Corruption in the Streets

Location: Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Today, a few friends and I rented mopeds to drive around the city. It was $8 per bike and $1 per liter of gas. I shared a moped with Cody. (Sidenote: in Cambodia, only the driver is legally obligated to wear a helmet.) We weren’t worried about learning the road rules; there really aren’t any in Cambodia. You kind of just drive wherever you feel like. There is no wrong side of the road. I was grabbing a couple of $2 takeaway sandwiches when one of the workers at the restaurant noticed the bike and warned me about driving around the city center. He told me Sihanoukville’s police scam tourists, pulling them over and fining them for not having an international driver’s license.

So I guess it was inevitable that when we made our way around the large roundabout with golden lion statues in the middle of city center, a cop stepped out in front of our bike and waved us to the side of the road. Cody and the other driver were pulled to the side and I saw the policeman gesture for their driver’s licenses. The cop then told them, as we had been warned, that they were driving illegally without international licenses and he would have to take them to the police station. However, if they gave him a bit of “friendly money” he would let them go and we could drive freely around the city. Cody told him that he could take him to court if he wanted, he wasn’t getting any money. After that blunt reply, the policeman let us go. We got on our bikes and rode off.

We were pulled over again less than an hour later. Cody and I had lost our friends and our map amidst the maze of city streets. As we pulled up on the main road, we saw Westerners being stopped by a man in a blue police outfit. He waved us down as well and we were taken to the side of the road, where a group of ten or so cops and military men were standing around, waving walkie talkies aimlessly and shaking people down. I looked around us; there was a group of several Western men opening their wallets, handing cash to one of the military men. I wondered if they knew it was a scam.

When the policeman told us we had to pay a fine for driving without a license, I asked how much it was. He told us it was however much we wanted. I told him no and Cody repeated that we had no money. The cop waved over a second man to try to intimidate us. However, he was just as  slack and barely looked at us as he asked us to pay the fine. He gestured at us, bored, and told us we’d have to walk the moped back to the rental company if we didn’t pay. Then a third policeman came over. He was a large man and he stared at us sternly and told us that we should pay the fine, whatever amount we wanted. We kept repeating “no money, no money.” Finally, they just let us ride off. I guess we weren’t worth the trouble.

After a long day of riding mopeds under the hot sun we decided to grab a big dinner. We stopped by the dreaded Sihanoukville beachfront again; the $3 barbecue chicken was too cheap and delicious to pass up. As we finished and began walking back down the side street, I felt a small hand wrap around my waist. I looked down to find the same little girl from the night before. She sipped a cup of Coca Cola this time and pulled on my arm, asked where I was eating dinner. I told her I was leaving and she said I was her best friend, held out her tiny palm, and commanded I give her a present. Her big brown eyes stared up at me, her gap teeth showing through her smirk. I couldn’t tell if she was naturally this precocious or if it was the caffeine diet. 

Finally, I reached into my backpack and pulled out a little threaded ninja doll that one of my friends had given me for the Christmas before last. I’d carried it all over Australia and now Cambodia. But even knowing she’d probably throw it away, I felt like this little girl, by some minuscule chance, could benefit from this token more than me. I handed it to her and she studied it. She held it tight in her palm, then turned to my friend and asked her for a present as well. I laughed - somewhere inside of me I’d expected that. My friend handed her a piece of durian to eat. When we waved her goodbye, we saw her sauntering back to her fellow urchins, carrying her gifts triumphantly above her head.

It’s not hard to say that kids selling stuff on the street is wrong. It’s not hard to say that buying the stuff they sell encourages the behavior. It’s not hard to say these street urchins are being used and abused by their bosses. But it’s hard to say how to fix this situation, how to send kids to school who have nothing and nobody to help them.