Since Jim, from time to time, edits documents for Transparency International, we discuss the matter of corruption more frequently. Based on the texts he edits, he tells me about the forms of corruption, where and how it takes place, and what can be and is been done against it. And of course, we discuss the actions we, as citizens who come across corruption, can undertake. Due to digital technology the possibilities to report corruption have increased tremendously, as well as reducing the chances you are caught in a situation from which there is no way out.
Even equipped with this knowledge, in the first two days in Cambodia we experienced in a corruption case on three occasions, every time caused through a situation of chaos, unclear or deviating rules.
For Cambodia you can get a visa at the airport or online. We had chosen for the first option. Of course there are a numerous papers to fill out. Then there is a queue to hand in your your passport. After which your passport and papers are checked by six officials, all sitting in a row. Once this process is completed, another two officials shout out the names, for the tourists to pick up their passport and pay.
Even though it all seems very organised, there is no particular order in which visa requests are dealt with. If you are lucky, you get your passport back in less than ten minutes, while others have to wait for half an hour or longer, like Jim. You stand in a pushing crowd of tired and confused tourists, all eager to get out as soon as possible.
Once called upon to collect your passport, you have to pay. But which of the amounts advertised on the wall? US$30 for an ordinary visa, or US$35 for the tourist visa you requested.
Of course, once in front, the sensible thing to do is check the visa in the passport where the price is mentioned. But do you really dare to take all that time, while you feel the eagerness to leave all these sweaty fellow travellers who are breathing in your neck? A perfect opportunity for officials to charge some of the travelers US$35, while they in fact get an ordinary visa that cost only 30.
I wonder if they ever hand out a tourist visa at all. All officials know this, and allow it to happen. While waiting on Jim, I heard many tourists compare notes and complain, and saw one guy, pointing out, to a tourist police officer, an official that had ripped him off and claiming his change. This was given without any discussion or delay. Case closed.
The two other cases were at tourist attractions. In one place, after climbing all the stairs to visit the pagoda, we were approached by a security guard and asked to pay for a ticket. The ticket office is almost invisible back down the bottom of the hill. Well, it was only a dollar per person, so many will not go down for that. Like the girls in front of us, who, without giving any particular thought, handed over two dollars, without receiving a ticket. Is that corruption? Or a nice gesture to help tourists, and a way to ensure that the money reaches the people, instead of an even more corrupt government?
Later that afternoon, at the royal palace, we were suddenly asked to pay in riel, the official currency of Cambodia, instead of US dollars. The exchange rate is 1 US dollar to 4000 Riel. So far everywhere, in tourist pubs, stalls of street markets and tourist attractions, we could pay in dollars and get the small change back in riel. A very normal and accepted practice, encouraged by the fact that ATM’s all give the opportunity to withdraw US dollars and most prices are advertised in US dollars.
It came as quite surprise then that we were told we had to pay in dollars. And were told that in this case you were not getting your change back. The price was conveniently set at 25,000 Riel (6.25 US Dollar) per person.
So for two people we had to pay US$13, meaning only a surcharge of fifty US cents per couple. Peanuts you could say. However, considering the amount of visitors, this might end up in a lot of peanuts. Or am I now being too paranoid?
Corruption happens all around us, every day, all over the world and at a much larger scale than the few instances just described. So I have been wondering, why does it seem to bother me, especially since it concerns such small amounts.
I think what bothers me most is the openness and scale in which the corruption in Cambodia takes place. Just before writing this, Jim was asked by a police officer if he wanted to buy his police badge for US$20. How desperate is that guy? Or will it be easy for him to explain to his boss that he needs another badge? Or was it a catch? Was his colleague watching from a discreet distance ready to pounce and demand even more money on the threat of arrest?
Consulting the pages of Transparency International, confirms my suspicion. It seems that Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the region. Of course, as a tourist, you could also think of all the families that desperately need the extra money that is earned. Because like us, they will need to pay their bribes, for example to get treatment in a hospital, a permit for construction work, or any business activity they want to undertake.
But then, I also see and smell the rubbish on the streets and think that, in relation to provision of basic services for example, there is still a lot of room for improvement. And at the end of the day, the poor and those who have less will lose even more.
Furthermore, it makes me feel uncomfortable to be taken by surprise like this, and I feel that we as travelers, maintain the status quo, together with the Cambodians. And the worst, just by being confronted so openly with the phenomenon, something which I hadn’t come across since we lived in Angola about ten years ago, it is worrying and uncomfortable to realise that even without directly noticing it, we all contribute on a daily basis to corruption, just buying daily consumer goods like petrol, cigarettes and alcohol, or, in the case of the USA, guns. Even paying taxes contributes to corruption as even countries buy favours to protect their industries, or allow an elite to get away without paying tax.
I’m not sure how to solve corruption while travelling. I’ve written to Transparency International to see if they have any advice, and I’ll update this post when I get a reply.