The Bureaucrat

Nov 8, 2015Travel, Writing

He peered up at me from his little hole and hissed, “Tip”.
Again, this time a little louder and a lot more snake-like.

The penny dropped.

We had just spent the best part of an hour trying to get through the diplomatic rigmarole that is Siem Reap Airport and had reached the final stage. Second world countries seem to rely a lot on public servant jobs to support the population and there appeared to be a lot of people feinting importance and busy doing nothing. Doing nothing is perhaps a touch extreme. Everyone had a job, they were all tiny links in a very long chain. What made this particular chain special was that the entire process happened before your eyes in one cavernous room. The airport terminal was part way through construction and had no interior dividing walls. All the usual sections were set out in a sort of open plan design. You were guided slowly through the different areas whilst constantly being taunted by your bags doing the rounds on the carousel on the other side of the room. Being reunited with your bags was the reward for completing all the necessary steps.


Firstly there were two men in white smocks with infrared sensor guns. They were shooting stunned passengers in the forehead as they completed their first pile of official documents and queued to get to the next section. The guns seemed harmless and, according to what was stamped on them, they were for measuring temperature. Even so, there was very little explanation. They just shot you mercilessly in the head and took the form labeled: “Health.”
We were then directed to a long line of tables where visa applications had to be filled in. We were travelling with two small children. One of them still had to gain her gold star in toilet training and chose that moment to relieve herself, proclaiming at the same time that she needed to go. Her timing, as per usual, was far from immaculate. Unfortunately there was an ongoing disparity between her ability to judge when best to announce her physical needs and the actually deed. This unexpected interruption served to prolong our stay in diplomatic purgatory. This did allow me to temporarily enter the country as the rest room facilities were on the other side of passport control. Whilst there I seriously considered not returning to finish my diplomatic obligations but decided against it. Being a responsible parent outweighed all other options.


Following the Health Department there was a cash machine dispensing the funds required to obtain a visa. An overweight gentleman in front of me had just completed making his transaction. I asked him if it issued US dollars. His reply, “Yeah, they accept this everywhere.” I silently agreed and wished that his American pride would swallow itself up. How many a countries in the world are living in poverty because of the might of the Greenback? We were in one of them. I can’t understand why a country would rather use a foreign currency than its own. This is the case in Cambodia where most transactions start in American dollars and end with their own national currency being used as small change. It would take several hours before I even managed to lay eyes on the Cambodian Riel.

The rest of the process, although time-consuming, went fairly smoothly. Filling in the necessary forms took the most time as there were a lot of them. Another downside to having young children, apart from unexpected visits to the ablutions, is the explosion in the number of official forms that need to be filled in. Schools should concentrate solely on reading and writing before teaching anything else. This would enable children to fulfil their own immigration responsibilities at a far earlier age. After succumbing to writers cramp there was a long counter with at least ten pen-pushers behind it. Your documents, forms, money and photos want in one end and came out five minutes later at the other. It was reasonably efficient and I was quite impressed by the end result in my passport. Not all foreign visas are processed before your eyes.

The man peering up at me from the bowels of his castle shaped booth at passport control was very insistent. I looked around the room. It was surprisingly deserted and we were practically the last ones in the hall. Actually, I was the last one there. My family had been ushered through ahead of me and onwards to the hallowed baggage carousel. I was left alone with the responsibility to transport our documents safely into the country. I could see my family from where I was standing but could no longer consult my partner concerning the best course of action. I wasn’t sure if I should just pay the guy. I wondered if he was acting on his own or collecting for his colleagues. I was a bit confused. It felt like an insult. It felt rude.

Tip or Bribe?

Before the trip I had consulted various websites to find out about the visa requirements for Cambodia. There had been comments that bribing officials was commonplace and a necessary evil at the Thai border. Everything seemed above board at the airports from what I had read so I was surprised to be confronted by it. Jet lag had also taken its toll which didn’t help matters. My head was swimming.

I scanned the room once more and decided that he was acting out of his own self interest and not for the greater good. He held firmly onto our passports with both hands and I wondered what would happen if I refused. They certainly weren’t heading my way without an exchange of money. I felt beaten and opened my wallet. I had no idea what to give him. I am not experienced at the finer points of bribery. I decided to try and get away with the minimum. I pulled out the smallest bill I could find, a five dollar note, and handed it down to him. Somewhere in my preparations I had read that amount was the equivalent of a weeks wages. He looked disappointed but returned the documents to me with a half-smile. The interaction was broken by the sudden approach of another public servant who was collecting paper stubs. I watched him quickly slip the money in his pocket with one hand and deftly hand a bunch of stubs to his colleague with the other. I walked off to join my family.
Knowing the violent history of the country I was concerned by what he had perhaps done earlier in his life. Somehow it felt as if he was still getting away with something he shouldn’t be getting away with. Perhaps I am wrong, it is a poor country and people will resort to all kinds of things to get by. However, it wasn’t the kind of welcome I had hoped for. Thankfully it was the lowest point in an altogether positive experience in Cambodia. Bad eggs are everywhere but you can’t let them ruin it for the rest.

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