Phnom Penh’s real-life private eye





Phnom Penh night: “down these mean streets” (photo by artist Chris Coles)

Yes folks, there’s a real-life private investigator in Phnom Penh. The name is Phnom Penh Investigations, they have an office on street 110, and their Facebook page is fascinating (:

Case #1: scam

Client: A well-respected Cambodian businesswoman had been contacted by a (presumed) previous business associate from the USA via Facebook requesting assistance in opening a Cambodia-based business with an initial investment of $480,000. However, the “American” reported difficulty in wiring the initial investment to her due to “new American banking regulations” and requested to send the client cash instead via DHL.

Investigation Results: Posing as the client, attempts to correspond with the “American” by phone and/or Skype video conferencing were rebuffed.

Subsequently, the “American” claimed that DHL “rejected the shipment” and requested a $2,000 payment from the client to cover DHL’s reported “customs duties” in order to ship the $480,000 cash payment.

The client was advised that it was an obvious “419 scam” and to cease all communications with him/them.

Further investigation revealed that the fraud perpetrators had stolen photos from the actual American business associate’s Facebook page in order to pose as him in an attempt to fool the client. The actual American business associate had no knowledge of this until we contacted him directly by phone.

Case #2: embezzlement

Client: A group of Singaporean clients suspected the NGO they had donated money to in order to build a rural school had embezzled their donations entirely with zero construction nor any charitable distribution of funds.

Investigative Results: The fraudulent NGO in question had indeed embezzled the entirety of the funds donated and the various NGO “directors” listed on their websites/Facebook pages and in email correspondence, etc. were in fact aliases. The “NGO” fraud network had also falsely used the identities of other legitimate Khmer business/charity leaders to perpetuate the scam to foreign donors.

Case #3: international fraud

Client: American national had been defrauded by an “international freight/shipping company” operating out of Central Asia but with associates working in Cambodia.

Investigative Results: Our investigation revealed the fraudulent “shipping company” would steal (high value) packages and reroute them to Cambodia. Associates in Cambodia would then “ransom” the packages by requiring the owners to send Western Union payments to Phnom Penh. The sophisticated criminal network would also provide access to forged online tracking pages and forged Cambodian Ministry of Economy & Finance invoices to elicit fraudulent “customs duties” from unsuspecting clients. Further investigation revealed the criminal network involved an African national and several Khmer and Chinese nationals living/working in Phnom Penh.

The fraud investigation was then turned over to the Cambodian Ministry of Interior due to the network’s use of forged Cambodian government invoices, fraudulent Cambodian VAT numbers, and fraudulent Cambodian business registrations.

Case #4: suspicious death

Client: A foreign client’s brother had been pronounced dead shortly after arriving to a Phnom Penh hospital of a suspected drug overdose. The family believed foul play might have been involved and requested an investigation.

Investigative Results: Following an extensive witness canvassing, including responding police, emergency drug treatment center personnel, etc., all indications pointed to either a drug overdose or adverse drug reaction. Subsequent information from a previous Phnom Penh-based employer indicated the deceased had been terminated several weeks prior due to a drug problem. The family accepted the findings and terminated the investigation.

Cases #4,5,6, 7, 8 and 9: love. (“After conducting nearly 150 infidelity checks throughout Cambodia over the past three years, our investigations have revealed that over 80% of our clients’ spouses/girlfriends/sponsored parties have been unfaithful.” To which I add that a PI will inevitably get a very skewed set of clients.)

“I had suspicions about my husband during his business trips to Asia but I did not know what to do at first. Luckily I found your company during an internet search.

Your staff followed my husband and took photographs of him bringing Cambodian girls to his hotel both in the day time and at night!Thank you very much for your work and professionalism!

-Irina, soon-to-be divorced wife from the US”

Client: Malaysian client (living in Kuala Lumpur) whose Khmer wife was visiting family in Phnom Penh suspected her of drinking to excess and possibly meeting other men throughout the night.

Investigative Results: Surveillance revealed that the client’s Khmer wife was indeed becoming extremely intoxicated each night as she visited numerous bars and clubs in Phnom Penh. The client’s wife also departed the “Pontoon” club one night at closing and accompanied a foreign tourist to his hotel at 5am, presumably for a sexual encounter.

Client: French national had been “sponsoring” a supposed Khmer university student he met online and with whom he had corresponded via webcam for several months. Client had been sending monthly “support payments” to her via Western Union to assist her with her education.

Investigative Results: After finally locating the supposed Khmer “student” in Phnom Penh, investigation revealed that she had been collecting multiple monthly “support payments” via Western Union, presumably from other foreign sponsors she had met online. Further investigation revealed that the subject was not enrolled in the university she claimed and that she was unemployed and living with her parents. However, the subject was surveilled on multiple occasions drinking with her friends at nightclubs such as Nova, Pontoon, Heart of Darkness, etc.

Client: Khmer-American national working in the US wanted to investigate his future Khmer bride who was living with her family in Phnom Penh. The marriage had been suggested by the client’s parents, but the client was suspicious of the chosen bride due to her close working relationships with foreign nationals in Phnom Penh (as required by her work in the finance industry).

Investigative Results: After 200 investigative hours covering one full month of surveillance, our investigators witnessed no improper relationships involving the (future) Khmer bride. Virtually every evening after work was spent with her family or occasionally with Khmer (mostly female) friends in public places.

(“Special discounts are offered for investigations requiring significant investigative hours.”)

Client: Australian national had purchased a hostess bar (lease) in Phnom Penh for his Khmer fiancée, an ex-bargirl. Client had become worried after returning to Australia as his fiancée was no longer responding to his phone calls.

Investigative Results: Investigation revealed that within just days of the client’s return to Australia, his fiancée had already put their hostess bar for sale and was hoping to use the money earned from the sale to build a house in her home province. Further investigation revealed that the Khmer fiancée had, in fact, a Khmer boyfriend working as a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh and that they planned on moving back to their home province immediately after they sold the (Australian) client’s hostess bar.

(I like this one – the cliche reversed)

Client: European national (female) suspected her Cambodian boyfriend of having a local wife and possibly other foreign mistresses.

Investigative Results: Surveillance revealed that the Cambodian boyfriend was indeed married to a Cambodian woman and had one child with her. Investigation also revealed the cheating Cambodian husband had at least two other foreign mistresses who were sending him money from abroad.

Case 10: recovery of stolen property.

Client: Canadian national tracked his stolen laptop to a user in Phnom Penh with the assistance of a computer app that provided remote photos of the user and network and location data.

(Please refer to…/six-security-apps-that-can-help-reco…for further information on this crucial computer security technology.)

Investigative Results: Our investigator located the current user of the stolen laptop and his current employment and discreetly approached his employer to negotiate a settlement (the user’s employer, a large multi-national firm with an office in Phnom Penh, was contacted as the user was conducting company business on the stolen laptop, as verified by the owner’s screenshots of usage).

The Khmer user of the stolen laptop claimed he purchased it from a local computer shop in Phnom Penh and apologized to the client, stating he never would have purchased the laptop if he had known that it was stolen.

They offer other services too – like personal bodyguards for example – this is what can happen to tourists who think they’re still in Kansas:

In a café in Phnom Penh earlier this year, a tourist encountered the wrong person on the wrong day. What began as a verbal exchange with another customer quickly escalated into a violent confrontation. The tourist says that in a fit of rage, his adversary, an affluent local man, stormed over to his bodyguard who was standing nearby. The bodyguard pulled out a handgun, passed it to his “boss” and stood by as he dished out a pistol whipping.

Source: Phnom Penh Investigations on Facebook



Samsara: love and marriage

In the late 19th century an anonymous French army surgeon spent a few months in Cambodia investigating the sex lives of the inhabitants. His freedom of movement was hampered by war in the countryside, but nevertheless he managed to fit in a great deal of highly relevant observation. He was much struck by the chastity of Cambodian girls, especially compared to their Vietnamese sisters. Pre-marital sex was unknown, as was prostitution, and marriage, if not perhaps love, was the sole arena for sex. (I’m not entirely convinced he was right, but that is what he said).

The leisurely process of marriage began with the betrothal. A female go-between would informally sound out the family of the girl on behalf of the boy’s family. If the response were positive, a formal delegation from the boy’s family would bring presents to the girl’s parents. If the presents were accepted – no doubt there was informal negotiation beforehand – the couple would be considered betrothed. The boy would then move into the girl’s house as a kind of domestic servant. This was necessary because the couple would not previously have met (in theory anyway), and this period was for the young man to pay court to the girl. He would sleep in the kitchen, because the girl was, of course, a virgin, although ‘leaving a boy with a girl is like putting an elephant in charge of the sugar-cane’, says the Khmer proverb.

The Frenchman doesn’t describe the wedding, but an Englishman named Christopher Pym, writing a century later, does. In the 1950s, while still in his twenties, he crossed on foot from the coast of Vietnam to Angkor in search of a road built by Jayavarman VII, the great king of Angkor who brought the Khmer Empire to its widest extent in the 12th century (I’m writing from memory, so don’t quote me on the history). He spent a year in Phnom Penh beforehand brushing up his Khmer.


Symbolic items from a Cambodian wedding – betel box, comb and scissors, etc. Copyright Kate McElwee.

From a Khmer wedding that took place in California. Beautiful photos, and much useful information.

Marriage, Pym says, was not between two individuals but between two families. The marathon wedding took place over three days, and its main elements were a hair-cutting ceremony (symbolic rather than literal, and an occasion for bawdy jokes and songs), a meal offered to the ancestors, and the cotton ceremony, in which the girl’s wrists were bound with a white cotton thread. After the thread was tied the girl began to cry, and when Pym asked why he was told it was because she was afraid of her husband. Pym offers no further explanation. At dawn on the last day the achar (specialist in ritual) placed a coconut flower divided into three parts on an outside altar, the three sections being called the mother, father and child. The groom bowed to each flower section in turn and entered the house, where the bride was concealed behind a curtain. The achar brought the flower sections inside and the groom bowed again to them, and at the same time a musician began a bawdy song entreating the hidden girl to allow the groom to “open the curtain” (a double-entendre?) The curtain was drawn aside revealing the bride, and although Pym doesn’t mention it, she was dressed as Neang Neak, the naga-princess who met Preah Thong, the ancestor of the Khmer race, on their mythical beach at the beginning of time.


Khmer wedding dress – the costume of Neang Naga the naga-princess, mother of the Khmer race.

The girl knelt beside the boy and bowed to the three flower sections, the guests seated themselves around them and circulated popil and candles. When the candles had gone round three times the achar blew them out and wafted the smoke towards the couple. The boy and girl were now wed. The boy took the bride’s scarf and allowed himself to be led to the marriage bed like Prince Thong being led to the underwater naga kingdom, while the guests dismantled the mother and daughter flowers and threw them over the couple like confetti. Later in the morning the newlyweds would take the father flower to the village monastery, where the head monk would scatter its grain over them.

We move now to the late 1950s, when the pioneering anthropologist May Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year. She found the girls in the village were afraid of sex and of being raped or abducted, which were apparently real dangers. Both Buddhism and the spirits disapproved of fornication, and chastity continued to be the overwhelming rule. Yet there were a few cases of a lack of chastity, including a girl four months pregnant at her wedding and another who was the mistress of a high official from Phnom Penh – the second girl faced considerable disapproval, as did her parents for having allowed this to happen.


From the website of the Khmer-Canadian Youth Association of Alberta – Their caption describes the role and significance of this section of the wedding ceremony, a recapitulation of the origin of the Khmer people.

In modern villages marriage is still the result of betrothal organised at family level, and young people con only hope to influence the schemes of their parents. Birth control is not much practiced, although STDs are well understood and condoms are used for health reasons. As a result families tend to be large. Infertility is regarded as the woman’s fault, and the kru (traditional healers and shamans) are consulted for causes and cure. Male impotence is also regarded as a supernatural problem rather than a medical one, although in fact there are several quite serious conditions that can cause it. Abortion is very rare, since taking life is the most serious of all sins.

All this is for the village, and my sources have been second-hand and unreliable. Perhaps I need to do like May Ebihara and live for a year in a village – I have one in mind, and the headman has invited me to stay, but I can’t help wondering whether my bowels could take it. And what about the cities? Cambodia is still overwhelmingly a village-based society (maybe 80% of people live in villages), but cities are growing rapidly. The village has a thousand eyes, but the facts of modern urban life have produced a new social and moral world.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

This post is adapted from my book Spirit Worlds, due out in October. This section of the book was one of the hardest to write, due to the subject matter – how do you ask young people about their sex lives? Margaret Mead had that problem in Samoa. I was struck by how little is available on the sex lives of young people in the cities. I did ask, though I doubt the answers are authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I was told that pre-marital sex is increasingly common among teens – maybe quite common. And I know for a fact that Valentine’s Day is a major event in the calendar of every hormonally-supercharged high-school boy. Someone really has to study this.