The Adventures of a T-bird: Held Hostage in Cambodia

The streets of PoipetBy Jacob Cluff MBA ’12

In 2007 I started Jembatan International, a company that recruited students from the U.S. to work on business development projects and internships in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.  Subsequently, I spent much of the 2010 summer in Thailand to help manage a group of students. As usual, we planned on taking the students on an excursion to neighboring countries as a closing activity.  This year I was taking the group to Cambodia and Vietnam.  To help save costs, we traveled over land to the Aranyprathet/Poipet border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia.

Poipet is one of my least favorite places in Asia –it is a filthy border town of casinos, cheap hotels, knock-off shops, and a market I wouldn’t eat at even if you paid me – and I’m not one to generally shy away from street food. It was not a pleasant introduction to Cambodia for the students, nor is it representative of the rest of the country.

I had arranged to have a bus pick up the group of 20 students on the other side of Poipet.  My contact in Phnom Penh was very trustworthy and he nor I anticipated any problems other than potential pick pockets.  Trouble threatened when some of the students in my group began innocently communicating our plans to local Cambodians that appeared to be official representatives of the International Tourist
Transportation (ITT) agency.  The students mentioned to them that we had a bus coming to pick us up.

Unbeknownst to us, these individuals were part of a transportation cartel that controlled all taxis and buses for non-Cambodians in the area and they had tight relations with the mafia. Ultimately, our bus driver was contacted and coerced into scamming us.  The bus picked us up and took us to a very official looking “Poipet Tourist International Terminal” that was at least 60 kilometers from any major cities.  Once we got off the bus, to our horror the bus took off leaving us stranded at the terminal.  Then we were told we had to pay close to $125 per person if we wanted to make it back to Phnom Penh. (To give perspective our bus cost $500 to rent for 3 full days including gas).

To cut to the chase, the students and I were held hostage at this ITT terminal for about 8 hours while I tried to find a way out of our dilemma as I wasn’t going to let the students be conned into departing from their cash. The story climaxed when I got my contact in Phnom Penh involved.  He contacted a few people in the government to no avail.  Finally, after 10 hours of waiting and failed negotiations, my contact in Phnom Penh suggested we rebel and start walking down the road.

At this point, I got the entire group together and we walked out to the main road in a last ditch attempt to show we were not succumbing to their outrageous demands.   As we were walking down the empty road, the cartel members called up my Cambodian contact in Phnom Penh and threatened his life if he didn’t get me and my group to stop.  At this point I realized that things were starting to escalate beyond a level I felt comfortable with and decided maybe it was time we just paid the extortion money.  Fortunately, as soon as Jembatan International paid $125 per person, we were all free to go.

Looking back on the ordeal it was a costly, dangerous, and powerful way to learn just how serious the risks can be when you are managing a business in less-regulated countries. A small price to pay for all the excitement and adventure we T-birds seek!

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