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."
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
"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."