Thursday, January 11, 2007

Christmas in Cambodia (Scene 1)



(Scene 1, Officer Wife-Beater)

Fishing villages and shrimp farms cling to a narrowing slice of land as Highway 318 winds East from Bangkok, until the looming hills on our left pinch off the beach entirely and all that is left of Thailand is a parking lot on a bluff over the sea. Touts jog to the Minibus, pressing themselves to the windows when they see our faces – “Hello, Where You Go My Friend? Tonight Pussy Fuck!”

We walk to the border post. The Cambodian immigration officer is wearing a wife-beater, sweating in his bare concrete office. I put $40 on the desk. The official visa fee is 20 American dollars.

“For both of us.”

“No.” he says. “You pay baht. 1000 baht.” He wants the equivalent of $27.

“$20.” I say, smiling. “$20 dollars at Siem Reap. $20 at Phnom Penh, $20 at Poipet, $20 here.”

“You pay 1000 Thai baht each,” he flatly replies.

“Here,” I say. “Dollars for you.”

“You pay 1000 baht each,” he answers. “No passport photo? 100 baht ($2.70) more.”


“OK, you go. Outside. You go.”

We go outside and wait, wondering if it will cost us 1000 baht to see our passports again, but in ten minutes Officer Wife-Beater summons us back into his stuffy office.

“$20 and 100 baht from each of you and 100 baht for no photo.”

We hand over the money and Officer Wife-Beater instantly becomes more friendly.

“Why do you come here?” he asks.

“We work for a newspaper in America,” says Ryan, stretching the truth. “We come to write an article about tourism in Cambodia.”

“For the New York Times,” I add, lying through my teeth, because I’m still salty about paying extra money and want to make this guy think his blatant corruption just ruined a chance at big publicity.

Somehow the bluff seems to work, because Officer Wife-Beater leans over the desk and begins to speak in earnest tones. No one else is waiting in the visa line.

“You want to understand Cambodia?” he asks. “Do you understand Cambodian politics? Corruption, this is one thing you must understand. Yes, the visa fee is $20. But my salary is only $30 a month. And for this office, for my travel, when I go back to Phnom Penh, all this money, I must pay. From the government, nothing. So an extra 100 baht is money for me, you understand? Money for my family.”

He stands to shake our hands. “Please enjoy your stay in my country. When you come back, put 900 baht in your passport and give it straight to me. No problem.”

He is still standing as we walk through the gauntlet of begging children and enter Cambodia.

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