“HELLO!” a woman shouts at me and waves from the back of a scooter. She gets off and walks up to me. “Oh! I’m so sorry!” she says, grinning. “I thought you were a friend of mine. You look exactly the same as her!”
We get chatting. Sue* is about thirty-five years old and tells me that she is from Thailand and is visiting her brother, who lives with his wife in Phnom Penh. “Do you know London?” she asks. “My sister is going to be a nurse there.”
I tell her that I lived in London for years.
“Will you come to my family’s house for lunch and meet my sister? She’s nervous about moving to London and she doesn’t know anyone there.”
“Well, actually, I’m busy right now…” I reply. Sue looks visibly disappointed.
“Maybe later then? When are you free?”
We agree to meet at the same spot in a few hours.
“Don’t eat!” Sue says with a huge, friendly smile. “I will cook you a big meal!”
I walk away, bemused by the persistence and friendliness of Sue, but not surprised by her invite or her openness. After all, I have had countless invites to strangers’ houses in my years of travelling…..
* * *
Later on, I walk to the meeting spot, feeling like the last thing I want to do is socialise, but I don’t want to let Sue down. I’ve cheekily eaten a delicious Khmer curry, so I hope that the family aren’t cooking me a huge feast. Sue picks me up on a scooter. I’m sandwiched between her and a man who is apparently her husband. She talks non-stop, asking me question after question and I tell her about my past travels (I wonder, in hindsight, whether she was a bit unnerved when I started telling her about my travels in the Philippines…)
We swerve through traffic and speed through the city’s side streets for about fifteen minutes before arriving at her brother’s home.
I smile at the neighbours as I walk into the house. Instead of smiling, they frown at me. “They’re rude…” I think to myself. Looking back, though, I wonder whether they were scowling because they knew that another victim was being led into the house.
I’m led up steps so steep that it reminds me of climbing up to the top of a windmill. Afterwards, I wonder whether the steps are deliberately steep so that it’s difficult for guests to make a quick getaway….
We walk into a living room, and a man called Al*, about forty years old, comes into the room, looking confused that I’m there. Sue explains that I’m from England and here to meet her sister.
“What a pleasure to have an English woman in my home!” he says. “I’m honoured!”
The sister (who is moving to London) isn’t home. She is visiting a temple and will be back soon (or so I’m told. Actually, she never arrives). I sit on the couch and am offered a glass of Coca-Cola (which I refuse) and a cup of tea (which I sip). Like Sue, Al talks at me non-stop. Al tells me about his job. He says he’s a croupier at a VIP casino, and he tells me how it’s his job to make sure that the punter wins 10% of the money, and that the casino wins 90%.
We have dinner – vegetable noodles – and I eat a small portion.
“Eat more!” they both say. “You have a small appetite, Lisa!”
Afterwards, I wonder if they were trying to persuade me to eat more because they had drugged the food.
During the meal, Al and Sue both try to compliment me. “You look twenty-four years old!” they both say. We chat about politics in Thailand and Sue invites me to stay with her in Bangkok. She gives me her email address (which I later throw into the bin in disdain).
After food, Al obsessively talks more about his casino work. Apparently, the previous evening, some rich Chinese businessmen employed him to help them to win money. They said that he could have a large share of what they won, but they only paid him $100. Al is very bitter. “These men don’t care about anyone. They don’t care about poor people. They don’t care about children who live on the streets. They’re nasty people. They’re not like us,” he tells me. “I could teach you how to play cards and you could come to the casino and play card games against them and you could win money!” I laugh loudly at the prospect of me going to a casino and gambling against millionnaires. It’s absurd. Al laughs along with me. He draws me a map of the layout of a typical casino and explains what goes on.
“I will teach you how to play Poker 21,” he says. I have absolutely no interest in gambling or in card games, but I want to keep my hosts happy. After all, they have given me lunch and they’re genuinely very kind (although far too talkative and too obsessed with talking about their jobs!)
I’m led into a room next door to play cards – a bare bedroom with only a bed, a wardrobe and a table and chairs. The curtains are drawn and the door is closed behind me. The aircon is on full (so I assume that this is the reason why the door has been closed). If I had been left alone with Al, I would have walked straight out of the room again. But Sue is with us and she says that she wants to learn how to play cards too. We all sit down. Al asks me to pick a card from the deck and he guesses my card correctly. We do this for a few minutes. He then teaches me how to play Poker 21.
After a little while, he wants to teach me how to cheat. He says that we can fix the game so that I always win.
“If I scratch my head, you pick another card,” he says. He goes on to teach me various signs that he will do as the dealer so that I will always win.
“The Chinese businessman from last night is coming here now, Lisa. I will ask him to play Poker 21 with you. He will agree, and you will see my hand signals and you will win lots of money. We will split the money 50/50!”
“Shit,” I think to myself. “This man wants to use me to con millionnaires out of money. How the hell do I get out of this??”
By this time, I’m quite intimidated by Al, and he’s looking more and more like a gangster who I REALLY don’t want to be stuck in a bedroom with. I realise that I’m trapped behind a table with a wall on one side of me, Sue on the other side of me, and Al in front of me. I start to feel scared. I need to be firm and find the courage to tell Al that I’m not going to help him to con money out of his enemies. So I start to imagine Al on the toilet, having a shit, and this vision helps me to feel less intimidated by him!
I hear some people coming into the room next door, but I can’t see anything because the curtains are closed and the door is shut.
“Al, I’m not going to play cards with anyone,” I say firmly.
He frowns at me.
“But you said you would play,” he replies quietly and seriously.
I wonder if I did previously say that I would play. Did I tell Al that I would gamble? I feel confused.
“I’m not going to gamble,”I say decisively.
“But it’s not gambling, Lisa. You would be sure to win. And you would be winning against someone who has millions.”
“I’m not doing it. I hate money.”
Al looks at me in silence for a second.
“OKAY,” he says. Suddenly, both he and Sue stand up. “Alright, Lisa. It was good to meet you.”
Before I know what’s going on, I’m ushered out of the bedroom and through the living room. They can’t get rid of me fast enough. At the bottom of the steep steps, there just happens to be a motorcycle taxi waiting, and I’m whisked away from the street. I see the neighbours frowning as I leave.
I arrive back at my hostel, drained of energy and completely confused. I email Chris: “Something weird has just happened to me. Can you come online asap?” I feel really uneasy.
But as I wait for Chris to come online, it occurs to me that there could be something more sinister going on. I type into the search engine ‘Casino scam Phnom Penh’. To my horror, pages and pages of results come up.
I realise that I’ve had a very lucky escape. My hosts hadn’t wanted to use me to scam rich gamblers. Rather, they had wanted to scam me out of as much money as possible. They are a gang from the Philippines and have been around for years.
Another female tourist wrote a blog post about her terrifying experience with the gang. She couldn’t get out of the situation and ended up gambling against the supposedly rich businessman. Al (who is called Rudy in her account) gave her money to gamble with, and because she was following his hand signals, she kept winning. She says:
“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 [the rich businessman] 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.”
She continues her account by saying that she was taken to an ATM as Al, Sue and others were trying to force her to match the $30,000 stake with her own money:
“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 nearby (also near the Central Market). Here I purchased a cell phone for $500…”
And a Phnom Penh Post article from 2012, talking about the same scam, says that
“A Swiss national was allegedly fleeced of $11,000. Another of the hostel’s guests, a 26-year-old Norwegian national, told the Post that her travel plans had been thrown into disarray after she was separated from $3,000 over the weekend.”
There’s also reports online of people saying that they were drugged by the food and drink given to them by the gang, and also threats of violence.
For a few days after my dinner date with the Filipino Mafia, I’m still pretty shaken up by the experience. Feelings of uneasiness, sadness and dread engulf me as I acknowledge the depths that humans can go to to hurt each other.
So, how could I fall for such a scam? Have seven years of travelling taught me nothing?
My answer would be that travelling, and especially hitchhiking, has taught me to believe in the kindness of strangers. I have met hundreds of beautiful, generous people over the years. They have fed me, knitted me clothes, let me sleep in their houses, given me money, treated me as if I was a member of the family. Why shouldn’t I trust the friendly woman on the street in Phnom Penh?
“I would rather live my life trusting people and possibly lose a few grand than go through life closed and untrusting of people,” my friend Matt says as I re-tell my experience. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
*I have called the protagonists in my blog post Al and Sue. Al told me that his name was Al. But I can’t remember Sue’s name, so I have made it up.
*There is a much wittier tale about the Filipino Mafia by this traveller!