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Day 53 – Let’s Make A Deal (Cambodian Police Edition)

April 25, 2010

Dateline:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the past three days I’ve broken more traffic laws than I had previously in my entire life, all aided and abetted by the local Khmer drivers.  I’ve run red lights, gone the wrong way down one-way streets, made left turns on red, ridden through stop signs, crossed double-yellow lines, and gone into the left lane into oncoming traffic.  So it’s ironic that it’s the one traffic law that I DON’T break that gets me into trouble.

Today, I was sick as a dog.  Without going into details, let’s just say my tummy and whatever was inside decided they didn’t like each other and decided to hold a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam except with the spilling of more bodily fluids.  It was not pretty.  Between salvos, I was able to drag myself out to get some medicine and e-mail the latest entries to my editor.

On the way home I was making a right onto a busy road when a cop jumped out in front of me waving his hands.  Like a damn fool American, I stopped and followed his cues to park.  Then the games began.

“You have license?” another cop said in English, not even bothering with Khmer.

MISTAKE:  “Yes,” I said, and I handed him my license.

I should not have given him my license.  If you ever get pulled over in Cambodia, pretend you don’t have your license.  Say you left it in your room.  Pretend like your English is not so good.  Whatever you do, do not give them your license.

“Where you from?” he said.

MISTAKE:  “California,” I replied.  For the love of GAWD do not let them know you are from the land of the Golden Mountain that is America.  Do not put dollar signs in their eyes.  Do not, under any circumstances, give them the impression that you have money.

“Ah, U.S.A.” he said.  “You must Cambodian license.  You Cambodia.  You have Cambodia license.  Go to police office, pay $50.”

Now, everyone I’d talked to had said that cops usually were only looking for $1 or $2 and they’d let you go.  You have to, however, play the game.  You have to dance.  You have to put a little tease into it, shake your hips, bare your shoulder a little, then give it up.  They won’t respect you otherwise.

“I don’t want to go to the police office.  I want to work with you.  You seem like a nice man.  What is the fine if I pay you?  One dollar?”

He laughed.  MISTAKE:  I’d played it too quick.  I was feverish and just wanted to lie down and sleep.  I’d gone from a wink and a smile straight to taking my top off.  Mr. Officer wanted to play it out a bit more.

“No no no.” He pulled out a rule book written in all Khmer and pointed to a subsection that had, written next to it in the margin, $50.  “Fifty dollars,” he insisted.

“I don’t have $50.  I can’t afford that,” I said.  I wanted to make him a participant in my Civil War recreation.  I wanted to puke on his shoes.

“Five dollars,” I said in desperation.  I really needed to lie down.  I really needed my health back.  This ass wanted to play games.

He pushed.  I pulled.  He pretended to go to his pad.  He pointed at pedestrians who’d been roped in by another officer and said, “$20, everyone, $20.”

“Fine,” I said, getting desperate.  “$10.”  I was sweating now and not because of the heat.  I needed an electric fan.  I needed to recline.  I needed this punk police to get off my case and just let me go.”

Still no.  He proposed $15.

I said, “That’s all the money I have!  I need to buy medicine.  I’m sick.  I need medicine.  If you want $15, I’ll have to go to ATM.  You and I don’t want to do that.”  I think I was getting whiny.  It was becoming undignified.

He looked at another cop.  They conversed.  The other cop nodded.

“Okay.  $10.”

I forked over the money.  As I got back on the bike and put on my helmet, the other cop walked up to me, smiled, and shook my hand.  I think I just made their day.  Shit, with that $10, I may have made their week.

At that moment, a larger, fat cop jumped out into the street in front of a motorbike that had just run a red light.  The motorbike slammed on its breaks, nearly hitting the officer.  The officer danced side to side, trying to block the biker’s path.  The rider, swung his wheel hard to the ride, made a U-turn, and raced off.  No ticket.  No bride.  No chase.  No.  Freakin’.  Way.

MISTAKE:  I stopped for the cop.  NEVER stop for a Cambodian cop unless they have their guns drawn and are six deep on a roadblock.  Run.  U-turn.  Dodge.  Play stupid.  The one rule you can’t afford to follow is the one your law abiding butt is going to have the hardest time overcoming.  Trust me on this.

Also, it helps if you’re clearheaded and healthy.  I will pretend that this would have all come out differently if I’d been less engaged.


No pictures today.  One of the unspoken rules of travel writing is that when you don’t eat solid foods for over 36 hours you’re allowed to skip picture taking duties.  If you’re lucky, I’ll feel better tomorrow and I’ll be back to my 5,000 word, 100 picture self.  Till then.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2010 8:50 pm


    Thoroughly enjoying your updates, keep’em up! After, you know, you get yourself fed.

    • April 29, 2010 5:59 am

      My stomach has achieved solid food. I am on the road to recovery. A couple days of diving helped, actually. More on those two days to come.

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