Off the rails in Cambodia; two Brits and the role played by the British Embassy

Martin and Nick

There are few in the expat community here who haven’t heard a thing or two about Nick Mclernan, 40, and Martin Gates, 24: Singlet Senior and Singlet Junior, Beavis and Butthead, Dumb and Dumber — half the city seems to have an opinion. For those that don’t know of this seedy morality tale of things gone awry in the Kingdom of Wonder, it focuses on the plight of two British men, McLernan and Gates, and strikes at the very heart of just what duties and responsibilities an Embassy has towards its citizens abroad.

In the case of the British Embassy in Phnom Penh: these duties are strictly limited. So strict in fact, that Mclernan now lies in Calmette Hospital, disfigured, fighting for his life, and piling up medical bills which it seems no one will pay, though I doubt the Embassy much cares. In the end, it wasn’t vagrancy, drugs or anything remotely exotic that got him. He was hit by a truck.

Meanwhile, a dead-to-the-world Gates has stepped onto the tarmac at Heathrow, presumably to read that his mate is not in fact dead, as he first thought, but on life support, at a hospital just a stone’s throw away from the Embassy where he went so many times asking for help. Surely a mindfuck too many for such a young and already fucked-up mind.

All this would have been avoided if the British Embassy had the wherewithal to make a simple discretionary loan, way back in February. Yes, February. Things look impossible now. At what point does Mclernan’s life support get turned off? The way things stand, someone, somewhere is going to have to make that call, and the British Embassy’s decision making, indirectly or otherwise, will be seen by many to have been a major factor.

The details are murky, very murky indeed. Sometime in December 2014, Mclernan inherited the not-too-untidy sum of £32,691 (close to $50,000) on the sale of a house in Bournemouth left to him by his recently deceased mother. By late February he was living destitute on the streets of Phnom Penh, with his best mate, Gates, whom he had taken away to “get a break from it all, as a treat.” They claimed to have been the victim of theft.

They were soon knocking on the Embassy’s door asking for flights and emergency travel documents home. The Embassy said no. Again and again and again. The Embassy were given more than a little hassle for this, not least of all from myself. On March 18, in the first of several emails I wrote explaining why they immediately needed to be flown home: “They currently are both hungry, look skeletal and are covered in mosquito bites, and it’s quite likely they will end up starving to death or in Cambodian prison for vagrancy. If either of these things were to happen, and frankly it is looking likely, it is a legitimate response that the British Embassy would be accused of a lack of due care to its citizens.”’

Their response was a boilerplate one, but one that many feel is more than reasonable: “What we cannot do is pay bills or give money from public funds because we are not funded to do this and it is the obligation of individuals to take responsibility for themselves. It would also be unfair for those who take out insurance to subsidise those who do not, and individuals would not normally get these bills paid if they were in the UK.”

Of course, there are two positions here and they go to the core of what divides the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’: how much should the state help it citizens, particularly the poor, needy and, in this case, the none too smart? The arguments are well worn. Most people know where they stand, won’t budge, but love to argue it anyway. Lefties believe in common pooled resources to help people when they are in desperate need, even when brought about by their own misdeeds. The Embassy, for the moment at least (for we live in austere times), seemingly employs the approach of the Right: individuals taking responsibility for themselves. Fair enough.

When I initially met Gates and Mclernan, I was eager to help and went to the Embassy with them to find out what was going on. Regardless of the financials, they were treated less than respectfully. The Embassy’s Khmer staff clearly wanted them to go away (it was their fourth visit by now). They didn’t seem to be getting any sensible advice whatsoever. They were just asked to give cash for emergency travel documents (which was strange as at a later date, I went to Embassy to pay cash for Mclernan and was not allowed in).

After what I had seen, I was keen to help them and arranged to put a small story in a newspaper, the Khmer Times. I had been warned off the paper by many, particularly by journalists who said I should have nothing to do with them and that it was widely considered a joke newspaper. I took this with a pinch of salt, as journos slag off other publications as a matter of course. But on this one, they were right. My admittedly hastily written article was changed in bizarre fashion. My lead, which had been about the shoddy Embassy treatment I had witnessed, was replaced by something about how the government was cracking down on crime. The Embassy was barely mentioned. In less than 24 hours the Khmer Times had pulled the story, offering me no explanations despite my repeatedly asking them, fueling suspicion amongst an already sceptical audience that the story was somehow hoaxed.

The misspelled sign of Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Nevertheless the article did the rounds on the local internet and I came in for a hammering of sorts. Some of it was mild: I had been duped and was naive. Some of it went off into wild flights of fancy and was quite entertaining – I had faked the whole story to promote a film about two dumb expats I was showing at the cinemas (an unfortunate coincidence), even that I was staging the whole thing to shoot material for a new movie.

The UK Daily Mail mentioned the stir the story had caused, so I showed them an updated draft of the story. They wanted more info. Of course they did – that’s what this story needed all along. Wary of how the Mail would portray them I declined, saying that I would try instead to crowdfund their flights home. This too went badly, some people were supportive but others called me a fraud and a scammer, even suggesting I was a sock-puppet for Gates or Mclernan. Not believing their story was something I could understand (I had reservations myself), but what caught me off guard was the sheer number of people that thought these guys were not deserving of help at all. Surely it was clear to see that it would end badly if they weren’t flown out. Even some of my friends were giving me shit. One new, but much loved friend shouted at me: “You’re a cunt. You’re a cunt. No-one gives a fuck about those two junkies. What are you trying to do? You’re nothing.”

And in many ways he was right, not many people did care (and I can be a bit of a cunt).

My biggest surprise was not that other people didn’t want to help and/or didn’t believe them, but that people were so hostile to the fact that I wanted to help at all. People seemed actively hostile to the fact I wanted to help, idiots or not. Nevertheless the furore helped a little, and Gates and Mclernan were received kindly by many people on the street who wanted to help them out.

Liberal hippy pinkos and Daily Mail lovers aside, the real meat and drink was to be had over just how Singlet Senior and Son had lost all their money. They said there was a theft at a hostel in Sihanoukville where they were staying on February 21, just a few days before they were set to leave, and they lost virtually everything they had – smartphones, $3,000 cash, a Macbook – and that on contacting his bank Mclernan’s bank up to £15,000 had been removed from his bank, through frequent withdrawals from ATMs as well as online payments. At this point Mclernan did not freeze his account, saying it would effectively deny him access to his only remaining money. In response to this the public said, and I paraphrase: bollocks, utter bollocks.

Holes were quickly found in their story. Things didn’t add up, and too many questions were left unanswered: Just how can you get defrauded for £15,000 off a debit card in the space of a few weeks? Why was there no record of the robbery? Why didn’t they go to the police? Why did they leave a $100 tab at the last place there is record of them staying? Essentially, they were seen as liars and to many at least that made them undeserving. For some it was far worse than this: they were junkies, scammers, methheads, chavs; they had been seen ‘drooling’ after leaving public toilets; they even had criminal records. Morbid humour set in, some saying they deserved to die or they should have syringes stabbed in their eyes: they got what they deserved.

And there seemed to be a fair bit of classism involved too. I couldn’t help thinking that if these were nice middle-class chaps the Embassy would have flown them home long ago, but therein lay the paradox – those guys would have had the money wired in minutes. Gates and Mclernan were having no such luck. They were relying on the kindness of strangers to stay alive.

It proved impossible to work out exactly where the money went. Did Gates and Mclernan take drugs? Certainly. Were they drug addicts? Possibly. Fuck-ups? Undoubtedly. I still think they were robbed or scammed at some level. How and for what amount, I do not know. If it was due to their own stupidity, I do not know, but I just can’t see them blowing every single last piece of coin, not to mention losing all their clothes. I think they were easy targets and got conned somehow. A lot of people think I’m naïve on this, and they have good reason to: the guys were an infuriating pair of idiots, unreliable, disorganized, ill-informed, losing and forgetting things constantly. They actually did remind of me Beavis and Butthead.

I spent a fair bit of time with Martin and Nick, helped them out where I could, took the piss out of them when thing got a bit glum, which was often. They always seemed like ok lads to me, definitely not the sharpest tools, some of the mental illnesses to which they claimed were all too evident. They wrote me a kind thank you letter when I had put them up for the night. But all-in-all, their character is irrelevant. It was clear from the outset that if they were not flown home they were going to end up in a very bad situation indeed.

The British Embassy’s own guidelines state: “A discretionary loan from public funds to help you return to the UK may only be considered in very exceptional circumstances and only if you have used up all other methods of getting funds.” This is the part where the British Embassy failed to do its job. Why were they continually refused this emergency loan? If they had been given it, they would both be back in the UK, with their passports confiscated. Why, in six weeks of constantly knocking on the Embassy’s door, were they not repatriated? Whilst the machinations of bureaucracies are slow, in “exceptional circumstances” you need to be able to be flexible enough to be able to act, show some dynamism, particularly in Cambodia: this nation of deathpats.

On these terms, the Embassy simply failed to deliver. Khmer440 told the Embassy yesterday that it would be running a story about Nick and Martin. They replied this morning: “The British Embassy can confirm that a British national has been hospitalised in Phnom Penh. We are providing consular assistance.” They then directed us to a website link of a pamphlet entitled FCO Brits Abroad 2014.

Currently, Nick is living on a life support machine and someone might well have to take the decision to turn off the machine. The situation should have never ever have got this far.

33 thoughts on “Off the rails in Cambodia; two Brits and the role played by the British Embassy

  1. Harry Reply

    You’re a good man, Charles.

    Well done, you did what you could.

  2. Jim Brooke Reply

    “Çharles Dashwood” is xxxxx xxxxx
    I am the editor of his piece
    xxxxxx seemed to like the paper one day before, when we published a full page piece on him and his movie showing at Meta.
    xxxxxx seemed to like the paper one day before, when he eagerly sought a tryout position as print edition editor
    Life always proves to be more entertaining than faction!
    Jim Brooke
    editor-in-chief
    Khmer Times

    • wpadmin Post authorReply

      Edited to avoid outing Charles Dashwood. Perhaps Jim can finally clarify why the Khmer Times pulled the story so quickly. That is one of the interesting side issues of the sorry saga, and I’m sure people would be genuinely interested to know.

  3. ANother Anonymous Reply

    Mr. Brooke, I dont get the point you are making, and I dont think you get the point Dashwood is making.

    Yes, maybe he did “like the Khmer Times the day before,” but that was the day before you took a story he wrote and changed it completely, as you have done to a number of your journalists, whose tales of disgust from inside your newsroom are doing the rounds increasingly. Your editorial judgment, as proven by the developments with these two British scallywags, is amazingly terrible.

  4. richard Reply

    If they had a police report it would have been slighty more believable but.., the US or any embassy would request this before they did Anything.!!!
    Sorry no sympathy from me.
    As to Charles, ur the Only good thing in this whole saga. You tried

  5. Concerned Brit Reply

    I can attest to the completely shameful conduct of the British Embassy in Phnom Penh, who refuse to do the simplest thing to help expats.

    All I requested was for a simple letter confirming authentication of a British passport – something they said they could not do.

    What is the point of them being there?

    • Ad Reply

      It’s quite obvious anyone at the British embassy in PP only want money before they do anything for you.

  6. Johan Reply

    Trying to sum up some facts:
    They had return flights with Qatar Airways, leaving London on Sunday, January 25, 2015, to return on Monday, February 23, 2015.
    Instead of relocating on February 19 from Koh Rong to a pre-booked Hotel in SHV they went to a Hostel. Their bags, and those of almost everybody staying in the dorm, were stolen in the middle of the night February 21. Which is not confirmed.
    Mr. Gates arranged for his step-father and mother to wire him a $200 dollar loan so that they could travel to the British Embassy in Phnom Penh to seek assistance.
    (Not using that money to get a police report.)
    Over the course of three weeks, they visited the embassy four times before C.D. meets them around March 18th.

    Nick (Singlet Senior) writes in February (which day?) about a plan for the Golden Triangle on expat-blog.com: “Currently living in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, im a chef by trade and were in cambodia for 1 month at least snd wnt a bike, ( but don’t want too pay over the top) [..] we need it to be ok to go to Thailand etc…… ( golden triangle) “.
    So they were not planning to go back home on the 23rd at all but the arranged trip did end on that day.

    • Patrick Reply

      I agree with your assumptions, much of what happened comes down to irresponsible behaviour in a dangerous place… leading to bad luck.

      Although bad luck can genuinely occur, I think this is more a case of bad decision making putting one in a risky situation where bad things are more likely to happen.

      I am just gobsmacked by the whole thing, knowing one of these people personally.

  7. remy zero Reply

    Amazing. i had a similar occurrence: while in Phnom Penh to get a paper Notarized at the U.S.Embassy, ALL my things ( laptop, passport, money, i.d.`s, etc) were stolen by a gaggle of locals on a motorbike. just drove by, cut the strap, took Everything. On top of that, my leg had swelled up to 3 times normal from a staph infection….walking around on P.P. streets can be Hazardous…. BUT, the U.S.Embassy immediately booked me a flight to Los Angeles, issued a temporary passport, paid my overstay fee, even gave me $50 for food on the trip….in return, my passport was revoked until i repaid them. i have 3 years to do so ! What a god-send they were ( and i was known to be a bit of a `complainer` to them before this incident….without this help, i likely would have been hit by a truck also, wandering helplessly around town…. thank GOD the U.S.Embassy will help its citizens when the need it the most…. too bad those guys were British….

  8. Uncle Monty's Ghost Reply

    This is probably the sorriest, and saddest, tale involving Brits in Cambodia that most of us have heard/read.

    The behaviour of the British Embassy / Consulate has been beneath contempt.

    Has anyone brought this tale to the attention of the British ambassador?

    Someone reading this, or reading the interminable exchanges in Khmer 440 probably know the ambassador well enough to broach the subject.

    What can be said about ‘Khmer Times’ that has not already been said? It’s a glossy vehicle-for-advertising which includes a few mangled sort-of news stories.

  9. Jacob Gadikian Reply

    I think that you did the right thing, and that the embassy should have considered this: “if not us, then who?” If the answer is nobody, then it should be you.

    I see that the author took that view, and wish that more would.

  10. Patrick Reply

    I am all for compassion and understanding but there is a limit. I have never been to Cambodia but just one or two days research has shown me that there are serious issues there with regard to drug abuse, and if two smack heads go there with 30 grand to spend, they have only one aim, and one possible outcome, some for of catastrophe will befall them and it did.

    I know one of these people since he was 16 – I have had nothing but strife. He has stolen from me, my friends, and my business connections to the point I was almost ruined. I tried to help him on many occasions, including taking him abroad to “get him clean” and rather than doing so, he remained pissed and stoned for most of his free holiday, returning to drugs and crime when he got back to the UK.

    I knew about his plight in Cambodia and had been contacted by the embassy staff to help, however, I had had enough from previous experiences and I refused.

    I am not one to turn down a request for help: I did try to help for 6 years, and got dragged down myself, in the end, a drug addict has only one aim, to do drugs. And it always ends in tears. I find it astonishing that a guy with kids comes into a lot of money, and then rather than be a bit sensible, or think of his family, he squanders it on self-destructive chemicals and ends up dead. Let those young people who actually delude themselves into thinking that drug and alcohol abuse is somehow cool, read and learn from this tale of despair and tragedy.

  11. Serotrance Reply

    Had the two been honest with the British Embassy upfront about their circumstances (not going to bother to rehash all the holes in their story), I’d be singing a different tune. But at the time the KT published their article, they were clearly still playing their junkie scam, and failing miserably at it. (infected mosquito bites? C’mon, those were clearly trackmarks) Without taking that basic responsibility of owning up to their mistakes, they were in no position of having money lent to them.

  12. Jonnie Reply

    Blew US$ 50k in two months…that must be some kind of record…hope they enjoyed the heroin, booze, and birds…I hope it was worth it. Do you know if Calmette looking for volunteers to pull the plug?

  13. jixiang Reply

    Poor sods. They may have been naive, but they didn’t deserve this. The British embassy should not leave its citizens starving in a country like Cambodia.

  14. Vic Matthews Reply

    Two less expat criminals on Pasteur Street that will try and lift your wallet from you.

  15. William Reply

    A sad tale indeed, I cant believe the British Embassy did nothing to help these poor souls.

  16. Conor Reply

    Hi

    I have had bad experiences with British embassy myself, they care very little about morals. I can believe they didn’t help myself.

    However this article has no proof other than your word, if you want to take action to persuade people and perhaps force the embassy to apologise, you should gather proof.

    You should remember the staff names you corresponded at the British embassy. The British embassy follows British laws. They are bound by law to tell the truth. There will be CCTV inside the embassy with proof of the dialogue between you.
    You could get all the proof together and take action – complain to the foreign office, your local MP, other newspapers, and ultimately the courts if necessary.

    Regards,
    conor (presently in vietnam)

  17. james hansen Reply

    Without doubt Her Majesty’s Embassy in Phnom Penh is one of the most useless and unhelpful anywhere in the world. Trying to get a simple thing done is next to impossible. On any given day the British staff are nowhere to be found – successfully hiding behind a screen of Khmer and unanswered email and phone lines.

    Not in the least least bit surprised by this story.

  18. P Reply

    They are unfortunately deadbeats , and the Embassy is one too ! They dont provide assistance at all. garbage humans like the unfortunate drug addicts . they atleast are unable . The Embassy is Corrupt !

  19. Wiser Reply

    I guess you’ve never met a junkie before (junkie virgins fall for this shit all the time). I’ve known sensible people with bad luck (mixed with poor judgment) and I’ve known junkies.

    Trust me young skywalker.. these two are of the later variety.. maybe for clearer insight you should spend some time with more junkies then you’ll see the light too.. (well if you’re a fast learner that is).

    • Louise Reply

      Surely a British citizen on a life support machine in a foreign country, with no friends or family around him, regardless of how he got there, is circumstantial enough to warrant emergency assistance from the Embassy to the UK?

          • me

            So if the two junkies have $50 000 then it’s OK to piss it up the wall and not help anyone or reduce their risks by taking out insurance. After it’s pissed up against the wall while spending time with people with less money, they expect other people (those who didn’t have the $50,000) to pay for their lifestyle. They probably did this all while wearing stupid wife beaters. Let’s face facts they went to Cambodia to die and they got their wish.

  20. Marco Reply

    I admire you for trying to help these drug addicts, but obviously they were beyond help. I agree the British government should have taken responsibility and they failed. Instead of helping junkie foreigners why don’t you find a Cambodian kid to support and you’ll have much more success and something to be proud of. I tried to help a junkie teenager myself between ages 14-22 and it was just a huge failure and disappointment. I certainly learned a lesson and will personally deal with such again, it’s a job for social service specialists. There is a lot you can do to help poor but good people though, who really deserve it.

  21. andrew Reply

    so, in effect, the embassy are applying the death penalty on him. possible crimes, but do they warrant death? I am appalled by the alleged boys behaviour, but what really gets to me is the alleged total disregard by the said embassy. surely they could miss a single elite soiree and have them back in blighty? shame on you, uk embassy. sooner the day the staff there serve their citizens and not purely serve as spruikers for business, the better. sickening all round.

  22. Frank West Reply

    All British citizens have the right to see the ambassador, so demanding this and refusing to leave will eventually summon one of the British staff.

  23. Wirldpeas Reply

    There are no limits here so if you lack the ability to moderate and/or control your vices it is best not to come. A sad tale indeed but personal responsibility is key.

  24. sas Reply

    I’m the person who sorted nicks flight and with help from a few close friends back here in England we paid for a flight home , he was hosbitalised in London for a while then moved back to his home town , were again myself and a few close friends helped him with funiture and groups and workshops , I myself spoke to him everyday and it’s clear if I hadn’t of got him back he would of died !!!….but I’m afraid nick was not greatful and didn’t stop the drugs or alcohol , he continued to ignore all medical help and friendship and has gone back to the scum lifestyle of doing what ever it takes to get drugs ………. Don’t believe everything you read , as I new nick 8 years before he came out to Cambodia and he has more than several chances including rehabs to STOP and change his life around , he didn’t , he owed money to myself and both mothers of his children , instead he run away over to India to live the dream of a crack pipe !!!! , he always was a selfish man !! He didn’t pay for travel insurance as that would of Been a pipe less ! Nick spent many a year having poss holidays to India with friends before he got back into drugs so he was a were of how to travel !! I heard from nick last week when he contacted me asking for money !!! , so please all the people on here who felt he wasn’t helped or was badly treated , your wrong ! The only people who have been hurt by this is his friends and family

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