How Rebecca and I Killed Tet with $220

I am writing this post while en route to Phnom Penh after over a week on the beautiful island of Koh Rong Saloem. We had a wonderful time and met a number of great people, but that is for another post. This one is about how easy it is to kill a holiday in a small town. Here’s the story.

Since we left California, we have been very careful about money. We have been frugal (which, consequently, is a little easier in Asia) and attentive, keeping a daily inventory of our budget. Naturally, things come up that cost money, so sometimes we exceed budgets, but we have been trying to keep it all in check and keeping track of how much cash we have at all times. So it came as a surprise to us one day, after our third day of diving, we noticed $20 was missing from our wallets. One $20 bill. Weird. So we started looking around, and then we noticed something more substantial: most of our Thai Baht had disappeared.

We were only in Thailand a day and a half, but ATMs charge fees for taking money out abroad, so we took out the maximum to minimize how many times we would have to pay the fee. That means we had withdrawn about $500. We kept it because we were going back to Thailand in a month and a half, and didn’t see any reason to exchange it. So after some spending in Bangkok, we had about $300 in Thai Baht left. Now, two weeks later, the majority of it was gone.

We were furious, but didn’t think there was much we could do about it. Theft happens when you travel, and it sucks, but it wasn’t enough to force us to go home, so we just figured we would take the loss, be more careful, and move on. But we decided to tell our new friends, the British people who owned the diving company on the island, that it had happened.

“We’ve been robbed,” we sorrowfully confessed. And what happened next can only be described as, pardon my language, a clusterf**k. 

Koh Rong Saloem is a small island off the southern coast of Cambodia, about 11km from Sihanoukville. It has about 200 residents, and the governing is done by a small town council led by the island chief. There are only a few families there, so everyone knows everyone else, like in any small town in America. Complicating matters are the many expatriots of varying European descents (English, Scottish, French, and Dutch among others), who have recently moved to the island to start small businesses. We dove with the Cambodian Diving Group, a nice company of talented divers led by a British couple, Simon and Sarah, who have been on Koh Rong Saloem for over a decade and who have seen the island grow each year. It is currently in a period of tremendous development, and many of the citizens with small homes on the water are being relocated further inland to make way for resorts and beachside hotels. In addition to commerce and tourism, the Westerners also provide the village with medical care and business advice previously unavailable in this remote location.

In general, life is peaceful, and the village works through their disputes through the council (or through a good old fashioned alcohol-induced brawl, which we witnessed one tense evening). The Westerners and the villagers work together and have a mutual interest in preserving the island they love. Those who are not native to the island abide by the village rules and cultural sensitivities, like wearing sarongs over bikini tops and learning Khmer, and frown upon visitors who are less respectful.

Of course, there are still problems, and like any small town, when conflict occurs, matters previously resolved bubble up again and complicate the matter at hand. That’s part of what happened when we reported our money missing. People immediately began to point fingers at various children in the village. One young boy had been caught a few weeks before trying to take money from Sarah, one of the diving company owners, so he became a suspect. But the father, who had not been told of his son’s prior incident, became defensive and offended. He eventually learned about it from his wife and forced the boy to apologize, which he had never done.

While Sarah continued to search for potential culprits, Rebecca and I decided there was nothing for us to do but wait, so we started playing Bananagrams at the bar/restaurant where we were staying, owned by the village matriarch. This was taken as a sign that we didn’t care about the money, or that we had enough, when in reality it was just us trying not to dwell on a situation over which we had no control. The council didn’t want to do much for us or about it, but the expats insisted on our behalf, emphasizing that we were traveling for a long time and that the money did mean something to us and to the community as a whole. Our dive master Ali, an important arbiter in the whole tense situation, wanted to emphasize that this was an important matter not only for us, but also as a direct rebuttal to the idea that all white people have tons of money. Residents should know, she underscored for our Khmer translator, that not all white people are loaded and that stealing from tourists is just as wrong as stealing from your own community.

After a few hours, they had a tentative suspect, who was the grandson of the woman with whom we were staying (the matriarch). She was in tears all evening, the boy’s mother was so ashamed that she disappeared into her house for the night, and the boy’s father drank by himself in darkness nearby. Everyone across the village was upset or whispering and pointing at us, and this was all happening on the night when everyone was supposed to be partying and celebrating. So even though we were upset about the money, we felt far worse about the depression and consternation that we had caused.

Ali and her friends and colleagues repeatedly implored the council and the chief to do something for us so that we could file a police report and claim it from our insurance company. So they decided to act, and when they did, they did so decisively. They identified the guilty party (who hid from sight all evening), found the phone he had bought with the stolen cash (that he left charging in his room before he went back into hiding), and returned it to us about 7 hours after reporting the money stolen. They assured us repeatedly that the boy who had done it would be severely punished (read: beaten harshly). They said that to assure us that justice would be served, but it just made us feel more awful, since we take issue with the pound of flesh philosophy of disciplining children, even though the kid had been a total stupid idiot. They offered us the phone, but we responded that we really just wanted the cash. Eventually, we recovered our losses (or most of it), Sarah ended up with a new phone to replace the iPhone she damaged (ironically) the next morning, and things were resolved, but only after the lamest, tamest New Year’s holiday the village had probably ever experienced.

We felt so terrible the whole time despite everyone’s attempts at reassuring us that it wasn’t our fault. No, it wasn’t, but the consequences of this boy’s actions were shared by so many that it made the whole situation awkward and challenging. Plus, because of the racial, economic and cultural dynamics at play, it wasn’t simply an issue of missing cash. And we were at the center of something much larger than ourselves, unable to understand most of what was happening.

It’s always fun to leave a disaster in your wake as you move on to other destinations. We just hope we haven’t completely worn out our welcome, since we liked Koh Rong Saloem and our new diving friends so much. When we return, we’ll be sure to bring as many happy pills as possible- and keep our cash buried in a treasure chest 30 meters beneath the surface.


2 thoughts on “How Rebecca and I Killed Tet with $220

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