As the tune will do after hearing it, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” stuck in my brain.
I was humming it to myself when we left the NagaWorld complex, where we had caught an otherwise forgettable free show of singing and dancing on a Saturday night in order to outlast heavy rain. The hour-long spectacle ended with the cast cavorting in the aisles and performing the Mama Mia hit.
So was I only faintly aware of a moto trailing Lin and me last October as we ambled along the gutters (there being few navigable sidewalks) from a boulevard into a dim side street two blocks from our building.
Then walking with a slight limp and having grey hair, I would appear to be an easy target.
The heavily made-up woman who out of nowhere suddenly was clinging to my left arm said something flirtatious to me.
Lin saw how the woman had slid off the back of a motorcycle and how the male driver had pulled up nearby. He instantly put two and two together — as I should have as well — though I hadn’t noticed the lingering moto during the seconds of the incident.
The pair was obviously intent on mugging me, a common crime of which we are well aware. Tourists and expats are favored victims, and everyone who lives here knows to be careful using cellphones on streets. We also learn to secure belongings when riding in tuk-tuks and on motos lest they be snatched.
Forewarned, I should have figured out immediately what was going on, but the afterglow of the song and a pleasant evening evidently had lulled me into a state of oblivion. In my momentary confusion, I was trying to figure out where the woman had come from and how to shake her off.
Surprise, of course, is their modus operandi.
Everything was happening fast — I don’t think the whole encounter lasted even a minute. I couldn’t sort out the danger I was in. In my mind, all I needed was to get rid of an annoyingly persistent whore. Nothing computed.
I am normally have been on high alert for crime when out in Phnom Penh. For example, I would grab both of my backpack straps on my chest when toting a change of clothes and electronic equipment walking four or five blocks from the gym or after having coffee in a café.
Normally on alert is not enough, however. Always on alert is mandatory.
Because the tune in my head caused me to let my guard down, I obviously wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. When the woman sidled up to me, however, I believe my right hand flew to the cellphone in a back pocket. (Pickpockets in crowds do love to see where you keep your valuables, so that’s not always a good idea.)
Despite my clear lack of interest and attempts to get away from her, the woman wasn’t taking ‘no’ for answer until Lin closed the short distance between us as I simultaneously shouted at her in the Khmer language to go away as the light dawned in my brain. I don’t think they realized that the Cambodian near me was with me.
(For Cambodian readers, we were walking south on busy Norodom with Independence Monument behind us and turning into Street 302.)
The couple disappeared. In fact, they were gone before I could turn around.
Yet. . . yet, as the woman oozed away, it suddenly struck me that she was no woman. He was dressed to steal. There could have been no other reason for his appearance, I am certain.
What if I immediately felt that I was about to be robbed or that something of value was already missing? As a subsequent incident I witnessed from the balcony of our apartment demonstrated, the question is hardly a trivial one.
I heard all-too-familiar shouts from the street below — the same street where I was accosted three blocks to the east — early one morning in November. They were screaming “jao, jao,” which means “thief.”
The former journalist in me sent me racing to the balcony, where I arrived in time to see the driver of his own motorcycle vainly struggling to control it and crash into a high curb. Trees had obscured what caused him to lose control.
He and his passenger — his wife, I later read in the Phnom Penh Post — were thrown off. Although I couldn’t see where he landed, I figured that he had died instantly as they loaded his body into an ambulance after the medics stood around for quite a while.
The man’s wife had limped around a few minutes after she was flung off and, from my perch, seemed dazed. Later, I could see her sitting on another curb being questioned.
From the security guard downstairs, I subsequently learned that there had been a gang of two motorized thieves. The one in front had grabbed probably the woman’s purse. The second may have offered to help the victims, according to one account, pursued the other thief alongside them and kicked their moto. The kick, which I did not witness, is what caused the loss of control.
In their 30s, the young couple were described in the Post as flower sellers. Tragically, his life has ended and hers has been destroyed. Her photo seemingly where she lives suggests, unsurprisingly, that the couple was poor. I was haunted by the circumstances for days.
I’d be shocked if the thieves are caught and brought to justice, though an arrest was reported.
In my own encounter, had I fought the thief or screamed at high volume to attract pursuers, of whom I spotted no potential ones, who knows what would have transpired? There’s no knowing what harm might have come to me from a knife or a bullet or an onrushing motorcycle.
In the second Phnom Penh Post link above, a police official who acknowledges two or three such thefts daily concedes, “We can arrest them, but we do not know how to make them stop bag-snatching.” If you read through the relatively short piece, some of his other comments may strike you as odd, if not comical.
Lucky I was, in no small part because I was not alone.
Lesson learned: To relax on the streets of Phnom Penh is to court danger. Of course, that’s the case just about everywhere. Yes, see that girl, as ABBA suggests, and don’t fail to watch that scene.