The considerable reputation of Nickolay Doroshenko proceeds him, and so does a Malaysian pit viper.
As if en queue, the deadly snake escaped its enclosure and was harrying employees when Doroshenko arrived to meet the Post.
Concerned but calm, he took a stick, stroked the viper softly a few times, and then flicked it, deftly, back inside its cage.
Welcome to the Snake House on Soviet Street.
This is where Sihanoukville resident Doroshenko keeps an exotic menagerie of reptiles, a fleet of enormous multi-colored parrots and luminous collections of twisting coral forms, intricate seashells and inexplicable fish.
So it goes for Doroshenko, an Uzbekistan-born herpetologist whom owns, among other things, two new Humvees, an old Russian airplane, a racy nightclub and a tropical island.
He's searched ancient shipwrecks, collected antique Chinese weaponry and recently established an NGO for emergency snakebite victims, the first of its kind in Cambodia.
Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1959, Doroshenko earned a post-graduate degree in St Petersburg, when it was still called Leningrad.
He arrived in Cambodia in 1993, and spent the next 14 years pursuing big business and high adventure.
More recently, Doroshenko has expanded operations aggressively: beachfront developments, an Internet cafe and the Snake Pit, a late night club advertising "dancing girls" and "swimming girls."
On July 26, his Sea Snake Investment Group Ltd secured ,a 99-year lease for the development of Koh Dekkaol, some 29 km off the Sihanoukville coast.
"I've been here a long time. I know who's doing this and who's doing that. But I don't want to say anything. I know a lot of people and it makes it difficult," he said.
Smoking Ara reds, joking raucously in Khmer and Russian, and with a snake in the glass table and a chained crocodile nearby, Doroshenko spoke to Cheang Sokha and Charles McDermid on August 4.
Why did you come to Cambodia?
When I first came in May 1993, I met Mok Mareth [Minister of Environment] to sign
an agreement for an expo on Cambodian animals, especially snakes. I wanted a quiet,
peaceful life. I love Cambodia. It's always been interesting for me here. At the
time in Uzbekistan there was lots of conflict. The laboratories were closed because
of economic problems, and there was no work for biologists. Many of my friends left
and went abroad.
Why are there so many Russians in Sihanoukville?
There's not too much. I know of only four big Russian families here; two are Cambodian
men married to Russian women. Some Russians come to make businesses here. But it's
difficult for them. Usually, after one month or two months they return. I've been
here for 14 years; I know the Khmer people and speak Khmer. For me, working in Cambodia
is easier than in Russia.
In your time here, have you ever noticed any Russian mafia?
[Laughs] All foreign people are afraid of Russians. People see one man, and it's
no problem. Two men are no problem. But three men are a Mafia. And if they're wealthy
they must be Mafia. People look at wealthy Russians and assume they're Mafia. But
actually, no. In Cambodia, it would be too hard to make a Mafia. For example, smuggling
narcotics is impossible.
Why did you decide to collect all these interesting things and animals?
These are my idea from living in Asia for all these years. All this, all my collections
are my imagination, my style. In my training in biology, I've learned how to keep
things like plants and animals. It's all from my mind.
What's the most amazing thing you've seen in the sea off the Cambodian coast?
Cambodia has some of the best islands and beaches. I've seen many amazing fish and
water so clear you could see coral clearly from 22 meters down. The most amazing?
Three kinds of dolphins and a dugong.
What do you see for the future of Sihanoukville?
When I came here it was small and beautiful. Now more people are coming and I think
for two or three years the town will see a "rush." There will be a lot
of building here, very expensive building. It will be difficult, but after that,
maybe five years later it will be better. The current situation is not good.
With all the investment coming for the islands, and all the proposed development, are you worried about damage to the environment?
There will be some problems with the big islands that the government has signed contracts
for with other companies-the ecological systems will be damaged. In the contract
they say they must protect the environment, but the implementation contrasts with
the agreement when it comes to considering the environment.
What do you think should be done about this?
I think if I was governor, before I allowed anyone to develop or invest, I'd have
them make a national park to protect the animals. Some companies want to build everywhere
on the islands, destroy everything and make roads. I'd ask them to set up national
parks to protect the islands.
What kind of development do you plan for your island, Koh Dekkoal?
We plan a small place for a restaurant for tourists. On the island there is a limited
area to travel. We want to have a small national park, but I'm a biologist and I
know how to do it. My idea is a small park, not a zoo, and all the wild species will
For years you called for the government to establish health services for snakebite
victims. Is this a big problem?
This is a really big problem. We had statistics from just one province-Kampong Cham-there
were about 800 bites in one month and hundreds of people were dying. About 150 people
come here every year, and most of them too late. Every year there are three or four
we cannot help. It's a big problem; people work in the rice fields and the forests
and get bitten all the time. You have to buy anti-venom in Thailand, and it doesn't
keep for a long time, less than one year. The biggest problem is that 60 percent
of those bitten are children, and it's difficult to give [anti-venom] to young people,
they're not strong enough. Also doctors don't understand what they're doing, and
generally people can't afford them anyway. We must do a brochure, an awareness brochure
for locals and tourists. This doesn't need big money and it's a very important project.