A photographer’s nightmare in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

28th December 2016

During the time we will spend together, I am going to tell you how a little trip turned into a nightmare in the worst part of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This out of the ordinary story of a photographer did not take place many years ago, but just a few weeks during my last journey in Asia from where I returned in early April 2016.

In early January 2016, I decided to leave for the great journey around Asia, adopting a specific route through seven or eight countries. I would travel for three months, starting from Dubai, then Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and will end in Myanmar. By the end of January, I went through the Cambodian border.

How to resist to the magic of this country, charming and confusing at the same time? Peace had been re-established, but severely battered by three decades of war.

Ko Rong, the postcard of the idyllic island.

Ko Rong où la carte postale de l’île paradisiaque,

Phnom Penh, the bustling capital.

Phnom Penh, où la capitale trépidante,

Angkor, the symbol of the nation.

Angkor, où le symbole de la nation,

Sihanoukville, the main resort.

Et Sihanoukville, la principale station balnéaire.

A trip to the Khmer kingdom remains an adventure, because Cambodia in 2016 is still the Wild West.

After two weeks of exploration, I returned to Phnom Penh in order to get the visa for Vietnam. The embassy was about to close because of the Chinese New Year. When I got it, I decided to take the coast road to reach the Vietnam border. A few hours journey by bus, which obliged me to pop by Sihanoukville again.

On February 5, 2016, by coincidence, I found myself sitting next to another lone traveler, named Eddy. He was Australian and on trip for a few months. He seemed to be interesting as an unusual person. I also understood his taste for Asian women, this detail would change everything later. After a six-hour chat, we reached our destination, and Eddy invited me to share a taxi to another beach, Otres, a long sandy beach, at four km from the city center. We decided to go there by Tuk-Tuk, a kind of motorized tricycle, generally used as a taxi in Cambodia.

Once there, we looked for two available rooms. I was surprised that all the cheap hostels were full. Twenty minutes later, we found one with two twin beds in a small hotel near the beach, I hesitated to share this room with him, and after all, I hardly knew him. I left the day before from Siem Reap near Angkor site, I traveled for twenty hours in this heat, I was dreaming of a beer, a sunset, right in front of us, twenty meters away.

I decided not to trust my own intuition, which was throwing me signals and shared the room that Eddy took care to pay. I left a copy of my passport at the reception desk and I paid him what I owed him. After all, I had the key in my pocket, nothing could happen. After another walk in the city center in the early evening, Eddy suddenly disappeared; he told me that he had a date that night, a Cambodian girl.

Being with a fellow traveler, I paid little attention to his absence, until I decided to go back to the hotel at 2 a.m. Events followed in quick succession, I realized that I do not have the room key. He got it. Once again, I said to myself that I knew nothing about this person, nor his full name or phone number, or even his Facebook account and that is what I ask for when meeting people for the first time.

Through the crowd walking along Sihanoukville beach, I took a tuk-tuk and went quickly to Otres with the feeling that it was already too late. Deep down inside me I felt my mistake, all the moments since we met were displaying in front of me and I realized that this experienced thief manipulated me from the beginning.

I went back to my room and knocked on the door but no one answered, I knocked for a second time, but nothing, I dreamed of seeing him coming out… I asked the receptionist to open, few minutes later, he opened the door. The two bags containing the equipment have disappeared and there was only my travel bag with my phone, my passport, my computer and my belongings. My wallet was on the floor, no credit cards in it nor the two 50 euro banknotes that were in it.

I began shouting out because I knew I could have avoided it if I had been a bit alert, at several times, my intuition made me understand that I had to stay away from this guy, but I did not listen to it and now I am suffering the consequences. At 3 a.m., the security guard said that he came back at 11:30 p.m. and went back immediately taking with him the two bags. I did not understand why they have not stopped him at that time. Without saying that he had time to take the last bus to Phnom Penh.

During the next few hours, I had trouble in getting some sleep, despite my fatigue, I went through everything that has happened, understood how I had been the victim of a process that has led to a theft, he had carefully orchestrated everything. In the bus where I met him, nothing really predestined me to sit next to him, except that other tourist who got off an hour after the departure from Phnom Penh. I took his place after a smoke break and everything began at that moment.

The theft was € 10,000 uninsured, there were my memory cards containing a month of work and also a hard drive containing all my photos nearly 25000 high definition files, not to mention personal documents.

In the morning, I went through the hotel’s security cameras footage of the day before, and took some shots of Eddy, very poor quality, but it was a basis.

Then I went to the police office and reported the theft. A few hours later, I found myself in Phnom Penh again for the third time, so confident that I am going to run into a trace of my thief.

I arrived to Phnom Penh late at night, and I quickly looked for a hotel, I bought a new charger and found the $600 in cash that I hid into my belt. The thief did not know that. Simple safety measure. That night I thought and said to myself that my thief probably had little chance to resell this equipment, as quickly, the week of festivity was not going to help.

There was one chance in a thousand to find him, but I was motivated to get moving, I defined a strategy.

1. Locate all secondhand photographic equipment stores
2. Locate the main bus stations and departure times to Bangkok
3. Visit all hotels under 20 dollars a night,
4. Get assistance from tuk-tuk taxis, they will be my spies and I will reward them
5. Finally, visit bars since I knew Eddie had a taste for that universe.

That was an enormous task since there were three tourist districts in the capital, located several kilometers from each other. The first day, I checked all the cheap hotels in Riverside, close to three bus stations.

After some unsuccessful visits with his photo in my hands, I decided to continue to investigate in the nightclubs that are just opening, luckily, I bumped into a half-awaked young woman who recognized him. He was here last night. She even gave me his phone number, but did not know the name of his hotel; I could not believe that I got an information so quickly.

I talked to all taxi drivers I saw, describing the person and giving them my phone number. A $100 reward for any information that leads to his arrest, the reward was a month’s pay in Cambodia.

I visited all secondhand camera equipment dealers by scooter, I located nine of them, spread across the city, and the major ones were downtown. Some of these stores informed me that they received his visit the day before to resell my equipment there and all of them told me the same thing: ‘they were not interested’; I remained wary and more alert, watching every little thing.

The second day, I ventured to send him a message; I just wanted to know if he is still in Cambodia. Luckily, he answered, and he was surprised. I told him that I wanted to get my equipment back and I was willing to pay. Two days to get back from the province and he would help according to his words. In thirty minutes, I obtained his confession by a long series of messages recorded on my phone, evidence of his guilt.

Until now, I had ignored the strength of my intuition and despite all the signs that had clearly warned me to stay away, I decided now to listen to it and to make it my closest assistant.

The next day, I rode my scooter through the heavy traffic to the Ministry of Interior, on the edge of the town center, I also walked past the crimes office, and I hoped to have enough evidence as to involve the police. I realized that no one speaks English; I looked for someone to interpret for me. A benevolent person did me this favor and explained my situation to the officers, however no one wanted to help me and they suggested that I go to the immigration police, a building located a few kilometers away. They were more interested by Facebook on their phones than my robber story.

Once there, I explained for the fifth time my story and showed the evidence of his guilt, including the SMS message, I reported the theft again. Unfortunately, without his full name, the police could not do anything; in short, the investigation is not moving along fast enough, however that did not stop me. The Principal Officer gave me his business card and mentioned that I could contact him day and night if necessary. I had to keep this joker with care.

At night, I went all over the city on motorcycle, I discovered two other tourist districts, and I planned to do a perimeter check every 3 hours on average, from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. visiting every hotel and organizing the tuk-tuk drivers’ network. I also did not omit buses from Bangkok. I visited nightclubs and bars and observed the underground scenes. A kind of mix of tourists in some neighborhoods and old expatriates for others.

I kept in touch via messages for several days, verifying that he was still in Cambodia, and each time he told me that he would come back the next day. I did not believe him, but at least I knew he was around.

He left some evidence during his visits to some neighborhoods where several people had seen him; a bartender remembered the size of the two bags he was carrying. Another man recognized him as a regular of a terrace located in the red-light district of the city. I stayed there a long time, perhaps to catch him in the street. To achieve this, I had in my bag the top of my tripod and its ball; it would help me restrain him.

I was receiving up to three taxi-calls daily saying that they had seen him in such street or bar. Each ride ended in failure, I got into the bar, the helmet on the head, ready to defend myself to realize that it was not the man in question. Cambodians are not spotters.

After five days of fruitless research, I began to lose patience, I told myself this will not lead anywhere, I had already lost too much time. However, as a good Capricorn, I was determined to try. Very active in the field, but also on the web where I looked for his name by sending hundreds of messages to groups of travelers in Asia on Facebook, without any results.

Lastly, my only option to find him, was his phone number; I went to the phone company to geo-locate him. Slightly thinking, I decided to go for broke, it was my last chance and being no longer in Cambodia was quite real.

At the company offices, I explained my case to the head of the legal department. He understood my request; however, without an official document from the police, he couldn’t do anything. I insisted again telling him that he was my only option. After an extensive argument, he accepted and came back with his geo-location; he was in Cambodia, in Siem Reap, 400 km far from Phnom Penh.

The A4 printing was showing his location clearly in a triangulation of 200 to 300 meters from the GSM antenna. It was 35 degrees in the shade in Siem Reap, this afternoon; his hotel was in that area.

I needed an hour to get the scooter back, prepare my bag and jump on the first minivan to Siem Reap. I arrived there at 22:00. Soon I found myself in the tourist district for the second time in two weeks and adopting the same rules as in Phnom Penh. Walking along the streets while observing each tourist individually. I spoke to all tuk-tuk drivers and gave them a printed flyer. I prepared myself.

It is almost midnight and after 2 hours of research, I began to feel tired when suddenly, to my surprise, I saw him from the back in a restaurant where he was the only customer. He was in the back room, his back in front of the entrance, he could not see me and he seems to be busy with his smartphone. I asked the server to confirm that it was him, I showed her his photo, she walked around the bar to see him best and confirmed that it was him.

For a minute, I was making the decision of the best method of action. Hidden behind a pillar, I hesitated to restrain him with my tripod; I could not afford to make a mistake. He was heavier than me and I had to be the first to hit, but violence would only worsen the situation that is already complicated, that’s for sure. I also had the choice to call the two police officers met in the street few minutes earlier. I chose this option and told the server to call them; they were at the corner.

When the two police officers got into the restaurant, I approached Eddy and said hello. He was very surprised to see me and asked me how I have managed to find him. I told him that his mistake was keeping his phone. He turned and saw the officers behind him, quickly they asked him to stand up and they went to another alley, empty at this time of night. Directly he said that I could forget to get my stuff back, he was destabilized and I was happy, I found him.

Throughout this initial hearing, he claimed that I sold him this equipment and he no longer have it. I got my other phone back from his hands by the way; it was another piece of evidence. I asked to call my colonel in Phnom Penh who explained the case to the police officer. Conducted a search of his room, nothing suspicious, I had not been invited to enter the dormitory or the hotel at this time of night. Eddy bribed the duty officer in front of me who took me to my hotel in a silence that is much to understand from it, he had our respective passports; we had to return at the police station in the morning. My last chance to find anything went off because he had all the time to prepare or escape. I did not sleep that night, because of the attitude of the police.

In the morning at the police station that I found with some difficulty, I told the police that I would like to get my passport back and leave Cambodia as soon as possible. They gently explained to me that without my cooperation, the thief would be released and they invited me once again to rewrite another statement, it was the fourth in a week. When I finished the five pages, we went to carry out a new search of his room, with no result but it was the procedure.

I heard loud and clear that without evidence, it was almost impossible to arrest him, it would pass by a judgment, which would take six months at least, if I filed a complaint, I had to prove his guilt. Once back at the police station, I saw four people waiting their turn, they recognized him and I could hear insults all around. I realized at that moment that everything is going to take another turn; he was also involved in other thefts. I was welcomed as a hero by Van, Diego, Ben and Linda.

Van and Diego also got their material stolen two days before in Ben’s hotel by the same guy and their research hasn’t been successful, they came to the police station to make a statement.

The thief in custody, we decided to go together to view the hotel security cameras recordings of the night before. We saw many police officers and the security agent bribed and Eddy left the hotel at around 4 a.m. carrying with him a large white bag containing the stolen equipment. He had definitely hidden it in another hotel, but which one.

We took the records and went back to the police station, an hour later Eddy dropped it and told the investigators the location of the bag, it was in a fourth hotel. There they found the material of the two other tourists, but no trace of my stuff. The police even asked us to pose for the photo; everyone had found his things except me. I had to face reality; I could not go further in this investigation.

I met the officer and Ben in private one last time; we gave him an envelope to ensure that Eddy would remain in prison. Earlier in the same day, the officer told us that Eddy tried to escape when transferring him, after the visit to the judge, but they caught him quickly. He understood the seriousness of his actions.

His operating method was always the same, he remained in dormitories in several hotels at the same time, once he located victims, he acted out, and then he changed the hotel or city. His judgment delivery is expected for September 2016 and he will be sentenced from three to five years of prison in Cambodia.

My mission was reaching its end.

The same night, sitting at the Funky Flashpacker, I received a call from a hotel manager in Phnom Penh. One of his employees discovered a hidden bag with various cables, hard drives and my business cards. I understood that they had found my small bag containing all the small equipment, especially all of my photos and my memory cards. Luckily, when searching, the manager discovered my phone number.

Back in Phnom Penh, I recognized the hotel where he stayed the first night. Finally, I found a copy of his passport, and I knew his real identity, Adil Rashid Jaber, 36-year Australian citizen. Eight days after the beginning of investigations, I arrested this professional thief; I helped other tourists to collect their belongings and some of mine, and discovered his full identity.

Some days later, I decided to take the bus to Saigon, Vietnam.

Seven days later, I decided to leave Southeast Asia and flew to Bali, Indonesia, where I found some peace of mind. With my scooter, I discovered every corner of this idyllic island with its incredibly fascinating culture.

Through this experience, I learned that there are situations that oblige us to run off, travelling around Asia behind my camera was not the solution for the moment; I have almost forgotten the real reasons of this trip. At first, I went with the essentials, I lived in the simplest possible way, but as the years passed, I added a computer, then some cameras significantly heavier.

What happened in Cambodia could have happened to anyone and anywhere. You are never safe from some kind of encounter. The most important thing, is to listen to your intuition, to trust it, it is your friend.

Thus, the worst travel stories often become the best moments of life to tell…

Travel Storytelling Festival Brussels

This true story was told on April 14, 2016 during the first Travel Storytelling Festival that took place in April 2016 in Brussels.

During the time we will spend together, I am going to tell you how a little trip turned into a nightmare in the worst part of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This out of the ordinary story of a photographer did not take place many years ago, but just a few weeks during my last journey in Asia from where I returned in early April 2016.

Cliquez ici pour la version française

Michel Piccaya

About

As a freelance travel photographer, Michel Piccaya has been on the road worldwide for more than 20 years, exploring the most incredible itineraries. He’s currently based in Brussels however never stays at home for a long time !

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