaining, and told him that tonight wouldn’t be a good one.
Without missing a beat he offered to pick me up the next day and insisted that I join them for lunch. I have Filipino friends back home, and I know they have a very family oriented culture. Plus, what did I have to lose? Maybe this was just the universe sending me a little silver lining to the dark clouds starting to bubble. I accepted his invitation and we made plans to meet in front of the restaurant the next day.
With a time set, I abruptly stood from the table and excused myself, ready to return to my hotel. The fortified oregano was kicking in, and I felt it was time to take my happy ass back to my room. I said goodbye, paid my bill and thanked the chef with a big tip, then scurried out the door to spend the rest of the day in bed, stoned and depressed, waiting by the phone.
The Next Day
I ventured out of my room around noon to meet up with James. I walked back down the crowded streets, past all the orange-robed monks, scrubby beggars, and lost tourist, to the Pizza place that had gotten me so high the day before.
When I arrived James was waiting for me on his motorbike with his helmet under his arm. He waved to me as I approached and got off the bike to shake my hand. He led me to a rundown old tuk-tuk that was parked beside him and leaned his head in, then he instructed me to enter.
Inside was two small Filipino women with enormous smiles plastered on their tan faces. They introduced themselves as Janet, James’s sister and her daughter Kate. They ushered me inside and planted me in the seat next to them. James hurried back to his bike and started the engine. At the same time, the tuk-tuk roared to life as well and pulled away from the curb to take us to the family home.
While we zigged and zagged through the back streets of the massive sprawl, the girls peppered me with questions about where I was from, what I was doing traveling and how did I like Cambodia. I politely fielded their questions and followed up with a few of my own to keep the conversation going until we arrived.
After about a half hour we pulled up to a medium-sized two-story house at the head of a dead end residential road. The motor cut off and we all climbed out of the rusty vehicle. James parked the bike and led me inside with the girls in tow.
The front door opened up to a large living room with white tile floors and a high open ceiling. To the right was a staircase that led straight up to the second story. In the middle of the room on a red couch was a squat man watching a TV on a stand against the far wall. There was a soccer match playing that he seemed to be focused on quite intently.
He glanced over as we entered then looked back at the TV. He did a double take when he realized I was a stranger and not just his family coming through the door. He hurriedly stood up and rushed over to shake my hand and introduce himself as Robert.
Robert was the Cambodian husband of Janet. It was his house I had just entered. With a warm smile, he invited me in and offered me a seat in a chair next to the couch. The girls excused themselves to go make lunch as they vanished through a door at the back of the room which, I guessed led to the kitchen. James took a seat opposite of me and sat for a while Robert asked me the same old get-to-know-you questions that people usually ask travelers before he also left the room.
I stayed and watch the football match with Robert while we waited for the food. I asked him about his nephew Nick and offered to take him to play basketball in a park later if he was up for it. Robert told me he was at a friend’s house now, and wouldn’t be back until later. The game ended right as the girls came out with the food, a big spread of chicken rice and a salad.
Robert turned off the TV and leaned in to talk to me more intently. The girls dropped off the food and then left again. “They aren’t eating?” I asked.
“They will eat later,” Robert told me.
I looked down at the plate on the small table in front of me, then looked at him with his hands on his knees leaning towards me. “And you’re not eating?” I questioned.
“I’m not hungry. I just ate before you arrived. Don’t worry about it, you go ahead.” he assured me with his calm British sounding accent.
Not wanting to make any cultural faux pas in the home of my gracious host I reluctantly started to poke at the meal before lifting a fork full of rice to my mouth. At this point, I had been traveling for over a year and was used to being brought in by hospitable strangers for meals, conversations and even lodging. But eating alone did seem a bit odd. Then I remembered my dad sick and pictured him in a hospital bed on the other side of the world. A pang of guilt ran through me and then I felt thankful that I at least had a bit of comfort, even if it was with strangers, while helplessly waiting for news on my father’s condition.
I ate while Robert chatted to me about his work. He told me that he worked at the big casino in town. He explained that he was a blackjack dealer, that the pay was decent and he enjoyed his job. Then he leaned in closer to me, and in a lower whisper, he told me that he had a side hustle dealing in illegal underground games for high rollers, bragging that the men he worked for would gamble, win and lose millions of U.S. dollars in a single hand. *(For reference, $1 U.S. was worth about 4,000 Cambodian Riel at the time.)
He went on telling me that the night before he had been working one of these underground games and that the winner, a man who walked away with a $200,000 pot had neglected to tip him the customary 1% for dealing. “But it’s OK.” He confided in me, “I’m working for these men again tonight and I’ll have my payback. You see, I’m a very good dealer,” he said with a wink, “and when I want someone to win, they will win, and when I want someone to lose… When you finish eating I’ll show you some tricks.”
I thought about my last night with my ex-girlfriend and wondered where she was in this big city. It had been two days now and we hadn’t tried to contact each other, which left my schedule clear. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, I didn’t see any reason not to agree. I asked a few more questions about the casino while I finished up the food.
When I was done Robert showed me up the stairs to a medium sized bedroom. The king sized bed on the adjacent wall to the door took up a good chunk of the floor space, apart from a desk against the wall opposite and a wooden dresser in the corner.
We sat across from each other at the desk and Robert revealed a pack of cards. He made small talk while his tiny hands fanned and collapsed the deck in a series of fancy shuffles. He then slammed the pile down in front of me and told me to take the top card, “And if it’s not an Ace, I’ll quit my job tomorrow.” He told me confidently.
I flipped the card over, to indeed reveal an Ace of diamonds. “Pretty good,” I said, keeping to myself that I wasn’t incredibly impressed with his little magic trick.
“Now check the next card.” He demanded. “If it is not a King I will quit my job tomorrow.” He exclaimed.
I flipped the card over chuckling to myself at his continued threat to quit his job if the trick was wrong as if his unemployment somehow affected me. I looked at the card face up on the table. “King of spades. You called it again.” I told him.
He nodded proudly as he scrapped the cards up off the desktop and reshuffled them. He repeated the trick, this time with two different cards, each time threatening to quit his job if he were wrong, to my secret amusement.
He grabbed the deck and started shuffling again when a faint buzzing started in his pocket. He set the cards down and reached for his phone. He glared at the flashing screen and his eyebrows shot up. He gestured at the phone with a chubby finger and mouthed to me, “this is him”. He got up abruptly and walk out the door as he answered and brought the phone to his ear.
I waited patiently while I heard his faint voice speaking a different language through the wall. After a few minutes, he returned excitedly explaining to me the conversation that had just transpired.
“That was the bastard from last night that didn’t tip me.” He was talking fast, almost out of breath. “He’s here to pick me for tonight and he’s waiting downstairs.” He was making quick motions with his hands and moving frantically as he spoke. “Wait here and I’ll be right back.” He darted out of the room again before I could respond. I heard his loud footsteps rumble down the stairs.
He re-entered with an older Asian man, tall and slim, wearing large prescription glasses and a spiffy looking business suit. In his left hand, he clutched a leather briefcase. Robert introduced us. “This is Mr. Chen,” He told me as we locked hands for a firm shake. Then Robert casually suggested we play a game of cards as if seeing the deck had suddenly given him the idea. I shrugged my shoulders indifferently and looked at Mr. Chen.
“Ah, I don’t think so,” he said in perfect English with a slight eastern accent. “I’m in a bit of a hurry”
“Oh come on. You can stay for a few friendly rounds, surely.” Robert retorted. While Mr. Chen made mild hums of protest Robert moved across the room and removed a small box from under the bed. He came back and placed it on the table, then un-clipped the hinges and lifted the lid open to reveal stacks of brightly colored poker chips.
When Mr. Chen saw the chips his eyes lit up and he moved in to sit down quick with the vigor of a true gambling addict. “Maybe just a few games.” He conceded. We all sat down at the table and Robert designated the amount each color chip was worth. He then distributed $20,000 worth of chips to us each and began dealing the cards for a game of blackjack.
I was playing rather nonchalantly, taking in this strange experience as I sat in a strangers house in Cambodia playing cards, wondering how I’d ended up there. I chatted with Mr. Chen asking where he was from while we played.
“I’m from Singapore,” he told me.
“Oh, yea? What kind of work you do there?” I asked.
“I’m in the oil business.” He said with a toothy, almost sinister grin.
We continued to play and after a few hands, I was noticing a suspicious pattern. Robert kept dealing me winning hands while keeping it close enough to look like I was just getting lucky. Mr. Chen would show 19 and I won with 20. He stopped at 18 and I hit with 12, got a 9 and won again. Robert was making sure I won almost all the hands within reason. Apparently, his little tricks weren’t just magic.
After about 5 minutes, I was up the $20,000 and Mr. Chen was out of chips.
Where it takes a turn
“I’d like to buy more chips.” Mr. Chen said, reaching down for his briefcase. He placed it on the table and opened it. Inside was stacked full of neatly placed and bound crisp mint U.S. 100 dollar bills. The scene was straight out of a Guy Richie movie. I’d never seen so much money in person before or since.
A hot flash enveloped my body and I suddenly felt weak. “Hang on, I…I thought we were just playing a friendly game. I didn’t think we were actually playing for money” I stammered. Mr. Chen’s face melted then hardened into a stern mask.
“This is a friendly game.” His voice low and eerie. “Do you mean that you’ve been here, wasting my time, gambling with money you don’t have?”
In that instant, the walls seemed to close in around me. I felt dizzy as images of my fingers being cut off slowly, one by one, while the Singapore mafia held me for ransom flashed before my eyes. I was immediately aware of the fact that I, nor literally anyone else in the world, knew where I was. It wouldn’t be hard to make me disappear.
I had to think fast. My quick-talking instincts took over and I naturally slipped into an air of calm. I took a breath and leaned back in my chair. “Well, I have the money.” I lied. “But I’m a tourist. I don’t walk around with that much cash on me. And besides, I’m winning. If anything I should take that money you have right there if this is a ‘friendly’ game.”
My first priority was to get out of the house and into a public place. I figured the “I need to go to a bank” angle made sense and would get me back out into the daylight.
Mr. Chen’s face softened. “Alright then. If you say you have the money I’ll trust you. But you have to prove it to me. Go get the $20,000 you’ve bet here. If you show me that you have $20,000, I’ll let you take this $20,000.” He stood and began buttoning his suit jacket. “But if you don’t and you’ve been wasting my time…”
He picked up his briefcase off the table. “I must go, I have business to attend to. I’ll be back in one hour. If you can get the money then it’s your lucky day. Gentlemen.” He gave a short bow and let himself out.
Robert, who had been sitting wide-eyed and motionless the whole time now sprang back to life, excited about the prospect of ripping off his boss.
“I don’t have the money,” I told him. “I just said that to buy time.”
“That’s OK.” Robert said, still eager “How much do you have?”
“I don’t know, a couple thousand in the bank, I guess. But I don’t even think I can take out more than $300 cash per day while I’m abroad.”
“Well let’s see how much you have and whatever the difference is I’ll make up, then when he gives you the money you won, we can split it.”
He was dripping with greed and I wanted no part of it, but I knew it was the only way to get out of the house. “OK, well let’s go to the bank and see what we can do.” I agreed, already planning my escape in the back of my mind.
We emerged from the room and went downstairs. Robert called his nephew on the phone who showed up with a tuk-tuk out front a short while later. He gave us a quick introduction then we jumped in the back and where whisked off to the bank.
Once we were back at the busy party of the city I decided to make my move. I told them to wait while I went to the ATM to check my funds and possibly make a withdraw. I punched in my PIN and withdrew $300, all the while constantly glancing over my shoulder at the giddy casino dealer waiting in the backseat.
I removed the money and my card from the machine, then sauntered back, pretending to count the bills. When I got to the coach I stepped halfway in. I lifted the bundle of 20s I’d gotten from the ATM and held it outstretched in front of me.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I want no part of it,” I shouted at Robert. When his hand reached out for the money I swiftly brought it down and stepped back, then with a quick jolt I tossed all the money into the air. The green bills rained down in the cab as well as on the street and sidewalk. The city breeze and furious traffic whipped the notes all around in the air.
While Robert and his nephew were distracted, furiously snatching at the tornado of currency, I turned and ran as fast as I could up the sidewalk against the traffic. I bolted around a few corners without looking back, then hailed a cab and shot into the back seat.
Out of breath, I ducked down low, went in my pocket, and fished out the business card of my hotel with the address printed on the back. I asked the driver if he knew where it was. He turned to look at the card for a while, then said “yes” and turned back around. He stared at my reflection with a raised eyebrow in his rear-view mirror before he pouted, shrugged and pulled off.
I spent the next couple of days laying low in my hotel room and ended up just catching a bus back to Thailand in the end. My dad eventually got better and I got back in touch with my ex and forgave her.
Now that I look back on the events of this bizarre, mild kidnapping, I realize it was a scam all along. These people were all in on it and had targeted me from the beginning. They were sharks that smelt blood in the water as soon as they saw an out of place foreigner eating alone in the big city.
I can see it all now. The little details, like having me eat alone, and distracting me with conversation on the way to the house to keep my guard down. The way I was approached, being caught while I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. They used the kid to disarm me and open me up in the beginning. They lulled me into acquiescence with charm and hospitality, and eventually, they tried to intimidate me and play on my desires. Had I been a greedier man I may have lost even more money, or worse.
Mr. Chen Probably wasn’t Robert’s boss. Robert probably didn’t even work at the Casino. Who knows if any of them were even Filipino. The whole set up was planned and rehearsed to a T. They were all pro con artists.
But the experience was a good lesson. Up to that point I had been too trusting and generous with strangers, mainly because I didn’t have any reason not to be. It raised my senses and detection of fishy situations and taught me to have a healthy skepticism of people’s good intentions.
Since this incident, I’ve continued to travel, stay with strangers, and have even hitchhiked through dozens of countries around the world, and have yet to have another issue even close to this one. I quickly regained my faith in humanity, if I ever even lost it.
I’m also happy with my resolve and my resilience after a negative experience like this one. A lot of people might have had some trouble, called it quits and returned home with their tail between their legs, mad at the big, bad, mean, old world, and vowing to never put on a backpack again. But I didn’t let it ruin my desire to travel, and I’ve continued with my passion wholeheartedly since.
Although I’m embarrassed for my naivety and for getting caught up the way I did, I’m also proud of my ability to think on my feet under pressure, a skill I wasn’t aware I possessed until it was tested. I was able to stay calm when I felt in danger and get myself to safety without escalating the situation. In a weird way, the experience was huge for developing my confidence and trusting in the strength of my character.
So for the Do’s and Dent’s of Cambodia, I recommend the following: Do try the happy pizza, it’s delicious. Do be nice to strangers, cause you never know, they might just be having a rough day. And don’t ever gamble with money you don’t have unless it’s a friendly game with friends.J