In high school, I remember hearing the Dead Kennedys* song, “Holiday in Cambodia”. At that time, I didn’t even know Cambodia was a country and shamefully had to Google Earth it. Since then, it has always curiously remained in the back of my mind. Little did I know, seven years later I would be living in its next-door neighbor. Seeing as this year (in a cheesy way) can be considered as my “gap year”, I had filled my head with dreams of visiting as many places as possible while living in SE Asia. So where to?
Can you think of a more alluringly exotic-sounding place than Phnom Penh, Cambodia? It was only a $10 6-hour bus ride from Saigon, so what was stopping me? I had talked to many people who had been before so I feel as if I had the total rundown of the place. I bought the Lonely Planet, agoda-ed my hotel, and off I went….alone. I decided it was perfectly safe to go alone, as I had been living in Vietnam for a year and felt I knew everything about everything–plus I knew people who came here before with no problem. It was going to be an adventurous little trip from Saigon–>Phnom Penh–>Battambang–>Siem Riep–>Saigon. I also cannot deny that I had this arrogance with me about how cool it sounded to be travelling to exotic places by myself. Well 48 unbelievable hours later, this arrogance not only dissipated into thin air…it was violently crushed into smithereens before dissipating into thin air. I hope to share my story with others so those planning on travelling alone never let their guard down as I did.
Prepare yourself for the most absurd (yet terrifying) experience I have ever had in my entire life. This is a one-of-a-kind Laurelbury Tale of being fleeced by the Filipino mafia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. And believe me, I wish that last statement was as much of a joke as it sounds. Brace yourself for the ultimate brick job.
Things were going great. The first evening, I walked along the riverside snapping photos of the tuk-tuks and the vibrant cafes and bars that lined the street. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. My first impression was that Cambodia was far more developed than I had imagined. I cashed it in early, seeing as I had a jam-packed day of Phnom Penh sights the next day. I woke up early and started off with a tour of the impressive Royal Palace and meandered my way through the National Museum. At this point, I was quite cooked as the sun was beating down and the museum was not air-conditioned. Time to take breather and plan where I was going next. Heavily recommended in the Lonely Planet was the “Friends” cafe where apparently the proceeds go to a good cause. Well that’s great, but it also means it is swimming in tourists. However, it was very close to the National Museum, so I thought “Why not?”
To my demise, it was 10:30AM. Upon finding the cafe, I walked up and asked the employee if they were open. When the worker replied “not until 11AM”, a Filipino lady using the name “Aisa” approached me and asked “Is this cafe any good?” I replied “I read about it” and friendly conversation about my travels ensued. She invited me to continue to talk at another nearby cafe on the corner of Street 13 and 178. She said she was on holiday visiting her brother who was married to a Cambodian lady. Her brother worked ship. She also told me she had a sister who is soon moving to Cleveland, Ohio after hearing I was from Ohio. She invited me back to her brother’s house for lunch where she said her niece would love to meet me. I agreed as I often enjoy meeting local people. After living in Vietnam for a year, I cannot tell you how many times I have met random local people for coffee or went back to their family’s house for dinner. “This can’t be that different, right?” I was driven to the outskirts to a house where I am not able to report the street name. It was about a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride from the riverside area. On the way, she asked me for my name and e-mail so she could “friend me on Facebook”. Looking back, I painfully regret dispensing this information.
Upon entering the house, I was warmly welcomed by the uncle (also Filipino) who went by the name of “Rudy”. He began to tell me that he was a black jack dealer on a cruise ship. He said he was just in Saigon working at the Caravelle Hote (RED FLAG #1). We ate lunch and I also met the niece (also Filipino) whose name I never quite caught. There was no sign of the “Cambodian wife” (RED FLAG #2), but they kept the conversation pumping so I never asked. The lunch was not quite what struck me as traditional Cambodian cuisine or remotely delicious (RED FLAG #3), but I didn’t want to be rude and tried to eat every last grain of rice (as you are taught in Vietnam–it is very rude to leave anything on your plate if somebody cooks for you). After lunch, the uncle invited me to play cards and although hesitant, I agreed. I was lured into a closed room with no windows (RED FLAG #4). We sat down at a card table and he taught me how to play a game called “Poker Jack”. The sister came in and said she wanted to watch and would be on my team. She also offered me something to drink and came back with some “hot tea” (RED FLAG #5). After some friendly rounds, he taught me some tricks the dealer often plays to guarantee that he always wins. He invited me to continue to practice and no money was actually being bet yet. After a few minutes, Rudy’s phone rings and “Mr. Asis”, a rich Bruneian man called and said he was coming over. Upon hanging up, Rudy told me Mr. Asis had cheated him by only giving Rudy part of the commission that was promised to him and complained of Mr. Asis’ greediness. Rudy said I could practice the new game and some of the tricks when Mr. Asis came. I said I had no money to play with but Rudy gave me $200 I said I could practice with. If anybody gets this far into this situation–this is where you excuse yourself politely. From my research, they usually are thrown off by the assertiveness and seem to be letting people go unharmed. Say you have to meet your friend or booked a tour and have to be back at your hotel. ANYTHING TO GET THE EFF OUT. There are obviously a million red flags going off right now. Listen to them. (See my explanation below for my Red Flags).
Mr. Asis entered. An older SE Asian looking man with greased over hair, a snakeskin briefcase, and glasses. He sat at the table and Rudy invited him to play cards with me. Mr. Asis purchased $500 worth of chips and I $200 with the money Rudy had given me. After several rounds, I had been winning the chips but Mr. Asis kept playing. I said one more round when I had won quite a bit of money and was not quite sure what I was getting into. The final round began and I conveniently had the highest set of cards with 21 points. Because of the cheats Rudy had told me, I knew Mr. Asis only had 20 points. The betting continued and all of the sudden, Mr. Asis pulls out $30,000 USD in cash and lays it on the table. Now terrified and feeling like I was in a scene from Goodfellas, I would have liked to make a dash but was conveniently placed furthest from the closed door and would have to get through 3 people in order to reach the door. I was very scared of what else was in Mr. Asis’ snakeskin briefcase. Because I knew I had the highest card, there was a guarantee I was going to win. Aisa was sitting beside me begging me to match him. I said I obviously did not have $30,000 cash on me. I was taken aside by Rudy and he said he could get the money from his friend if I agreed to not fold and match the bet. Here’s the pickle: If I folded, I was going to owe Rudy $200. If I went along, surely something super sketch was going to happen. Not sure how I was going to get out of this, I agreed. Mr. Asis said we could continue the game when money was brought to the table and our cards were placed in sealed envelopes and locked in a cupboard. In assurance that “we would both return”, Mr. Asis’ money was locked in the cupboard. I was asked to give something over to assure I would come back. I had my Canon 60D camera and about $100 in my wallet that I gave them. (If you find yourself THIS deep in the situation, absolutely insist you have no money to hand over–or give them like 20 bucks and say its all you have. Say you are a student–anything to just make them think you have nothing to put forward. They unfortunately had already seen my camera.) I also had an iPad but they wanted no part of that. Looking back, I figured it was because this could be tracked by GPS. Mr. Asis said to meet back in 2 hours. Rudy said he was going to meet his friend to get as much money as he could, but thought it was going to be difficult to get more than $10,000. He asked how much money I could put forward and we would split the pot. I said I did not want the money, I just wanted my camera and $100 back. He said that if I put some money forward to help match Mr. Asis’ bet, everything would be rightfully returned because “I was guaranteed to win”.
Rudy went to go pick up more cash and the two girls, Aisa and the niece, took me to an ATM (RED FLAG #6) where I was told to withdraw as much money as I could. (If you find yourself THIS deep in the situation, this is where you RUN AND SCREAM for your life, as I was finally out in public and could have grabbed the attention of people on the street. I am sure the scammers would have fled). Frightened of the threats that “Mr. Asis’ body guard would be following us to make sure we got the money” and stupidly distracted on getting back to get my camera, I took out $200, the most possible at the ATM (they first made me try $500 but thankfully it was rejected) with my Chase card. It was near the Central Market but couldn’t tell you much more than that. I told them I could not take out anymore money. All of the sudden (this scared me the most) Rudy comes and grabs the money out of my hand and is all frantic saying his friend is not coming through with the money. They said Mr. Asis would not be pleased and would accept payment in the form of purchased cell phones. I said I only had a little money left but took me to a cell phone shop (RED FLAG #7) nearby (also near the Central Market). Here I purchased a cell phone for $500. They wanted me to buy more but I said I had no more money remaining in my bank account. The store asked for a copy of my passport to “match my name on the card to the passport”. What is listed on my bank account is a pending purchase of :”SOK LY P, KH on 06/18/2012″. The store was obviously connected with the scammers and I feel as if my information is now compromised. After this I said I had no more money and refused to buy anything else. They said okay and returned to the house. The two girls told me the uncle was able to get $8,000 so maybe he would accept the $8,700 and lower his bet. Just wanting this to be over and desperately thinking of my camera, we arrived back of the house. We laid the phone, $200 from my ATM, and the $8,000 Rudy had acquired. Mr. Asis was not happy and said he only makes business with a person of their word. Aisa said if we were given more time to get more money (as it was conveniently Sunday and the banks were closed), we could meet first thing tomorrow morning to “finish the game”. Mr. Asis agreed and left, but my camera and his money were still to be left locked away. Rudy then said I was to do everything I could to get more money because Mr. Asis was very angry and he was very scared, including having my father wire me more money. I said he couldn’t and just wanted to go home. They said they would pick me up tomorrow morning and Rudy was going to try to get more money.
I was taken back to the hotel. I immediately googled “Cambodia gambling scam” and realized there were so many other people who have gone through the exact same thing. It is apparently a very active, very effective scam run by the Filipino mafia that has been going on for years. It seems to have been given birth in Saigon in the backpacker’s area, and these scumbags have now spread like the plague to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Thailand.
Finally admitting to myself I was never seeing anything I lost today ever again, I wanted to return to Saigon immediately, even though I had planned to stay in Cambodia five more days. I was scared because they knew where I was staying. Rudy and Aisa kept calling me to see if I was getting more money. I eventually started ignoring the calls and stayed up all night paranoid–clenching my pillow watching for shadows outside my door. At 6AM without a wink of sleep, I booked it out of that hotel and headed for the most trusted bus station I knew but the furthest from my hotel I could find and bought the first available ticket home (8:30AM). The scammers continued to call the next morning, but I never answered and changed my SIM card as soon as I returned.
I considered going to the Cambodian police, but was very hesitant due to the amount of corruption involved. I was nervous that either the Filipinos would know I squealed or that the police were paid off by the Filipinos to allow them to carry out their operations. Either way, I decided against it. I did not go to the Embassy, as I no longer felt safe in Phnom Penh and wanted to return to HCMC as soon as possible.
My first feelings were utter shame, embarrassment, and anger for allowing myself to get into this situation. Didn’t my mother tell me to never talk to strangers? But isn’t that part of the fun of wandering around SE Asia–the people you meet? So many red flags were going off? Why on earth would a greedy business man from Brunei be visiting this card dealer whom he apparently ripped off to play cards at his house? How could I not have walked away (See RED FLAG #5) from this absurdly ridiculous situation? Did I really think I was going to get my camera back? I’ve been living in Vietnam for a year, HAVE I LEARNED NOTHING? Looking back, there were so many alarm bells it but I somehow found myself either talking myself out of them or by the end, downright frightened for my life and angry at getting this deep that I felt helpless.
Here are some of the loopholes of their story that didn’t quite add up (I think if I would have questioned them, it would have caught them off guard and a chance to escape):
RED FLAG #7: As with the ATM, they could have taken me to any hole-in-the-wall electronics store–hell, we could have even went to the giant one in the mall we passed. But NOOOO, we had to go to their special sketch electronics store, obviously equipped to steal your identity. That’s cute, they’re all in this together.
Now I am in recovery mode. Obviously the camera is gone and I’m working with the banks about fraud charges. But to be quite honest, I am lucky to be alive. Things could have gotten a lot uglier. I could have been murdered. I could have been sold into sex slavery. I could have lost thousands instead of hundreds. I beg anyone who stumbles across this blog to read this thoroughly and read about any other most recent scams going on in the country. It was the most terrifying, but bizarre experience I have ever encountered and the scammers feed on the politeness and curiosity of foreigners. And it unfortunately doesn’t look like anyone is doing anything about it any time soon.
So while I lick my wounds, I also hope to join the crusade to eradicate these cockroaches(as well as show people know I am not utterly insane). I would never want this to happen to another person. If I can stop one person from making the same mistake, that’s good enough for me. Please check out some other people’s stories that are either identical, better, or worse than mine:
- LTOcambodia’s warning in Phnom Penh: http://ltocambodia.blogspot.com/2011/12/riverfront-scammers-and-filipino.html
- fisheggtree blogger, Adam Bray, has been following these guys like a hawk for a year, and provides excellent documentation of the scammers in action while also begging people to do something about it http://fisheggtree.blogspot.com/search/label/Filipino
- Johnnyvagabond’s near identical experience to mine, but in Saigon http://johnnyvagabond.com/featured/poker-scam-saigon/. Luckily he peaced out at the perfect time and had a fate more fortunate than mine.
- Blog of Interpol (although I cannot verify its authenticity of actually being affiliated with International Police) that seems to be somewhat following the scams. http://internationalpolice.blogspot.com/
Anyone else who has shared experiences or know of informative links, please feel free to comment.
Future Phnom Penh-goers (as well as other Asian City-goers), here is what you need to look out for:
- Blatant approaches on the street asking inane, pointless questions such as “where did you get that shirt?”, “is this cafe any good?”, etc. Be especially wary if the person introduces him or herself from the Philippines. I by no means mean to be racist, but it is a well-established fact that it is the Filipino mafia behind this operation.
- The apparently age old, “OH, I have a sister moving to [insert city/country in which you are from].” In my case, the sister was soon moving to Cleveland to be a nurse.
- These people feed on politeness. Don’t be afraid to be rude. The more blunt and curt you are about things, the more likely they are to scamper away.
- One blog pointed out that these people are blatantly loitering…meaning they are literally just sitting around looking for their next victim. They aren’t sightseeing. They aren’t selling anything on the street. They aren’t drinking coffee.. They don’t have a camera with them. They have no business being where they actually are.
- An invitation to lunch is the big no-no. Don’t go anywhere with these people. Who knows how long it will take for them to get violent? They are professional crooks.
The only person I have to blame is myself and my naivete. I was duped. But for those who comment on how this scam is fueled by people’s greed and deserve what they get, I disagree and would think twice about what you say until you are put into such an absurd situation. For those of you who have fallen into the trap, you can receive sympathy from me. It was not a fun day.
Now, the burning question–would I go back to Cambodia? Despite the fact that my parents would nearly have a heart attack if I ever entered the borders again, I am going to answer “yes”. I was quite enjoying myself until I met my good friend Aisa. The Royal Palace was spectacular, the National Museum $3 well spent, and the riverside walk was very charming. I never even had a chance to visit Angkor Wat–an ancient wonder of a lost world–which is why people go to Cambodia anyways. I will amend my answer to saying that I would visit again, but probably not alone. I did notice my vulnerability when I was walking the first night. But of course I thought I had it all together, as I glued my bag to the side, bargained hard with the tuk-tuks, and obsessively looked out for motorbike thieves. Just never let your guard down. Easier said than done I know, but some lessons must be learned the hard way. I can only hope I took one for the team.