Siem Reap, Cambodia
If you have been brought up in the Western world, you expect boys and girls in blue to be law-abiding on the outside and law-flaunting on the inside. At least they are subtle about it – an attitude that some southeast Asian countries are slow to adopt.
My sidestep with the latter side of the law occurred in Cambodia, home to the murderous Pol Pot and equally murderous green curry. I am still shedding taste buds three months later.
I had been dodging land mines and poverty-stricken Cambodian kids flogging their wares in Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat and a plethora of American tourists bleating such syllogisms as, “Where’s the Ben & Jerry’s, Gerald?”
I have utter respect for the Cambodian ability to rip tourists off without so much as batting an eyelid. One group of young entrepreneurial rip-off merchants had even built a fake ticket checkpost 500 meters down the road from the real article.
I watched as they fleeced half a dozen tourists on scooters with their posts scrawled “Angkor ticket” in Khmer. At least, that is what I think they said. For all I know they might have read, “You’ve been had, you goose!” before the local petrol company, Solimex, mowed them down and shooed them away.
This company was the genuine article – in legal, commercial extortion. Twenty American dollars bought you a day pass to Angkor. Most of that amount tumbles into the company’s coffers. The crowds that attend the temples of Angkor annually are akin in number to the ancient Chinese battle strategem of the Human Wave. Where is UNESCO when you need it?
Cambodia is in such a state of economic and social disrepair that I think vacuuming cash en masse from the collective tourist’s hip-pocket can only be a fair result, considering the enormous disparities between this beautiful country and the commercial flamboyance of the West.
Anyway, as I gaped at the awesome majesty of the temples of Angkor, I was greeted with the aforementioned clandestine corruption of the Cambodian constabulary. Returning my scooter in Siem Reap with its soothing two-stroke symphony of – ring, ding, ding, ding, ring – I turned right onto yet another traffic congested avenue.
PHWEEEP! “Over here, please, sir!”
I was hauled over by a Cambodian policeman in his ohhhh-so-sexy, overly-tight uniform, standing with the local posse of males, who had just concluded their work at the markets. That is to say, the WOMEN had finished the work, whilst the men had stood around smoking cigarettes, debating the finer points of the English Premier League. I could understand what they were saying, as there is, evidently, no Khmer translation for Manchester United or Posh ‘n’ Becks.
“F…Five dollars,” he barked in his stammering English.
To this verbose articulate argument, I had no choice but to rebut equally as eloquently. “What?”
He repeated the call, to which I quoted the 25th letter of the alphabet.
“Umm…one way,” he yelled making linear motions with his arm. As the sign was pointing the wrong way (some thoughtful citizen had kindly bent it via ramming a scooter into it), and was written in Khmer, I protested. “Where’s the sign?”
He gesticulated violently down the road to the spaghettified one-way sign.
“I can’t understand that,” I retorted, to which he repeated his worldly demands, “F…Five dollars,” to which I reiterated my inability to comprehend the Cambodian dialect.
Then he said, “Four dollars.” I stared at him quizzically and again asked him, “Why?”
“Umm…two person bike,” he responded and pointed an accusatory index finger at my rental scooter with its two seats.
“And?” I was more flummoxed by the flexibility of Cambodian laws than his flimsy arguments. “I’m only one person, sir.” I raised one index finger in response to his still pointing at the scooter.
“Ummm…two dollar per person…two person bike…four dollars.” He smiled proudly at his brilliant display of English and quantum mathematics. In fairness, he was trying hard to speak English, if only to rip me off, bless his cotton socks.
“I’m still only one person,” I exclaimed, looking at him incredulously.
“Ummm…two dollar, then,” he relented, surprisingly not showing much concern at bargaining on fines.
“All I have is one U.S. dollar,” I replied sheepishly, to which he nodded acquiescence and took it. Of course, the cash went straight into his pocket. But I was not entirely finished. “Receipt, for ticket?” I gestured to him.
PHWEEP! “Over here…now!” The cop had moved on to fry more fish, this time a Japanese man who forked over five U.S. dollars so fast I had no time to intervene and explain the need to bargain over EVERYTHING in Cambodia.
Back at the scooter rental store, I related the story to the kind lady behind the card table that served as a counter. She smiled knowledgeably and said, “You have been tricked, Mister. The real Cambodian policemen mainly stay at the station unless Hun Sen (the Cambodian Prime Minister) is in Siem Reap. He was not a real policeman.”
I stared at her. “His uniform looked pretty real to me!” I exclaimed.
Again she smiled. “Even you could walk down to the police station and buy a policeman’s uniform from the washerwoman for 50 U.S. cents.”
I stood in stunned silence, before letting out a raucous snort of laughter. I had strolled away, thinking I had won the duel. Meanwhile he had repaid his investment and earned an equal profit from me alone. Like I said, I have nothing but respect for the wheelers and dealers of Cambodia.