During my first week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we stayed in the quaint Onederz hostel. My main aim of the visit was to settle in for a year and enjoy Cambodia while working remotely. The hostel was located right next to the riverside and many touristy attractions.
With a heart full of hope, expectation and anticipation we decided to explore all the city has to offer within the first few days. AND then, like an unexpected hernia, it very quickly became one of the worst cities I ever consider living in.
After a full day of exploration, we realized at 11pm that all our $50 notes were exchanged for fake $50 notes. Our cash was securely kept in a Supreme bum bag (AKA fanny pack/belt bag/moon bag), our money was stashed in a velcro compartment, within a zip, within a brown envelope, tied with an elastic.
We needed to take out a $50 note because this specific bar, in Street 130, charged $5 a bottle of beer (we had 4 each). Right next door, at Cheers sports bar, it was $0.75 for a draft. I know – WTF! Apparently beers are more expensive in a bar where there are Cambodian girls thirstily waiting for a rich foreigner to pick them as a mistress for the night.
The older bar lady started yelling ‘not good – not good!’ And so we realized – our crisp $50 bills were stolen and replaced with fake ones – tied with an elastic, in a brown envelope, within a zipped bag, within a velcro compartment.
After a mild (OK, severe) panic attack and a local friend paying our bill we went through our day trying to figure out where our money got switched.
I couldn’t remember one moment where we left our belt bag unattended or not attached to our bodies. Except for when we went for a shower at our hostel. (Yes, I left it on the bed under my pillow – I know!)
We stormed into the hostel and interrogated the hostel staff. We went through all camera footage – conveniently enough all cameras were facing in a direction where you couldn’t see our hostel room door. We assumed that it was a staff member as no one was staying with us in the 4-bed mixed dorm that day/night.
There was no proof that it was any of the staff members so we finally went to bed.
Sleep didn’t come easily and I was shocked at what happened. Considering that an average monthly salary in Phnom Penh is $150 – this was a lot of money. It would cover our first month’s rent, deposit and hopefully a few trips to museums and recommended restaurants.
The reason why we had so much cash on our person was because the exchange rate between the South African Rand and US Dollar were increasing quickly (Politics – topic for another day). We decided to exchange some of our money to dollars while still in SA.
In my mind I was going through our whole day, where we walked, what we did, who we talked to. . .I Googled like a maniac with no result. . . and then two days later a friend sent me this screenshot.
Oh, there was a brief 10 minutes of insanity when we wanted to try out a $5
massage parlor on Street 172 – ANGEL SPA. The two ladies, who did quite a lousy
job at rubbing us with cheap smelly oils, were acting very strange.
At one point while laying on the bed without shirts on, my friend asked, “Where’s our bag?” I nonchalantly answered, “Don’t worry it’s on the table next to the bed.”
The two ladies were talking and giggling, there were a violent fan blowing noisily on us – it was evident that they had no formal training in giving massages (for the back muscles, at least). Oh, we realized that we were in the hands of two ladies who are experienced in a different kind of massage. This wasn’t something I was interested in – especially not after seeing tailless cats and huge rats running outside the establishment.
After the 8-minute kindergarten back rub we got up. The ladies were standing in the room staring at us, the one started plucking on my clothes while I was getting fully dressed and they were making a lot of noise. Giggling, saying phrases that didn’t make sense, staring and just being overall confusing.
As we exited the facility there was a moment where we just stood there – looking at each other. My friend said, “WTF did we just do?” we laughed and made a point of researching massage parlors who actually give massages and not so-called ‘rubs and tugs’. (GOOD NEWS: we did find an amazing one on the riverside – U & Me Spa).
What did I expect? Phnom Penh is filled to the brim with prostitutes and thieves.
The deed was done. We jumped in a Tuk-Tuk and went straight to the parlor – which was closed! Probably having a jolly good ol’ vacation! We contacted police, but they requested we went to the station. Upon arrival police officers were sleeping and couldn’t really care less.
We asked owners of hostels nearby if this has happened to anyone else, “OH, yes, this is a very common occurrence!” How did we miss this information on expat forms and online?
We took matters into our own hands and waited for the spa to open. We confronted the two ladies but they pretended to be dumb, deaf, and blind. Sick of the whole debacle, we counted our losses and continued on a very disappointing 2.5 month journey of Phnom Penh.
I would regard myself as an experienced traveler. This, rather traumatizing event, has taught me that no matter how experienced you are and how much you research a country before hand, you will never truly be prepared until you are in the location itself.
“As an expat you are never a local in another man’s country – you are always a visitor.”Wise words from Melonthegogo
Expensive Lesson learned!