Eric Hertz says he has every right to beg in Cambodia. Commonly known as the “American beggar,” the shaved-headed, sun-tanned and tattooed thirty-something has wandered the streets of Phnom Penh for almost a year, asking for money from foreign tourists and residents.
That a US citizen should be begging in Cambodia has outraged some and at least one Phnom Penh restaurant has posted a sign warning people not to give money to the “Western beggar.”
The Cambodia Pocket Guide’s Phnom Penh Drinking and Dining magazine also issued a warning in its latest issue about Hertz.
The warning included two photographs of Hertz and a caption: “If you see t his man, do not give him money. He is presumed a US citizen who has been living off the pity of tourists in South East Asia for several years…. If you see him avoid contact”
The warning added that women should be especially careful and alleges that Hertz has been known to attack women and snatch their bags.
Hertz would not confirm his nationality or age during an interview on Tuesday, but said that he has been begging since he was 13 or 14, and has been living on streets other than Phnom Penh’s since he was a child.
“It’s like second nature to me,” he said.
“In some people’s eyes it’s wrong to ask another person for money. They start acting pretty weird I’ve noticed. They get really angry and threatening and they’re like ‘get away from here,’ ‘get a job,’ ‘don’t ask me for money,'” he added.
“I usually just roll it off-I’m used to it.”
denied his pan handling was used to fund a drug habit, as some have alleged, and said it was his right to beg on the streets of the Cambodian capital.
“Of course, if I want to be here I should be here,” he said.
Dean Lennox, co-owner of the Cambodia Pocket Guide, said he hopes the warning will pressure Hertz and encourage him to leave Cambodia.
Hertz took offence to Lennox’s idea.
“That’s a horrible way to talk,” Hertz said. “That concept is disgusting.”
Hertz’s case has reportedly reached the attention of the US Embassy, which is said to have offered him assistance and to help him return home.
Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said last week that he was unable to comment.
“We are legally prohibited by the privacy act from discussing the lives of private Americans without their expressed consent,” he said.
“We have no legal authority to send an American back to the States against his or her will. That authority lies with the host government officials,” he added.
Hertz said the embassy should leave him alone, though he added that embassy staff have been friendly toward him.
“Do they think they own me and they can just grab me and put me from point A to point B?… Are they the rulers of the world? They might be. I need to talk to them if they are. I need to ask them, ‘What are you guys doing?'” he said.
While Hertz argues that he has not done anything seriously amiss in Cambodia, others disagree.
Adam Starr, a Canadian national working for a local NGO, said he arrived at his home near Boeng Kak lake one evening in late January to find that his pregnant dog had been beaten on the third floor of his house. Starr said witnesses identified the culprit as Hertz.
“[Hertz] was walking by the house one day and our dog started barking at him and he snapped,” Starr claimed.
Starr, who claimed the alleged incident caused his dog to miscarry, filed a complaint at the Sras Chak commune police station and with the US Embassy.
“I think the [embassy official] felt his hands were tied. He said the US Embassy did approach Eric with a ticket to go home, but he had run away from the embassy staff,” Starr said.
“At the end of the day, something needs to be done. He needs to get back to the [US] and get some rehab,” he said.
Hertz denied attacking the dog, but added that he could not see why it was being taken seriously.
“I don’t understand this, where someone has taken beating a dog in a house is like this huge crime,” he said.
Hertz said he has no plan to leave Cambodia, adding that the only thing he would like help with is the people who are unhappy with his presence, and that he wishes he had more friends.
“The world, the universe has always taken care of me,” he said. “If I’m hurting anyone’s feelings, excuse me, because I don’t know anything about it at all.”
Chhay Thirith, Sras Chak commune chief, said he had not received any complaints about Hertz, though he added that he plans to examine the case soon.
“We will work with police in order to contact the US Embassy to return him to his country,” he said. He added: “We can’t handcuff or jail him if he does not do any serious crime.”