One thing I often think to myself when I'm away in a new place is that I wish someone had told me this or advised me of that, that I was aware of something, or had considered something else. When I write for Real Gap I try to remember what went through my head at a certain point in time and be that little angel of wisdom on travellers' shoulders around the world. Perhaps one of the more confronting times in Asia was crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia...
My girlfriend and I bought what we thought were ridiculously cheap bus tickets from Bangkok to Siem Reap (Cambodia's fourth biggest city and home to the wonderful Angkor temples) compared to tickets to and from other places. We paid about 350 baht each (£7.30) for the journey leaving at 9am. The stall that sold us the tickets was typically Thai, there was a lingering concern that our lift wouldn't turn up which wasn't helped by the fact it was 45 minutes late but it all worked out in the end! Anyway, 9:45 came around and the mini-bus finally turned up. Unlike a previous journey there were actually enough seats for it's passengers, another bonus! Anyway, the driver informed us of his plan - to stop at Poipet, the border town, where we would grab a visa and cross over into The Land of Smiles and be picked up by another service to take us to Siem Reap. All good, or so we thought...
To cut down on the rhetoric, the reason the service between Bangkok and Siem Reap is so comparatively cheap is simply to get passengers on board the bus so they can be ripped off at Poipet through illicit means. The seemingly innocuous, even somewhat caring question, 'do you have a visa or do you need help getting one?' isn't all it seems! The operators of the bus service have mates in the Cambodian consulate in Poipet, and their 'help' in getting hold of a visa will cost you something to the tune of $40 (£26), approximately double the official cost.Alas, I digress. So at Poipet, having been asked this question and my girlfriend and I replying with an innocent, 'no,' the rest of the passengers and us were given an application form. Now, for those who haven't been to Cambodia, it's not a long process, you fill out a form and five minutes later a nice green visa sits in your passport - there isn't a background check and it's all a bit, well... third world! Upon completing the form and handing it in, they asked us for $40. I refused, saying the real price was $20. This is how the conversation went;
Thai operator: No, $40.
Ollie: Mate, I checked this out, I know it's $20
Thai operator: No, $40 here. You wrong. You buy visa here. $40
Ollie: Look, if you want to just take us to the border I'll get one there. I'm not giving you $40 because I know it's $20
(it's all getting increasingly agitated)
Thai operator: You go to border you take long time. Bus will not wait for you and taxi to Siem Reap expensive! Get visa here, $40, or no bus.
Ollie: No, take me to the border!
Thai operator: Bus no wait, you take hours! Bus no wait you be left behind! Buy visa here, $40!
So eventually this guy agreed to take us not to the border like we wanted, but the consulate. He wasn't happy! The operators kept threatening us, saying they'd leave us behind if we weren't waiting on the other side within an hour. It was all a bit dodgy, kind of scary to be honest! In the consulate, one of the guys who had collected all the other passenger's passports and forms literally walked straight in, went behind the desk and started stamping and signing them himself. The bloke who was already there didn't blink an eyelid, and following a short chat with the guy I argued with, called us over and said with no glimmer of indignation, 'visa cost $35.' Unbelievable. They didn't even try and hide the blatant corruption.
My girlfriend and I gave in, agreeing to pay the $35, because quite frankly, the guys were so assertive and adamant that I was wrong, even making it feel like I was personally insulting them by refusing to pay up that I lost my nerve. We didn't want to be stuck in Poipet, so we paid this charming fellow his $35 and got on our way.
Lo and behold, at the border there was a massive queue. Locals with passports filled with cash went to the front and got waved through straight away, again, without trying to hide it. I was thinking to myself that they must be having a field day, with all these Western chumps laden with backpacks waiting under the baking sun having just paid double what they should have. Having finally gotten through, the whole process taking well over our hour (probably two or three), my girlfriend and I were resigned to finding another bus. That was when the true extent of the scam really struck home. It didn't matter how much you paid, you all got the same waiting time. The bus was waiting for us, and all the other passengers behind. All their threats were empty, but nobody called their bluff! The guys who got to the front of the queue with cash in passports were simply buying the visas for the official price, giving a small tip to the official, and keeping the rest before handing them back to their respective owners and pointing them to the same queue that everyone else was waiting in!
When all this clicked, I thought to myself, 'Ollie, I wish I knew that before I rocked up...'
My problem with it all, is not that I paid $15 extra. In one of my earlier Real Gap entries I talked about how I believe that when negotiating, foreigners should grind down local businessmen or women to their lowest price knowing that they hold the ultimate advantage of being able to walk away to hot food and a warm bed, while locals feel compelled to agree to an unfair deal based on the fact that they live their lives close to poverty. My problem is that by running this scam, local companies are completely undermining the attempts of the Cambodian government to develop its international profile. How can a country be taken seriously when such blatant corruption of an official government department exists? How can someone involved in a bus company be allowed to walk behind an official desk and have free access to its visas? I understand that like many market-stall owners these people are living perilously close to poverty, many in so, but the difference is; one is committing criminal activity and undermining the whole state, while the other is not.
The BBC recently released the results of an international survey on the amount of bribes paid. The international average is that 27% of people have paid a bribe to a public body. Of the 95 countries polled, Cambodia came 85th. 57% of its inhabitants have paid a bribe - I imagine the rate for tourists is closer to 90%. This is unacceptable, and if the government is keen to enhance its reputation as a developing, vibrant country these issues need to be sorted!
Please, if you agree or disagree, or have experienced something similar or dissimilar - leave a comment below! I'm always keen to have my opinion tested and horizons broadened!