12 July 2011


So, I am standing outside the newly refurbished central market in Phnom Penh. It's hot and I have just been taking pictures of fish and fruit sellers. A man and a woman stop to talk to me. They say they're from Vietnam and they are well-dressed. Venus is a nurse in a recovery ward and her male cousin is a car mechanic with a supervisory role. I forget his name. They invite me into the nearby department store for a cold drink and there I meet their jolly auntie. She's about sixty and is a primary school teacher. She lives in Phnom Penh at her brother's house.

Auntie tells me about her niece who is soon to start nursing in Manchester. She even shows me a photo of her. She asks if I'd like to come for lunch and talk to her niece about England. We all travel into the suburbs together in a bumpety red tuk tuk.

The house is quite spacious and clean with tiled floors and wooden furniture. As lunch is being prepared, I talk to the head of the household - "Uncle T" who tells me he is a croupier in a casino in Siem Reap. He is about sixty, wearing a lemon coloured open-necked shirt and golden signet rings. There is the aura of stale cigarette smoke about him and I suspect his slicked down hair is dyed. The young nurse is nowhere to be seen. She has, apparently, gone to the hospital with the aged grandmother. On his request, "Uncle T" and I swap contact details on yellow post-it notes. He promises that after lunch he will show me a couple of card tricks.

Lunch is nice and simple - river fish in a mild sauce, barbecued pork and fluffy white rice. All is very pleasant and I am thinking - what nice people.

After lunch "Uncle T" invites me and Venus upstairs to show us his card tricks. Actually, they are not tricks at all but methods of cheating punters in casinos. There are various simple hand and finger signs to let you know what card is next.

Now I have always despised card games. I remember at Beverley Grammar School "when I were a lad", some of my fellow schoolboys seemed to spend every lunch hour in intense card schools. I couldn't see the attraction. Playing cards has always made me glaze over with abject disinterest and I have never bet a single chip in any casino anywhere in the world. Clearly, "Uncle T" thought differently - for him cards and the exchange of money were a huge part of his life.

Just then the doorbell went downstairs. Rapidly, "Uncle T" said he thought it would be his friend from Singapore. He asked me and Venus to open our wallets and gave us a couple of hundred dollar bills each as stake money. What the hell was going on?

The upstairs room door opened and in walked the visitor "from Singapore" who had clearly not been to drama school - such was his ham acting. He was also wearing a lemon coloured open-necked shirt and chunky gold signet rings which probably symbolised his prowess as a gambler. He greeted me and promptly sat down at the card table, pulling out a wedge of American banknotes - amounting to some two thousand dollars.

Then the penny dropped for me. I realised in an instant that this was a set-up and the guy "from Singapore" we were supposed to be ripping off via the clever hand signals was actually there to aid "Uncle T" in ripping me off! I crossed my hands across my chest and said "I'm not playing" immediately and I gave Madame Venus the hundred dollar bills that "Uncle T" had urged me to stuff in my wallet.

My heart was racing. There I was in a strange house in the suburbs of somewhat lawless Phnom Penh and I had been identified as a dupe - a foreign white fool to be cheated of his money. I had visions of fighting my way out of there. I have long believed that cards and gambling mean trouble and that is partly why I have never been interested in that kind of activity.

Realising that the sting hadn't worked, the bespectacled visitor "from Singapore" took his leave after no more than five minutes. Afterwards, "Uncle T" seemed angry with me - saying I'd lost his two hundred dollars and demanding the yellow post-it note back. I wanted to yell, "You cheating little bastard! I told you in the first place that I am not remotely interested in cards you money-grabbing little worm!" but I didn't think that that would go down too well in the circumstances.

I was just so relieved to get out of that house in one piece. A few minutes later I was riding in another tuk tuk with the jolly auntie, Venus and the car mechanic cousin. They said they were going to the hospital to catch up with grandma and the young nurse. They dropped me off near my hotel. It's possible that they were always part of "Uncle T's" little con trick and they were simply riding back to the central market to find another tourist to be duped.

I guzzled an "Angkor" beer from the fridge in my hotel room before diving in the pool, sensing that without doubt I had just had a very near miss and had been extremely lucky to emerge from "Uncle T's" house in one piece with my wallet intact. The next day my lovely tuk tuk driver "Peter" said he had heard of this kind of trick happening before and an Australian visitor he had transported a few weeks earlier had lost $600US in a similar card game set-up. Phew!


  1. You are extremely trusting souls in Yorkshire! Or would you rather I said adventurous?!

  2. SHOOTING P - On that occasion, "stupid" would have been more appropriate!

  3. well, when you are the type of person who likes to think the best of people (until they prove you wrong), suspecting people's motives is not exactly second nature. It's all too easy to be wise after the event, but these tricksters depend on your good nature. A lucky escape for you, YP. :)

  4. Remind me not to travel with you anywhere, ever, under any circumstances. Maybe I am an overly suspicious person, but I can't imagine myself getting into a stranger's vehicle in a strange city and be taken to parts unknown to do God knows what! Perhaps I have watched to many U.S. crime shows that feature dismembered bodies....

  5. When my brother came home from Vietnam in the very last days of the war he said, the Vietnamese are so clever and resourceful. Heaven help us all if they ever make it to the U.S.

  6. What information did you swap on the post it notes? how trusting you were, and how lucky to have escaped with just a bruised ego..

  7. I would have smiled and ran off....chicken!

  8. JENNY The annoying thing is that my danger antennae are usually very reliable but not that day.
    RHYMES WITH... Not to travel with me anywhere? What a shame. I had been planning a secret trip for you and me to the River Brague in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France. Now I will have to cancel all arrangements.
    JAN B The Vietnamese are already there! In fact some people swear that Obama himself is Vietnamese! Watch your back!
    LIBBY The post it notes just gave email addresses. I really don't think the swindling operation was as slick and determined as it could have been. Perhaps they are still learning.
    JOHN GRAY Smiled and ran off with a meat cleaver in your skull?

  9. Dear oh dear, can't leave you anywhere.

    Have I taught you nothing?

  10. I admire your ability to mix with people of other cultures so confidently but you were bloody lucky in this instance. I think I would have been to polite to refuse and probably lost a fortune. :)

  11. Obviously meant to type too.


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