It was one of those moments when your body detaches from your mind. When you suddenly transform from a rational human into an instinctual animal, descending into your most extreme version of survival mode.
Surrounded by strangers, at night, alone, in a sketchy neighborhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I had just realized I was in the midst of an elaborate scam.
It all began on the river at sunset.
Like a watering hole in the Sahara, animals with all spots and stripes congregate along the Tonle Sap River at sunset in sweltering Phnom Penh.
I dodged flying soccer balls passed between teenagers and watched curiously while older men used a playground of exercise equipment and women flung half-heartedly to orchestrated dance aerobics.
Vendors pushed carts toting cotton candy, peanuts, and beach balls while families dined on boiled eggs and grilled meat on the palace lawn. Tourists, aid workers, children and their parents, monks, and prostitutes, gazed pensively at the water.
“Hello!” a woman called with a smile.
“Hello!” I returned.
Adjusted to the friendly, inclusive Khmer demeanor, I thought nothing of sitting with this woman and her niece for a chat.
“You’re so friendly!” she exclaimed with a smile.
Liwayway explained that she originally came from the Philippines. She and her niece, Riza, who looked about my age, lived in Bangkok and worked as sales reps for a textile design firm. They were in town visiting Liwayway’s brother who married a Khmer woman and lived in Phnom Penh with his wife and children.
A week ago, immediately after arriving in Phnom Penh, she was mugged getting off the bus, and consequently had a deep disdain for the country and its people. The tender skin around her eye and cheekbone still held a blue and yellow tint.
“They didn’t take that much,” she continued “only my purse and a thousand dollars.”
I smiled and nodded, despite the fact that $1000 now sounded like a small fortune to me in a country where many people live on less than that in an entire year.
We spoke about her family in the Philippines, my family in the states, my nomadic lifestyle, and the clubs they liked to frequent in Bangkok. They insisted I come and stay with them on my next visit to Thailand.
“Tomorrow night is my brother’s birthday. You must come! Or join us for dinner tonight!”
“Where does he live?” I asked.
“Oh very near, in the center.”
I considered the evening I originally set out for: street food and blogging back at the hostel. This deviation sounded more adventurous and presented an opportunity to visit a local home.
“Well, there’s one problem,” I said with hesitation.
They both gazed at me with concern.
They laughed hysterically and assured me it would not be a problem.
Our interaction felt sincere and I had been invited to so many celebrations and beach BBQs in Southeast Asia before. I never questioned their intentions as I followed them to their motorbike.
I sat behind Liwayway who drove like a lunatic against oncoming traffic as we eased into rush hour in Phnom Penh. Riza blocked me in from behind. Helmetless I immediately reconsidered my spontaneity.
Riza laughed as I questioned Liwayway’s driving and expressed her same insecurity. Liwayway scoffed at our concern, confident in her driving abilities. We wove disorderly through traffic while she shouted to me about her love life and asked about mine. I filmed our ridiculous banter.
“What?! You don’t have a boyfriend??” she shouted. “You a need boyfriend! I will find you one. What color you like?”
“All colors,” I laughed.
The food stalls waned, traffic thinned, and eventually even the skyscrapers all but disappeared. I questioned our coordinates as we turned down neighborhood streets without English written on the signs.
Liwayway expressed that she was lost, ringing her brother and navigating her way on the bike simultaneously. I kept asking for the address, hoping to help; she never replied. When she got off the phone, she declared that dinner wasn’t ready and we should stop and get a drink.
I was starving at this point, and wondered when I’d get back to the hostel to finish my blog post. An hour had passed since we left the river and the city lights glowed in the darkness.
We pulled into the parking lot of a brewery across from a busy road with an adjacent food court catering to suit clad Khmers. I eyed the photographs of stirfry and salads above steaming vats.
“I feel so bad, he’s very upset with me,” she said anxiously.
Between the language barrier and her nonsensical explanation I struggled to understand what followed, but apparently it was not ok that they had invited me to dinner last minute. I told her not to worry, that we would do it another time.
She appeared internally conflicted.
Liwayway waved over a server and ordered a pitcher of Tiger beer. I witnessed the entitled, agitated tone she used in her interaction and smiled apologetically at our humble and polite server in an attempt to make up for it. Liwayway voiced her frustration over the fact that Khmer people did not seem to understand her English.
Riza and I sipped our beers slowly while Liwayway chugged. She oscillated between maniacal sass and anxious defeat. I was ready to go home and could have hailed a taxi in a moment, but I stayed to be polite. I encouraged her to take a deep breath and exhale her anxiety.
“Are you drunk?” she asked with a smirk. “I’m drunk!!”
“No, I’m not drunk,” I laughed, with most of my beer still in my glass.
The phone rang and Liwayway stepped away to take the call. When she returned she said it was time for dinner. Apparently I was still invited after all. She asked, rudely, for our check, and I mentally tabulated the bill. I felt compelled to cover the beers, they invited me to dinner after all, but wizened up from traveling in Latin America for years I never carried much cash. All I had on me was a lip-gloss and a five dollar bill.
Before I could consider it, Liwayway threw cash on the table and went to fetch the motorbike.
Riza and I chatted about her boyfriend, an American she met in Bangkok who was enlisted and currently deployed in Afghanistan. Liwayway pulled up on the motorbike and yelled at us impatiently to hop on.
This time we found the apartment effortlessly and climbed four flights of stairs to reach the unit. I entered an open kitchen with a small table and chairs. To my surprise there was no food in sight.
A beautiful young woman greeted me, who spoke no English and simply smiled, her five-year-old daughter by her side.
I followed Liwayway down the long hallway that ran the length of the apartment, a wall of doors to the left, windows to the right, ending at a small sitting room with a television, a velour sofa with carved cherry wood, and a low coffee table covered in a lace runner. The lighting was florescent and the floors were covered in white speckled linoleum.
“Meet my brother Rodel.”
A rotund Filipino man stood up from the sofa, with a smile as wide as a Cheshire cat, and offered me his hand.
“What a pleasure to have such a beautiful lady in my home,” he said slowly, his eyes transfixed on mine.
I hid my assessment that he was a sleaze behind my gracious smile.
Rodel and I sat in the living room while the women prepared dinner in the kitchen. He spoke about current events and politics in the USA, of which I knew nothing, being so far removed for so long from my homeland. He asked about my profession, my family, my travels, but seemed less interested in listening than in talking.
He spoke longwindedly about working as a card dealer in VIP rooms in casinos in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and now in Phnom Penh. In this position he had met billionaires from all over the world. Bill Gates, Donald Trump, big wigs from Brunei. These people gambled millions to earn bragging rights and inflate their egos. Meanwhile Rodel generously donated his extra earnings to the Cambodia Children’s Fund.
I took the namedropping and embellishments with a heaping spoonful of salt.
The more he spoke about card games and casinos, the less interested I became and the more my mind wandered. Gambling was hardly one of my interests. Even when I spent a week in Las Vegas I gambled only once, with a friend’s money, and lost it all in one roll.
Finally dinner was ready and Liwayway called me into the kitchen.
The woman and child I met earlier had disappeared, and no one else seemed interested in eating. Instead Liwayway and Riza stared at me while I consumed a mountain of greasy fried instant noodles, despite the fact that I almost never eat gluten. I replaced my mental image of oil and wheat clogging my intestines with one of gratitude. So far this family dinner was hardly what I had anticipated.
“She’s vegetarin,” Liwayway told Rodel as he walked by.
“Of course, that’s why she’s so beautiful,” he replied.
Liwayway, who appeared increasingly less stable, whispered to me about how heartbroken she was over a man in Bangkok. He was married to another woman but she continually went back to him. I advised her as best I could.
“Well last night, I met a black man who I want to be my new boyfriend,” she said seductively before asking if I wanted to go clubbing with her that night.
“Tonight I need to work,” I explained “but maybe tomorrow we can go dancing somewhere.”
I chewed slowly until Rodel came and snatched my plate.
“I really want to show you something!” he said excitedly. “I want to teach you how to play a special kind of Black Jack.”
He led me into the first room on the left, which had a TV tray table like the ones my grandmother used to serve me dinner on, flanked by a double bed and a dining chair. Riza followed behind me and said she wanted to learn as well.
Rodel began explaining the basic rules of Black Jack, a game my Dad taught me as a kid over hot fudge sundaes. I remember years later, in High School, being invited to “boy’s night” by some platonic male friends and trying to smoke a cigar while stacking my poker chips. I never gambled, but Black Jack was a game I knew.
Still, Rodel outlined the rules on a piece of paper with a pen.
He dealt me hands, each time able to predict the card that lay face down. Admittedly I was impressed. I laughed and asked him how he did it. He told me my job was to just watch his cues.
“For now we can practice, then once you’re good enough I can take you into the VIP room and make sure you win. Then we can split our million dollars fifty-fifty.” He winked.
I smiled, considering him an insecure man who felt the need to namedrop and schmooze.
“Now, do you want me to show you how you can win in the VIP room?”
He proceeded by showing me discreet hand gestures that revealed my downturned card. As this unfolded I began to realize he wasn’t just having fun with me, he actually wanted me to cheat. I grew uncomfortable with the shadiness of the entire operation.
Then the phone rang.
“Oh, you want to come here now? Are you sure? Ok, if you want.”
The woman on the other end was a billionaire from Brunei who he dealt into a game the night before. She had stiffed him on his tip, the income he lived on, but considered him her good luck charm and wanted to come visit him at his house.
“So, if I’m going to get you ready for the VIP room, you need to practice. All you need to get started is $250,” he explained.
“Oh, no thank you, this was interesting to see, but I don’t gamble,” I said.
Cheating, no matter the circumstance, was simply not my style. Never mind that I had no bankcard and only five dollars in my pocket.
Riza glanced at me awkwardly and remained silent.
“It’s not gambling if you know you will win.” He raised an eyebrow and shuffled the deck.
With those words it finally registered. THIS WAS A SCAM!
That first hello, Liwayway’s story about the mugging, getting lost, stopping for drinks, the dinner that wasn’t ready, the compliments on my looks, the stories about self-indulgent billionaires, and now this Black Jack lesson, were all part of one big set up. Every word was rehearsed and orchestrated and delivered with the full intention of somehow taking money that they didn’t know I didn’t have.
Suddenly aware that every person around me in this enclosed, isolated space had a cruel intention I began to panic. Seriously panic. Worse than I ever had in my life. But no matter how terrified I was I knew that I needed to save my face by letting them save theirs.
So I politely replied…
“You know, maybe next time, but tonight I really need to work. It’s morning in the US right now, so I have to check in online and finish some things. But, I’m coming back tomorrow for your birthday party so we can talk more then, right?”
“Yes, ok, you want to go, sure.”
That moment a woman walked into the room. Rodel introduced her as the gambler from Brunei. She looked less like an heiress and more like an actress in a community play with excessive rouge and an ill-fitting polyester suit.
“Why hello, would you like to play some cards?” she asked theatrically.
“Oh, no, sorry I’m actually on my way home, I have to work,” I said trying to maintain composure.
Quickly, too quickly, Rodel ushered me into the hallway without argument. There I saw an attractive man around my age.
“This is my son, Danilo,” Rodel said.
Liwayway leaned close to me and mumbled, “He’s cute, huh?”
I walked with Riza and Liwayway to the stairwell and called to Rodel thanking him profusely for the lovely dinner and repeatedly wishing him a happy birthday. I struggled to conceal that my hands were shaking. Danilo followed behind.
We reached the bottom of the stairs and when I glanced down at the motorbike diagonally parked on the maroon checkered tiles, that image conjured only what I can describe as intense déjà vu. A voice inside me said, “You’ve been here before and something very bad happens.”
Liwayway turned to me, “So, Riza will ride with me, and you ride with him,” pointing to Danilo.
There was no way in hell I was getting on a bike with him. Without a motorbike or a tuk tuk in sight I knew I would have to trust Riza and Liwayway to get me home. Despite my awareness that they lured me into the scam, I still trusted that they wouldn’t hurt me. Part of me believed that they genuinely liked me.
“Um, actually, I prefer to ride with you,” I said to Liwayway softly.
“Why? It’s the same! She rides with me, you ride with him.”
“Oh, really, you know I’m a lady alone, and um, I just prefer to ride with you.”
“It’s ok, come on, just ride with him.”
The more she insisted the more I knew that bike would lead me somewhere bad. After I persisted nearly seven times with a look of distress, Liwayway gave in.
“Ok, ok, hop on.”
Rodel came downstairs, got on the back of Danilo’s bike, and the two sped off. Likely to find someone else to scam.
Liwayway looked over, “why were you so shy about riding with him?”
“Well, you know, I’m a lady and I don’t ride with men I don’t know,” I said demurely.
She pulled out, me in the middle, Riza on the back, and immediately took a wrong turn. I had no idea where I was, but I’ve always known how to retrace my steps.
“No, no, it’s right, not left,” I shouted over the engine.
“Are you sure??” she asked.
“Yes, yes, trust me, take a right.”
To my relief she did. But three more wrong turns later and we were lost.
“What did he show you in that room?” Liwayway asked. “Something interesting?”
“Oh you know just some card games. Can we stop somewhere for directions?”
We pulled over at a hotel and asked the parking attendant how to get back to the city. He shook his head and smiled, he didn’t speak any English.
“Ugh, that’s the problem with these people!” Liwayway shouted.
“Maybe I should just get a tuk tuk,” I said, wary that I would ever get home.
“Oh my goodness you cannot take a tuk tuk at night here that is so dangerous! I met a lady from America like you and a tuk tuk robbed her. She was so sad and crying. I could never live with myself if something bad happened to you!”
We approached a busy road and a tuk tuk passed by. I frantically hailed it. Liwayway asked how to reach the center. He pointed left and gestured for me to get inside. Liwayway laughed and turned left.
“He thought we wanted a tuk tuk ride!” she laughed wildly.
I spotted a sign and told her to continue ahead.
“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure it’s right!” she said.
“No, no, go straight, I’m positive, really, go straight!”
The Independence Monument appeared and I almost cried with relief.
“Oh, you were right!” she laughed.
We arrived outside my hostel, regrettably I already told them my street earlier, and Riza let me off.
“You don’t want to be our friend?” Liwayway asked.
“Of course I do! We’re celebrating your brother’s birthday tomorrow aren’t we? Tonight I’ll finish all of my work and tomorrow we can go out!”
“But how will we reach you?”
“Find me on my website, this American girl dot com.”
I hugged them goodbye and Liwayway squeezed me and kissed my cheek.
“I’ll see you tomorrow!” I said with a big smile.
I walked into the hostel lobby. The clock said 8:30pm. Four hours passed since I stood there last but the twilight zone I returned from invalidated any concept of time.
That night I flopped in bed like a fish in the bottom of a bucket in a wet market. I felt rattled and bewildered. Heartbroken over the unkindness I received. I fixated on the idea that someone could have the conscience to look me in the eye and lie and that I couldn’t have the sense to see through it. How could I ever trust another person when I couldn’t trust my own intuition?
I felt myself falling back to the time in Puerto Viejo when I discovered that someone close to me had deceived me and I never had a clue. It had taken serious emotional work to break down the walls I built as a response. As disillusioned as I was laying in bed that night, I knew that I didn’t want to live behind those walls again.
So instead I told myself, “You are safe.”
And truly, I was.
Because what was so dramatic or awful about what I had endured? Had anything bad happened to me? Could I just as easily have told a story about meeting some friendly women, having an adventurous ride through the city, drinking in an open air venue, eating in a local home, and learning something new about cards?
These people had chauffeured me around the city, bought me beer, and even cooked me dinner.
So who got scammed in Phnom Penh after all?
Have you found yourself being scammed or swindled at home or abroad? How did you get your way out of it?