It was the culture of Cambodia that first attracted Paul Brasch to the small Southeast Asian country.
"I loved the people and the lifestyle," says the 32-year-old, who hails from Taupo. And after five years there, he'd built a wonderful life, running and then selling a small business, landing a well-paid job and even rubbing shoulders with Cambodia's elite on occasion.
"I've been blessed by the Master Monk, who is the monk to the Prime Minister of Cambodia. I've dined with a four-star general and the Commissioner of Police. So I've seen the most fortunate in the country ... and the least."
That's no exaggeration. "The least" are the poor, the deprived and the criminal – men Paul spent a few weeks quartered with during his time locked up in a crumbling Cambodian prison after being arrested at a pool party in January.
After taking a voluntary redundancy from an events job at Skinny Mobile in New Zealand in 2013, Paul arrived in Cambodia and quickly found a job in a hostel bar.
"I'd literally never poured a beer in my life," he smiles. "But here I was working out of this bamboo shack, by a pool, serving drinks."
Siem Reap is a party town and for Paul, it was a welcome change from corporate life. "That's the joy of Cambodia – you can get up to a little bit of mischief. There are backpackers everywhere and something like 300 hostels within a 3km radius. Beers are 50 cents."
It wasn't long until Paul identified a gap in the party market. "I'd often take hostel guests out bar-hopping to the best spots – some nights, I'd have 50 with me. One of them told me 'You should be making money off this!'"
So Paul, along with a couple of friends, formed the Siem Reap Pub Crawl, a guided night out that cost just $10 and was quickly rated the area's top nightlife activity on TripAdvisor. "I did it while my kidneys could handle it," says Paul. "But after a while, I left and went back to what I knew best – events and marketing."
Fast-forward a couple of years and life was about to change again. There was a new event in town called "Let's Get Wet", and the organisers wanted Paul to take photos.
"It was a pool party that would move around three major hostels, with guests spending time at each pool bar. As far as I knew, we weren't contravening any laws."
Drinking games were commonplace – beer pong, "heads or tails" and another game called "sex positions". Again, says Paul, nothing rang alarm bells. Cambodian custom frowns on bikinis and skimpy swimwear worn in public, "but this was behind closed doors", he tells.
However, when the event organisers took the "Let's Get Wet" concept to a new, more upmarket venue, trouble began. At a private villa in suburban Siem Reap, Paul was called in to work the barbecue one afternoon in January at a party for 100 revellers.
"It just felt like a really cool house party. I was flipping chicken on the barbecue, the DJ was playing tunes."
But at 3.30pm, the place was suddenly swarming with police. "There must have been 30 of them," recalls Paul. "They locked the gates, arrested the bar manager, the promoter and the event manager – and picked out a few more of us to arrest as well, completely at random."
Paul, along with nine others, was taken to the police station, where he spent the next three days locked in an office. "They took statements from us, they did drug tests – all were clear. But we had no idea why we were there or what we had done wrong."
But when police released photographs of young men and women playing a game of "sex positions" on a rustic wooden floor, claiming that they showed pornographic behaviour at the villa party, it became clear. Paul insists the pictures were several years old and bore no relation to the event at the marble-floored villa.
"The photos were taken at night – our party was in the daytime. So many factors didn't add up. It was a blatant set-up designed to make some kind of point."
Paul began to feel worried. At his first opportunity, he bribed a guard into temporarily giving his mobile phone back and saw a news story online about the arrests.
"I rang Mum. She was not in a good way."
At home in Napier, Vicky Malden was panic-stricken, but her son assured her he'd done nothing wrong and would be freed soon. Next, the group found a lawyer.
"We paid him $680 each," explains Paul. "He drew on a whiteboard to show us how the Cambodian justice system worked. If the prosecutor decided to progress the case, we could be waiting six months to be tried, with a year in prison to follow.
"The next day, he came back and said yes, the investigation would be progressed, but not to worry – we'd be taken somewhere much nicer to await trial."
That "much nicer" place was in fact Siem Reap Prison, a facility Paul describes as severely overcrowded, unhygienic, corrupt and disease-ridden.
"There were hundreds of people crammed into cells, shouting at us as we arrived," says Paul. "We were fully searched, our heads shaved and we were dressed in an orange prison uniform. Then we were peeled off one by one into cells. Mine was about four metres by five metres and I was one of about 50 men.
"There was no bedding, no mattresses and lots of the men were scratching due to scabies. That night, I used a bottle with a T-shirt wrapped around it as a head rest, but it was far from comfortable. We were all sleeping leaning into each other or on top of each other."
The following day, Paul and the others learned that they were able to bribe guards with money they'd snuck in, so the imprisoned eight men from the party paid to move into a roomier cell. But far from finding comfort together, Paul says it was worse.
"We didn't know each other, there was a lot of freaking out and speculation, and really, none of us had any idea what the future held."
Unhappy with their lawyer's lack of progress, the men decided to hire another. "This time, we each paid $1360," Paul says, alleging, "He didn't once approach the court. Later, we heard he'd taken the $10,000 and flown to Bali."
Food was scarce, but corruption was everywhere – prison meals consisted of snake or dried pigs' blood, so Paul paid the guards for fish or rice. He paid for translators. The water was contaminated, so he paid for bottled water. And he was forced to pay the "head" of each cell a rental of $2 a day.
Money came from local friends – sometimes there was also a note from home.
"Mum was worried sick. I'd never known her like this," Paul laments. "So if a friend came to visit, I'd scribble a note. That would go out with the friend and be read out to Mum, then she'd send a note back, which would be passed through the grille to me."
Meanwhile, Paul reveals the chat around prison was that they'd be there a year, minimum. "Psychologically, that really damaged me. I'd try to prime myself and imagine this as my life. At the same time, one of the other guys was looking at ways he could kill himself."
Paul says it was a terrifying time to go through. "Hell yes, I was scared. I tried to train my brain and accept the reality. While we all had different mindsets, I knew I had to hold on to mine."
Finally, there was light hope and just a little more hell around the corner. Paul says the group's third lawyer turned out to be the biggest scammer of all. The friendly visitor claimed to be a solicitor and assured them he'd get everyone out.
"I put all my trust in him," says Paul. "He even contacted my mum to set her mind at ease – he seemed legit."
But after agreeing to fork out $7480 each, Paul says they were in for a nasty surprise when they discovered the new legal representative was allegedly the group's first lawyer – and he was holding their passports."He told me I needed to have the money to him by Monday." It was Friday. "I just did what I could. Friends threw a fundraiser together quickly, I borrowed money from a close friend, I got in touch with family. And I paid, got my passport, got out and went straight to Thailand, where I pretty much stayed in bed for two weeks."
While Paul left Cambodia without a criminal record, the effects of his shocking ordeal are ongoing and visible. Now in Napier with his mum, Paul has a cough he can't shake – something he picked up in prison and couldn't afford to have treated. He's emotionally and physically exhausted, angry and confused, and to top it off, he's broke.
"Financially, it's screwed me – all my assets were seized. I have debts to a number of friends. And I'm living with my mum and stepdad at 32 years of age."
He's grateful to be safe, but Paul is also grieving for the excitement of the high life he once led. "Counsellors are too hard to talk to because nobody really understands the things I've seen or the trauma I've been through."
He says for now, it's day by day.
"I do want to go overseas again," he concludes, "just not to Cambodia. My biggest passion is still for experiencing and being immersed in a culture. I won't let this thing ruin my future."
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