An important lesson was learned that I will never forget:
NEVER, NEVER, cross the Cambodian border at night. Especially alone and a Farang (Foreigner).
I didn’t intend on doing this. The train from Bangkok took way longer than I thought. I was hoping to cross the border during the day and deal with the usual scams tourist face, then head up to Siem Riep and Angkor Wat.
I had read in the quidebooks about little hustles here and there, but what they had in store for me was something entirely more nefarious.
It all started with the Thai police on the train. I can speak a healthy amount of Thai, and I began to hear little phrases as we neared the border. “Farang”(foreigner)this and that. Whispering. It was unsettling.
When we arrived at Aruthapatryet, a TUK TUK driver appeared magically OUT OF NOWHERE on the train. I remember it being quite odd, as if he “knew” a farang was already on the train. He made a bee-line for me and hustled me onto his Tuk Tuk.
I did my best to try and shake him, but the guidebooks did happen to mention you’d need to take one anywyay, so I did. I shouldn’ve trusted my gut instinct. It was a lesson I learned and wouldn’t forget in the future.
I now know the Thai police tipped him off.
I was then whisked away to a BORDER CROSSING STATION. Or at least, for a few minutes I thought it was.
Then it hit me: it was all fake. Cheap stationary. A couple of staplers here and there. A laminated map scotchtaped to the wall. Uh-oh.
These guys were really polished. They had a hip Cambodian kid with a British accent grilling me about what’s in my bag, why my passport doesn’t have this-that. 1000 baht that. 1000 baht this. Nothing the guide books said I’d ever be charged by the normal hustles. It was my first shake down.
I did my best to haggle and maintain my composure, but knowing the history of the area and the fact that most people here, especially the criminals, were descendants of the Khmer Rouge, it took every ounce of gluteal strength I had just to keep my shorts dry. They’re apparently a Cambodian mafia that runs the border smuggling in the area. And there I was, all alone, not an American or other Farang for perhaps hundreds of miles in any direction.
I knew I was fucked here, and played along as much as I could. I made another ATM run, then I started pushing back a little.
Normally the plan for getting across the border is first, you do it by day. Second, you pay your little bribes then immediately grab a bus and get the hell out of there.
But the busses had stopped running. They told me I would have to take their taxis for 2500 baht. They then got to the thing that made my spine chill.
THey wanted me to share this taxi with “undocumented female workers”. Supposedly me riding with them would help them get through Cambodia faster, past Police blocks. I immediately begin to feel a little sick in my stomach. I told them I don’t want to ride with others, but what I really wanted to say is I didn’t want to ride with what were probably sex slaves. They then said I could ride alone, but I didn’t believe them.
With so many things going on, including this one Cambodian guys aussie accent that was strangely hilarious as the ominous began looming more and more, some of the logic slowly started settling in my brain. Why am I talking to Cambodians this side of the border? Why would I need to ride with these girls once we are already over the border? I did my best acting job to seem cool and collected. But inside these guys had very specific plans for me. I wasn’t exactly sure at the time what they were, maybe not even now. But I can tell you now I knew at that point that they were not taking us to Siem Riep in that cab. That is for sure.
Finally they took us to the “real border”. I thought perhaps the Thai officers there would be trustworthy, but why would they be stamping bullshit THai departure forms written up by Cambodians? It was getting uglier.
But nothing was uglier than what I saw once I crossed into Cambodia:
About 7 Khmer guys waiting for me in the shadows. On cell phones, pretending to be calling. These guys were amateurs when it came to being inconspicuous. Obviously they knew I was a big guy and they would need more help if I didn’t behave. I saw the sharks circling in the distance. The pucker factor was now in full effect.
Here’s something I learned quickly: There’s something about how a bad guy uses a cell phone. They never smile when talking to whoever is on the other end. That is how I began to tell the bad guys apart from the good guys. During normal phone calls people smile, gesture, something. This is something I’ve filed away for the future.
Robert De Niro’s line from RONIN began to play in my head:
“I don’t walk in somewhere I can’t walk out of”
I immediately headed back to the Thai border, which pissed my Cambo escort off. I asked the Thai police if I could trust this guy. They promised he was trustworthy.
Now realizing I was attracting attention, I tried to save face by walking back, realizing the Thai police were absolutely useless here, being on the take.
I began to realize I was in some real shit. I saw no American faces. I was in their world. And I was running out of options. All alone. No police that could be trusted. All I could do was play along, taking very small steps, trying to piece together the big picture of what they were actually trying to get me to do.
I could see more Khmer’s closing in from the corner of my eyes, talking on their cell phones: “Farang going here, Farang going there”. My Thai language skills ultimately would save my life. I knew they were talking about me. Giving people my height. Stats. Shit like that. I can understand those things in Thai.
I began hearing growls. Laughter. These guys were using the wolfpack mentality on me. I asked where the Taxi was. They kept saying “farther”, “just a little farther”.
I’ve ridden in my fair share of taxis. It never takes 7 Cambodian thugs to escort you to a taxi. And I never saw the fucking taxi they were talking about.
What I realized they were trying to get me to do was to get away from sight of the few Thai Casinos just on the outside of the border. These Casinos have normal Thai people playing in them. It seems the Casino owners and the Cambo mafia have an agreement not to have anything go down directly in front of the Casinos.
I turned into a Casino, hoping to find salvation. I asked them for the police. An embassy.
They just shook their heads.
It wasn’t a language thing. It was a “you’re in Cambodia” thing. As if you can call an embassy or find a police officer here. They almost started laughing at me.
I know I’ve been talking about ass puckering a lot, but here’s where my asshole fell completely blew out. Full rectal prolapse:
When I reached into my wallet, my ATM card was missing.
I panicked. Now I was really fucked. The sharks stood outside, not able to cause commotion in the casinos. My Cambo escort however managed to come in and extort another hundred baht out of me as I struggled to get a overdrawn credit card to work again.
I began shooting from Casino to casino, playing this game of jockey and intimidation with my pursuers, trying to not let them cut me off from the Casino patron’s sights.
I tried approaching one Cambodian police officer, asking him to call the US embassy. He just looked away, as if I hadn’t said anything at all. MORE fucked!
Each Casino wouldn’t let me stand inside for too long without a way to pay for a room or play slots. Not having money is the surest way to disappear forever into a Cambodian night. And I was running out of options. I was actually considering if I could make it to the jungle and escape into the night. I looked down at my flip flops and my heart sank.
I’m not sure how I managed this, but I managed to power walk to a huge Casino in the distance where I met a very, very nice hostess who let me stay the night…for free…with the idea that I could pay in the morning via Western Union. The Hotel just happened to have a Western Union in it. What a God Send. But it wouldn’t open till 11am the next day.
I realized from that point on I could never leave this hotel, not until I had some kind of game plan. These guys would pick me up at some point if I ever stepped outside.
I holded myself up in the room the hostess gave me. I scrambled to get my tech going, calling on two phones, despearetly trying to get money, overdrafts waived. And that’s when the shit hit the fan. Calls dropping. Embassy phones not working. Phones not having minutes. Phones with bad batteries. You name it, it broke at the worst time.
I went down to the lobby once to try and use the wireless. Immediately a Casino staffmember approached me…
“So, got a room yet”??
Obviously he was working for the guys outside. I quickly dashed back to my room, making sure I wasn’t followed.
I didn’t leave my room the rest of the night. I barricaded the door and didn’t sleep a wink. Everytime someone walked by I picked up whatever object I had in the hotel room to use and gripped it tight.
By morning time, there wasn’t a whole lot of good news pouring in. People were having problems sending me money, the usual fuck-all techno-website bullshit that always seems to screw you at the absolute worst time. And again, no calls from the embassys. The Thai Tourist police yelled at me and hung up because I couldn’t understand his English. I was alone, with only my friends who were desperately trying to help.
I had to check out by noon. I could not afford to go down there without cash. Cash was my only power I had. I was cringing the idea of what I would do when hotel security kicked me out on the street. What would happen to me? I was prepared to fight, but you can’t fight an entire kingdom of people who measure your honky ass in dollar bills.
My credit card was failing me time and time again, but finally, good news…the first wire transfers were coming in.
I paid my nights rent. The hostess gave me a free lunch. I persuaded her to let me use her personal driver and car so I could avoid the taxi mafia outside. That was my only hope in eluding these guys once outside.
I snuck out on a 2 hour car ride to Siem Triep airport. That was the only nice part of being in Cambodia I can think of.
I remember thinking though that I can’t get lax yet. I soon realized how right I was.
I was on my way to inquire about tickets when a “security guard” who came up to me and told me he would “they were coming to get me” in a chilling, mocking tone. He was going to notify the guys at the border my location. I knew then I only had a little time to find a plane.
I had begin learning a crash course in thinking on your feet. How to read a person in about 6 seconds to know if they were on the take or a real person. What’s funny is my acting and directing skills also helped. I’ve seen a lot of bad acting in my day. And bad guys in real life are terrible actors. The fact that this guy had tried to intimidate me at the airport was actually his downfall, cause it forced me to jump into action.
I noticed a bunch of westerners going to Singapore. I knew that I had to be on this plane. There were no other planes leaving for another 7 hours, giving the rest of the gang plenty of time to come here or perhaps finding a way to detain me for some bullshit passport problem. I knew that if I didn’t get on that plane right away I may not have escaped Cambodia. I’m not kidding.
One has to understand there is really no law in Cambodia. I never saw a US Embassy. You are all alone there, and you are fucked if you run into a problem like this. I mean you are fucked. No Marines. No 911. FUCKED.
When it came time to buy tickets it was sold out, but to my luck, there was one buisness class ticket available. The only draw was that it was 525 bucks, and my credit card had been failing me all night.
This was it. It was either work now or never work.
It did. I practically started crying.
I immiediately began chatting up my airline clerk, following him everywhere, asking me to show me around the airport, making sure he was always by my side to keep the security guards from doing something creative to keep me there.
When that plane finally took off, it was the greatest feeling on earth. I gave Cambodia two middle fingers and for the first time in a while, managed to get a few zzzs.
A couple of things that really dawned on me during this experience is that you have to always trust your instincts. Always.
One thing that was especially different, especially in the first few hours, was that seeing farang in this region is exceedingly rare, which means they STARE, and I mean STARE at you. This was quite unsettling when your already paranoid out of your gourd.
My guess, at the end of the day, is that I was this lucky little opportunity that fell in their lap. At night, I noticed the place was full of prostitution. I saw a few African guys on cell phones that just had slave trader look, like they were there for some “inspections of new merchandise” kind of look. My guess is during the day, they run the normal scams, but at night, they change their business model a bit. And I just happened to be this guy who came along who they might make a few extra bucks on.
Never travel to Cambodia at night.
I need to collect myself and figure out what to do from here. I saw some real evil in people that night. I don’t know how to describe it. Just evil that can’t be seen, but sensed. It’s horrible what people are doing out there. And what other people are letting them do.
I wonder about those girls in the taxi waiting for me to join them.
They are not as lucky as me, and that’s fucking sad.
In the years since this happened, I’ve read more reports of people disappearing over this crossing. It is really one of the worst places on earth. Apparently sex tourists (most of who come during the day to avoid the mafia entanglements) can purchase 10 year olds, male or female, some already with AIDS, for less than 10 dollars. Sick.
Apparently they run simple scams during the day, but at night, this border town becomes the epicenter for all that is evil in the world. They’ll take your money and beat you if you’re lucky. More and more they are taking organs and kidnapping outright.
One thing people have to realize is that human traffickers do not tell you they are human traffickers upfront. They use simple coercion, wolf-pack mentality and just your stupid Western ignorance. You just got off a plane, probably just finished a Starbucks a few hours ago, and are still in your “western mode” of thinking of the world. It’s one of the dangers of the modern world, being so interconnected that we forget where we really are. Well, all I can say is expect to have your ass handed to you. This is no game in Poipet. It’s a real meat-market, and your ass can fetch a nice amount of money. Please stay away from this place. You will disappear if they want you to.
A lot of people have asked me, “Did you see any guns?”. “How do you know they really wanted to kidnap you”. All I can say to these people is that your ass is as good as gone if you’re not smart enough to trust your own instincts in a situation like this. People disappear around the world all the time like this. It’s real easy to do, since obviously, from questions like these, most Americans watch TOO MANY FUCKING MOVIES. I’m sorry, it’s not like the Bourne Identity. They will trick you, isolate you, and then you’ll see the guns. Maybe some wieners too. A lot of wieners.
Not my thing, personally.
Trust your instincts. And stay the fuck away from Poipet. One of these days I’d like to assemble an A-Team and wipe those motherfuckers off the face of the earth. It would be doing the world a huge favor.