I love Laos. It’s hot and old-fashioned and strange and far from everywhere; a Stalinist nation with no laws. At Christmas the Ministry of Plans has fairy lights (I’m not kidding – it’s very pretty).
However, a recent story came out that is weird even by Laos standards:
Nara Pech’s voice is unwavering in the message he left for his parents from the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos.
‘I’m in Laos and they’re trying to hurt me. I need help. Call the embassy, please,’ he says on the voice-mail message.
The 28-year-old Canadian man planned to travel in Southeast Asia with two friends for three weeks.
The trip started in Cambodia, where Pech hoped to learn more about his family’s history. His parents are Cambodian and fled the Khmer Rouge, living in a refugee camp in Thailand before eventually settling in 1986 in Edmonton, where Pech was born.
The friends travelled next to Thailand and then Laos, a landlocked country of 6.8 million people ruled by a communist government. There, Pech felt homesick and decided to return to his fiancée in Toronto.
His friends stayed in the capital Vientiane, but accompanied him to the city’s international airport Jan. 21, 2015 and watched him clear customs.
It’s unclear what happened next.
Pech called his parents, his fiancée’s parents and a friend from the airport and left messages asking for help.
‘They took my boarding pass away. They’re screwing me over. I’m trying to get out of here as soon as possible. It’s a bad situation,’ he says in a message to his fiancée’s parents.
No one heard from Pech again. He died at the airport Jan. 22.
‘When my dad called me and said ‘your brother is no longer in this world,’ I thought it was a mistake,’ says Sarena Armsworthy, Pech’s older sister who lives in Edmonton.
‘We have no idea why any of it happened, and why it happened to him. All he was trying to do was come home.’
He mentioned in one voice mail that ‘Apparently I said something bad about (Cambodian prime minister) Hun Sen.’ Armsworthy says her brother wasn’t a political person and didn’t follow politics.
Distance complicates death. In the months since Pech died, Armsworthy has received conflicting reports about what happened.
Armsworthy says consular services in Ottawa say Pech tried to kill himself, based on information they received from Laotian authorities.
But a private autopsy conducted in Thailand details multiple injuries to Pech’s body: a stab wound to his right chest that lacerated his lung; multiple stab wounds to his neck; a stab wound on his right forearm; multiple cuts on his left hand and arm; contusion wounds on both his hands and his right knee.
‘I don’t see it being possible that he could have done any of that to himself,’ Armsworthy says.
She says Pech had no history of mental illness.
A report from the government newspaper Vientiane Times says a Canadian man travelling from Vietnam to Thailand, with a stop in Laos, was found dead on the second floor of the airport with three stab wounds to his body.
According to the article, some passengers on the flight from Vietnam reported the man was acting strangely.
Armsworthy says Pech was to fly from Laos to Bangkok to Toronto; he had never been on a flight from Vietnam.
An official with the Vientiane Police Office told the newspaper the man was asked to stay outside the terminal ‘and then some problems occurred.’ The man damaged some shops, got a small knife and stabbed himself, the story says.
Armsworthy has not received a police report. She has found photos posted on a local media site’s Facebook page that show a white floor in the airport’s cafeteria soaked with blood, as four people kneel around what appears to be a body. In another photo, two men in brown uniforms take stock of what was found at the scene, including four knives, a bloodied passport and a clean pair of black shoes.
Three of the knives were 30 centimetres long, with the fourth measuring 33 centimetres long, according to a medical report from Lao authorities.
Creepy, isn’t it? (I’ve eaten at that restaurant, incidentally. It has a decent buffet but is kind of overpriced.) They even have a recording of the poor guy’s last voice-mail messages, if that’s what you’re into and you didn’t get enough of a wiggins from reading the text.
So what happened? Criticising Hun Sen can get you in serious trouble, of course, but the rules mostly apply to Cambodian journalists in Cambodia, not Canadian tourists in Laos. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that this sounds like a scam gone bad.
At lots of airports and train stations in southeast Asia you will – particularly if you are traveling alone – run into various individuals, both civilians and officials, hoping to ‘fine’ you for sundry offenses. Alternatively, they will try to convince you that your ticket isn’t valid and you need to buy a new one (it’s not just touts either – the official, uniformed desk clerk has tried this on with me at Tha Naleng Station before).
Obviously, taking someone’s travel documents and accusing them of some obscure-but-locally-plausible criminal offense are both key elements in a lot of scams.
In Laos, the amount you’ll be ‘fined’ is generally not huge (cops want around $50-$100, transport staff less) and the inconvenience that the scammers can inflict is large, so if they’re set on fining you, the best thing is to just hand the cash over and consider it a tax. (I’ve managed to get round the buy-a-new-ticket scammers by straight-up refusing to budge, but I was also willing to risk missing my train.)*
In any case, if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say that this guy probably ran into a particularly agressive bunch of scammers, not one of Hun Sen’s secret ninja death squads. He didn’t realise it was a scam, he panicked and they got violent. Now the Laos government is doing a typically inept job of covering it up to protect its tourist trade.
Though I could be wrong. It happens often.
It’s interesting that the scammers should be bringing Hun Sen into it, however, assuming that they were indeed refering to him (and there’s every possibility that they merely said ‘the Prime Minister’ and Pech, being under a lot of stress and having recently been in Cambodia, assumed that they meant Hun Sen, whereas they were really thinking of Laos’ PM, Thongsing Thammavong).
Is he going to become a sort of threatening southeast Asian equivalent of the Nigerian Finance Minister from the 419 scams?
(The Nigerian Finance Ministry has grown so tired of hearing about this that they now have a weary-sounding text on their website explaining that no, they do not want to send you any money.)
*But if you do decide to try to tough it out, I recommend beginning with a scarnful expression and the words “ຂ້ອຢບໍ່ເປັນນັກທ່ອງທ່ຽວ” (koy bor pen nak-tongtyao – I’m not a tourist).