In the short-stay motels that line National Route 6 leading out of Phnom Penh, discretion is guaranteed.
Customers drive vehicles into individual parking places and curtains are provided to cover their license plates. No questions are asked of the customers who rent rooms by the hour or night. Husbands meet their mistresses, and young couples escape disapproving parents.
But sometimes matters take a more sinister turn.
On July 30, three women checked into Tang San guesthouse in Russei Keo district, but only two left a few hours later. The mutilated body of Tekchan Dararoth, 23, was found by staff soon after. She had been stabbed repeatedly before her throat was cut.
Several workers interviewed Tuesday morning at the motel denied all knowledge of the slaying, which had made the front page of newspapers just two weeks earlier.
“We just give them water and turn on the air-conditioning,” said Sim Somaly, a staff member at the motel, when asked about the check-in procedure. No forms are filled out or IDs required, she said.
Sim Somaly said all rooms were still for rent and the 24-room motel was still full most of the time. Several SUVs and motorbikes were parked in spaces Wednesday morning.
Phnom Penh police and city officials said this week they are increasingly concerned about the level of criminality taking place at the city’s loosely regulated guesthouses and motels, which they say are being used more and more often for murders or by gangsters to conduct drug deals.
On April 22, two policemen were shot and killed and three seriously injured as they tried to arrest an alleged drug trafficker in a guesthouse room in Daun Penh district’s Phsar Thmei II commune. The gunman, it later turned out, was a police officer also, who allegedly sold drugs on his own time. His weapon was not police issue, officers investigating the case said later.
In August 2007, the body of an unidentified man was found under the bed in Borei Rekreay guesthouse in Prampi Makara district’s Veal Vong commune, wrapped in plastic and tied up with nylon string.
Police said he had been beaten to death with a hammer. The men who had checked in with the victim had not been required to show any identification. Deputy Police chief for Prampi Makara district Huy Song had no updates on the case when contacted Wednesday.
Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth said the lack of visitor information available at guesthouses and motels is seriously impeding the investigation of cases like the more recent murder of Tekchan Dararoth.
“When someone is found dead, we have problems establishing their identities,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema said Tuesday these cases were just the tip of the iceberg.
Crime is on the increase in general in Phnom Penh as the population, tourist numbers and the economy increases, he said, adding that guesthouses are becoming their own small centers of crime. And he warned that guesthouses that do not properly register guests will be shut down.
Across the road from Tang San at Moha Sambath guesthouse, Supervisor Sok Chhay, 49, said maintaining security was a priority, even if it does not extend to asking for identification from his customers.
“We do not allow gangsters or drug-users to come in,” he said Wednesday. “But we cannot ask for identification or they will just take their business somewhere else.”
The owner, Srun Seang Leng, was at pains to emphasize that her guesthouse was a well-run establishment.
“No one was ever murdered here,” she said.
A few kilometers nearer Phnom Penh, at the Preak Leap Village guesthouse, attitudes were nonchalant.
“I heard about the [Tang San] murder, but it was not such a big thing,” said a staff member who asked that his name not be revealed.
One of the primary rules when running a guesthouse is that the owner properly accounts for all guests, said Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents.
The Ministry of the Interior’s Safety and Security Department has rules that stipulate this requirement clearly, he said.
“When these crimes take place, it is up to the local authorities and officials in that area to make sure the guesthouse owners follow the rules,” he said.
So why is the Tang San guesthouse, where Tekchan Dararoth was butchered, still operating?
Preak Leap commune police chief Kong Savoeun said he didn’t know. But he added: “We are still investigating the murder case.”
Moha Sambath guesthouse supervisor Sok Chhay said he has three guards always on duty. There are also standard operating procedures, he said.
“If a man arrives with a woman and leaves on his own we always check if the woman is OK,” he said, while showing reporters around a room replete with large wall-mirrors, condoms on the dressing table and a large corner-bathtub.
“Sure, [crime] is a worry, but if a couple checks in and while they stay one decides to poison the other, how can I stop that?” he asked.