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Sound and fury in Sihanoukville

Sound and fury in Sihanoukville


After two Canadian tourists were stabbed in a robbery, police acting

on an order by the Sihanoukville district governor, last month closed down the Ocean

View guesthouse and restaurant at the rocks end of Serendipity Beach.

It was the end of a shattered dream for Geoff Howell, who has leased the business

from military policeman Colonel Kong Sun for the past 12 months. Ripped off by his

staff, his girlfriend, his landlord and victimized by his own foolishness and substance

abuse, he departs minus most of his capital, with perhaps just enough to start again

at the cheap end of the beach.

Howell tells his story to Richard Woodd.

There's only the three of them left now: Howell,his ocean-swimming macaque monkey

Sok, and Billy, the Finnish 9-ball pool ace, Geoff's handyman, confidante and drinking

mate, who has his own problems trying to negotiate his way out of a two-year visa

expiry while the police hold his passport. Billy could easily make a living out of

pool, but there's no money in Sihanoukville and he's forced to play for beers.

Geoff Howell and Sok entertain the tourists in the days when he had customers. "I knew the staff were up to monkey business," he said.

We are sitting on a Sunday morning in the idyllic, now-deserted Ocean View dining

area on Kampong Som Bay.

They are both nursing hangovers from a binge night that ended about 5 am. Howell

is chain-smoking and knocking back his first whisky and cola reviver.

Howell, 47, arrived in Sihanoukville from his homeland of Cardiff, Wales, in August

2003, freshly divorced from his Thai wife, money in the bank from the sale of their

flat, and free to find a new opportunity in Asia.

"I was looking for English teaching work but there was nothing in Sihanoukville,

then my so-called Khmer friends showed me this place for rent as a going concern.

The Sunny Bar it was called. I thought it was fabulous."

The friends were on the staff and their purpose was to find someone like Howell in

order to keep their jobs.

"The landlord wanted $1,000 a month but accepted $700 and I still really wasn't

sure about the cashflow, but I was strongly persuaded by the two staff guys who of

course wanted to keep their jobs."

It was already running well, the business was growing, occupancy was good, the location

was excellent and the high season was just starting. All Howell had to do was keep

it ticking over.

He blew it.

"I needed to upgrade the power supply as there wasn't enough. That cost me $2,000,

at least that's what they told me. I also built a new kitchen as the existing one

was a shithole and that cost me a few thousand more. The places around me don't do

much food, so I had the opportunity to have a profitable, high-quality restaurant

exclusively at the Serendipity end.

"I found out later that the manager was jacking up the materials and labor prices

and putting half of it in his pocket.

"I knew the staff were up to monkey business, stealing money from the cash sales,

so I sacked the manager. At one stage later on I fired all the staff for stealing.

They just kept doing it. It's a constant risk for everyone in business here. You

can only prevent it by not trusting staff and watching your money very closely. They'll

pinch anything, they've even stolen my clothes and shoes. They break into guest rooms,

they steal with fishing rods poked through security grating."

Gullible's travails

Howell acknowledges he also wasted a lot of money on himself, with pleasure trips

to Siem Reap, and several to Thailand. The worries of the business and his own lack

of control resulted in him chain-smoking, smoking cannabis to sleep, and later hitting

the whisky.

"I didn't have a woman to discipline me. Men fall apart when they don't have

a good woman."

It was thus surprising that things actually deteriorated from about February 2004

when he met Mimi, a 21 year old taxi-girl. "I met her in a bar one night, sort

of fell in love. I was pretty hooked on her. But she was into the yaba [methamphetamine].

She just wanted a good time, she was stealing off me to feed her habit. She stole

cash and jewelry off me, my phone. Then she stole a rental motorbike and sold it

and that cost me a month's rent. I got behind in the rent. That's when problems really

started and I had to phone home for money.

"I was trying to help her get off the yaba. I stuck with her too long. After

the moto theft, her mother and sister came from Siem Reap and took her away. That

was 4-5 months ago. She claims she's off it. I'll find out in a few days because

she's coming back.

"I had health problems, went to a doctor in Thailand and was diagnosed with

irritable bowel syndrome which is stress-related and I guess that figures. It disturbs

my sleep so I need sleeping aids and the weed seems to suit me best."

A whole succession of things went wrong.

"I got behind in the rent. The landlord was okay, he said he'd give me up to

three months arrears limit and then he'd kick me out. Which is where I will be at

the end of September if I can't get the place sold first.

"I actually have three parties interested in buying but there are always catches

It's a great pity for me because the season looks like it will be a boomer. I've

always known the place had potential, I have just not been able to hold on long enough.

"I would take $20,000 for a half share, the whole lot at $40,000. I'd come out

with some capital back but lose money."

He had a number of petty burglaries, which he didn't report to police "because

the landlord's a cop and he knew about it. I should have, because now they say I'm

uncooperative which goes against me."

Howell hired an armed guard from the landlord for $50 a month "but he just fell

asleep every night so I had to fire him after two weeks because we had another burglary.

He was a cop during the day, and worked for the landlord who was probably getting

a kickback himself."

The final outrage

The final outrage came at about 2:50 am on August 11. A Canadian man, 24, Canadian

woman, 25, and a British woman, 21, were sharing a room when, police said, thieves

broke in, stole $500 and stabbed the two Canadians (both at least three times, though

not damaging any vital organs).

Howell and Billy, in the rooms adjoining, were woken by shouts and screams. "We

were still pretty drunk, which didn't help matters," Howell said.

The victims were bleeding, shocked and in pain, and medical help was urgently needed.

Cloud 9's phone next door wasn't working, Howell's was in the repair shop, so he

despatched a staffer to run along the beach to the nearest phone for an ambulance

and the police.

"He got to Unkle Bob's, called the police, but their phone was switched off.

He didn't know what to do then so he came back and I went with him to Unkle Bob's

and we got through to a doctor from the clinic, who came down the wrong road in his

brand new car. When I told him to take the other road to our top gate where the victims

were, he refused, saying the road was too rutted for his car so he went back to town

and got his old car. The whole thing was a farce."

The victims eventually got to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

Because of discrepancies in the stories Howell thinks the robbery could have been

a police setup to discredit Ocean View and get rid of him because of his rent debts,

although he admits to having difficulty thinking rationally when he is about to lose

his business and is powerless to stop events.

"My reasoning is that the newspaper report with the police quoting the victims

said they heard someone trying to break in, went to investigate then they were stabbed.

"But Billy talked to the guy while he was still lying down with his injuries

and he said they'd left the door unlocked with light on. The burglars got inside,

did the stealing, and the guy woke up when he was stabbed. Someone is lying.

"A week later 12 cops came and had an order to close Room 2 for forensic examinations,

which was after the cleaner had been and we'd had customers in there. It was a joke.

I agreed to the closure."

A week later 18 cops arrived, pointing AK-47s at Howell who was dining with customers.

"They said they were closing me down totally. The landlord was with them. They

said I had to leave as well, they didn't ask for money. The written order said it

was because of my poor attitude, uncooperation with the police, lack of security,

and the incorrect business license.

"I have the same license as Cloud 9. I get a different story every time I ask

the police. Apparently the restaurant is licensed but not the guesthouse. They'd

never told me this before, I've been paying my taxes and my rent, and I have a rental


"The order comes from the deputy governor. He's the one who signed it, he also

signed my business license which he now says is no good. They're screwing me rotten."

Howell says he's been pretty depressed. A free lawyer at the Cambodian Defenders

Project has told him his contract is full of holes.

"Eden [all-nighter further along the beach] have offered a deal to buy me out,

pay the rent arrears and save my $7000 deposit. It's derisory but I may have to accept

that because the two other sale prospects may not eventuate.

"I think they're in cahoots because Kong Sun and the Eden owner play chess every

day and I reckon they've cooked this up."

Post: How could you have done this differently and made it work?

"Stayed off the grass and had a trustworthy manager. The guy I had was a sonofabitch,

an evil little bastard. He threatened to kill me when I fired him. I made a fatal

mistake in allowing the staff to stay on at the beginning. I gave them responsibility

and paid them well and they still ripped me off. They will try anything.

"Billy's has been a lifesaver and if I'd listened to him 6 months ago none of

this would have happened."

Howell acknowledges he wasn't always fully present due to being stoned or hung over,

and customers can testify that surprisingly often he forgot to charge them for their

meals. Others think they got food poisoning from Ocean View's nightly $5 seafood

barbecue, because the fish sometimes sat too long in the sun waiting for a chef.

"What now?" says Howell. "I'll probably open something down the cheap

end and work my way up. I'll also be closer to the golf course."


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