First morning in Phnom Penh. I wake late, as usual. My stomach curdles, yet for some reason I’m hesitant to venture out to eat. New places seem to have that effect on me, and I haven’t quite figured out why.
After hours of flicking through TV channels, reading the news and Googling things to do in Phnom Penh, I finally I decide to leave the comforts of my hotel room. It’s around noon, but the humidity is rather mild today; certainly kinder than the usual South East Asian sweat fest.
It’s become somewhat of a tradition of mine that when in a new city the first day is simply spent wandering the streets; a chance to move slowly and observe, taking in the sounds and the smells, the hum of local chatter and traffic. I’m situated on the riverfront, definitely a tourist hub, but rather tame compared to Siem Reap’s Pub Street or Bangkok’s Khao San Road.
My stomach continues to grumble. I look sheepishly into the windows of each café and restaurant, searching for a place that looks inviting enough for a loner like myself. Even after all these years, I still feel a slight unease at eating alone in a crowded and lively place. Eventually I pass a corner store and purchase a pack of almonds to snack on, something to ease my hunger while my dining indecisiveness continues.
I wander aimlessly, chewing on almonds and turning random corners, hoping to find an eatery that looks welcoming enough for me to try. I’m a little further from the riverfront now, evident by the absence of tourists and tuktuks. I slow down to a shuffle, just for a moment to try and dig the last few almonds out of the bottom of the bag. Almost on cue, a motorbike pulls up beside me.
There’s two women on it, both around 40, and both a little, let’s say, on the heavier side. The one driving looks up at me, seeming a little flustered.
“Excuse me, do you know where the Royal Palace is?”
I shake my head.
“Sorry, no,” I say smiling, still digging for almonds.
“Oh, you’re not from here?”
I shake my head again.
“Oh really, where are you from?”
“From New Zealand.”
Her eyes light up.
“Really, are you from Auckland by any chance?”
I pause and look at her. I can’t quite tell where they’re from, but the accent and facial features has me guessing they’re Filipinas.
“I am, actually!” I say with a smile.
“Oh wow, my sister is moving to Auckland next week to be a nurse, she’s so worried about it!”
I smile again.
“Nothing to worry about,” I say proudly. “Auckland is beautiful.”
“How much does it cost to stay there? Like, to rent an apartment?”
I’m surprised by their excellent English, something you don’t hear around these parts too often.
“I don’t know, maybe like $150 a week.”
“Ahhh,” they groan. “That’s expensive.”
That’s the first time the lady at the back has talked. I’d almost forgotten she was there.
The driver jumps in again.
“I really can’t believe we met someone from Auckland! Such a coincidence,” the driver says again with a smile. “You’re really from Auckland?” she asks again, a slight look of disbelief in her eyes.
“Wow,” she laughs. She outstretches her hand and I offer mine back, which she shakes enthusiastically.
“You know, do you think you could talk to my sister for about 15 minutes? She’s really worried, she’s never been overseas before. We’re actually just going to meet her now, just down the end of the street,” she says, pointing down the road in front of us.
I shrug my shoulders.
She smiles with relief.
“Oh thank you so much! Just jump on the back, it’s just two minutes down that way.”
I had presumed I would walk, but whatever. Without a second thought I pop on the back on the bike. Who knows, afterwards they might be able to tell me a good place to eat.
Once on the bike, the questions are endless. I humour them, but find it odd that they can’t seem to stop talking.
“What’s the weather like in New Zealand? How much is the flight to New Zealand? How much can you earn in New Zealand? How long do you live in New Zealand? How long have you been in Cambodia?”
Finally, after about 2 minutes and one too many questions, I sense something a little “off”. We haven’t stopped down the street like they said we would, and we’ve now pulled onto the main road. I realise I’ve been in Asia too long, where scam artists usually pass over me for the more obvious, white-skinned targets, causing me to let my guard down. However, now it’s back up with my scam radar beeping on high alert. I do a quick recap of the events in my head and look both of the women over carefully. The lady in the middle clasps an iPhone 4 between her fingers, her nails freshly painted and a loose gold bangle sitting upon her forearm. Her hair is coloured, and her earlobes boast two golden stud earrings. They’re definitely not poor.
I look at the driver’s face. She looks calm and weaves effortlessly through the many cars. For a foreigner, these roads seem far too familiar for her.
Then, out of nowhere she asks me another question.
“How long have you been in Phnom Penh?”
She’s asked me that before. Obviously the questions are just a distraction tactic, and she must have done this routine so many times she’s on autopilot. I’m now 101% convinced I’m in scam territory. I decide it’s my turn to ask some questions.
“So where are you from?”
“Bangkok,” they both say in unison.
I presume they’re lying. They don’t look or sound Thai at all, but this is good. I know Bangkok well.
“Oh, which part of Bangkok?”
“Ratchatewi,” they say, again in unison. “Why? Do you know Bangkok?”
“Yes, I have been living there,” I say calmly.
“Oh, why do you live in Bangkok?”
I think back to scam 101 training: when being scammed, try to offhandedly mention some connection to authority or government.
“My brother works there, he works for the embassy,” I explain.
The driver doesn’t know it, but I can see her face slightly in one of her mirrors. Her expression changes, as if she’s suddenly deep in thought. I try not to smile.
“Ohh, your brother works for the embassy…” she says quietly. I can’t tell if she’s asking me again or if she’s just repeating it to herself.
“He was working for the British embassy in Bangkok, but there are problems in Bangkok right now, so because of the coup he’s been moved to Phnom Penh. He will start working here for the British embassy in a couple of weeks. Do you know where the embassy is?” I say enthusiastically.
“No, we don’t know,” they both say, shaking their head.
“It is just over that way,” I say, pointing out in the distance. “It is very nice, I went there with him for a welcome dinner there last night, I met the tourism minister, and the police minister, it was so nice, Cambodian people are all so nice. Actually, there was some people from Thailand there too!”
I look in the mirror again. Her face seems expressionless, but I can only see half of it. Then, for a split second, I see her eyes. She looks confused.
We go on driving for a couple of minutes and I sit there quietly, trying to plan my next move. Interestingly, the two of them have both gone silent as well. I notice they’re stopping at red lights every couple of minutes, and I take comfort knowing I can jump off the back of the bike any time they do.
“Anyway, where are we going? I can’t go far, because I am going on a tour at 2pm.”
“Ahh you’re going on a tour!” they both shout out, the middle one tapping the driver several times on the shoulder.
“Maybe you can meet us tomorrow instead?” she asks, as she pulls the bike over to the side of the road.
“Sure, no problem,” I say with a smile, as I slowly hop off the back of the bike.
“You can meet us on the riverfront, do you know Dairy Queen? You can meet us there.”
I think about it. I have no idea where Dairy Queen is.
“Sure, I know it, I’ll meet you there. What time?”
“You can meet us around the same time as now, 2pm, ok?”
“Ok no problem, I’ll see you then.”
“Let me call you a motorbike to go back,” the driver says, waving her hand at a bunch of guys on the corner. One of them perks up and hurriedly drives over.
Before getting on the bike, I shake both their hands and bid them goodbye. Part of me is disappointed. I’m curious to see where they were taking me.
On the way back to my hotel, I laugh out loud in bursts as I replay the whole scenario in my head. I had to give it to them, they were pretty good. It was clear they had done it countless times before; from their facial expressions to their question routine, to learning the capital cities of probably every country and every American state in their spare time. What made it even more convincing though was they were two chubby middle aged women, not trying to be cute or charming at all. It had instantly brought my guard down. Had it been two scantily clad bombshells who pulled up to me, my scam radar would’ve gone off immediately. These two had it all figured out.
Back in my hotel room, I immediately get online and start Googling. I’m dying to know what their gameplan was.
Google search: “Two fat women on motorbike moving to home country Cambodia scam.”
A few results pop up, including one that runs almost like a play-by-play to what has just happened to me:
“This is a scam which I stupidly fell for and that is one where 2 friendly fat girls ask you to come and give their other sister some information on the country you live in as she is interested to move there. I went there to help as I had a bit of time on my hand. I met their “uncle” who said he had a fail safe way to win at the casino as he was a croupier at a casino. At his home, I ended up placing bets on his behalf with his money of which he ran out, he begged and promised he would give it back after the final bet, he was the best con man I have ever seen and must admit I was the biggest dipstick for falling for this but I helped him out with mine and I finally lost a fair amount of money. I went to the Embassy but the only way I could do something about this was to go to the police. But unfortunately the police is so corrupt that I couldn’t take that chance. So if some jolly fat girls talk to you, talk but don’t go out of your way to help.” Link here.
As I read it I roll around laughing on my bed. I cannot believe I fell for it. I’m usually on high alert when in Africa or South America, but this is the first time any of these scams has been pulled on me in Asia and my guard was down completely. My Asian face has left me far too unsuspecting around these parts. Part of me was also surprised at how elaborate it sounds. I was expecting more of a “drive you to an alley and steal your wallet” kind of thing.
The next day I consider heading down to Dairy Queen to call them out on their act. It would surely make for an interesting blog post but I decide against it, partly because I’m busy watching the World Cup but mostly because it’s just not my style. Also, I didn’t think they were actually going to show up anyway.
Moral of the story: Be wary of heavy, middle aged motorbike riding women in Cambodia. Or if you do talk to them, just ask them about their professional gambler Uncle.
Things to remember when being scammed:
I’ve had a few scams attempted on me and other travel friends, even when at home in New Zealand. Some were so stupidly obvious that I went along with it just to see what they were trying to do, and some were so elaborate and well thought out that I’m sure they’ve fooled many a person. I’ll write a few more stories like this one up when I get time, but for now, keep these tips in mind if you’re ever the target.
- Obviously, just walk away from the beginning if you can. Don’t be afraid to look ‘rude’. Scammers are experts at making you feel bad for walking away.
- If it’s a little hard to walk away because, say, you’re on the back of motorbike in heavy traffic, remember to relax and stay cool. Don’t freak out. Remember, a scam is not the same as a robbery. Their plan is usually to ‘trick’ you out of money, rather than actually commit a blatant crime and rob/hurt you.
- Try to mention some connection to authority. This is a tip I learned from a friend in Africa, and it works really well. For example, just say something like “Can you drop me at the embassy afterwards? I need to meet my brother there at 3.” That will get the wheels spinning in their head, and the fear of messing with someone connected to government will throw them off completely. Try not to threaten, e.g. “My brother works for embassy and you guys are going to be in a lot of trouble.” It’s important to let them save face and not back them into a corner, as that’s usually when bad stuff happens.
- Act confident. It’s quite satisfying when they try to woo you with something and you just smile, as if you know exactly what they’re up to. It will throw them off their game a lot, and you’ll see it in their expression.
- Extract yourself as soon as possible. Do it tactfully, and don’t make a big fuss about calling them out or shaming them. My opinion is letting them save face is the best way to get yourself out unharmed, which is really the only goal you should have.
Stay sharp and good luck!