A man in a blue shirt steps in front of me blowing a whistle and waving a stick as I am cruising down the street on my motorbike. I know he wants me to pull over, but do I really have to?
No. Not really.
Generally, it is easy enough to avoid stopping for the cops in Cambodia by just acting like a dumb tourist. Look up in the sky or at some restaurant on the other side of the street. Anything to avoid making eye contact so that if they do eventually get you to stop, you can always act like you just didn’t see them. Don’t worry about their yelling as you cruise by either, they won’t ever bother to come after you. Instead, they will just focus their attention on the next unlucky tourist coming down the street because maybe he will be stupid enough to stop.
What was I doing wrong and why was I even pulled over, to begin with?
Well, it could be a number of things. On this particular day, I am not wearing my helmet and, by all rights, I did break a law and do deserve to be stopped. But c’mon, in a country where seat belts are basically nonexistent and there is nothing wrong with loading five people plus the family pig onto the back of a moto, is it really that bad to be driving without a helmet? It’s not like I was drunk or anything. The only person I am endangering is myself. Besides, the cop is just going to pocket the money for himself, anyway.
In addition to not wearing a helmet let’s talk about the other two main reasons a foreigner gets pulled over here in Cambodia:
- Driving with the headlight on during the day.
- A DWW (also known as driving while white).
Really. Check the books. They are both illegal here. Ok, ok so maybe driving while white isn’t truly illegal here, but you would think it is by the number of times foreigners get pulled over.
Not all of the cities in Cambodia are as bad as it is here in Sihanoukville. In fact, the cops here have a reputation for hassling foreigners. Whatever you are doing wrong is just the beginning, too. The first thing they will do is ask for your license as they know most foreigners don’t have a Cambodian license. They won’t accept an International Driver’s License. Yes. I know an International Driver’s License actually lists Cambodia as a country where it is valid, but don’t bother wasting your breath. I’ve had that conversation in the past and it never works out.
Today is one of those days, where I just don’t have any choice. I have to stop. I have just pulled out from a gas station and I am going too slowly to whiz on by. On top of that, I haven’t had a chance to rejoin the flow of traffic yet.
As expected, “license” is the first word out of his mouth.
“Baht, Loak. Khnyum mien. Jaam tich,” I reply pleasantly. I have just called him “sir,” and told him that I have my driver’s license, and asked him to wait one-second while I pull it out of my pocket. Already the smile has dropped from his face. He has quickly realized he will be getting very little money from me. Not only do I have a Cambodian License, but I speak Khmer as well. He is not happy.
I still know where this is going though. I wasn’t wearing my helmet and I am going to get some hassle for it. He points to my head and tells me that I wasn’t wearing a helmet. This problem, however, is easily solved by pulling $1 from my pocket and handing it to him. After that, I thank him for doing a good job and I continue on my way.
No reason to get all bent out of shape, it’s just a dollar after all. Plus, if I smile and thank him today, he most likely won’t pull me over next time for not wearing my helmet. Besides he could have started looking for more reasons to bother me if he wanted. After all, my bike is unregistered and has no tail lights; all things that he could have used to ask me for more money. As it is, everybody leaves happy from our little transaction. He got a buck and I got to continue on my way in a matter of seconds.
What to do if you don’t speak the language or have a local driver’s license?
Well, the process is the same; it just costs a little more. The first and most important thing to remember is to stay calm and smile. Always be polite and never start arguing with the cop (this is a good rule of thumb in any country). You should always keep a couple of bucks separate from the rest of your money for an occasion just like this.
Pull out a couple of bucks and hand him two of them while apologizing profusely. Don’t worry about feeling strange, bribing cops is the norm here. If he acts like that is not enough, just pretend like you don’t have anymore. At the most give him $3, but whatever you do, don’t ever pull out a large wad of cash. Then the price will just go up. One of the most important things to remember is to act like you have done this a hundred times already. Don’t look confused or ask how much you have to pay. All bad ideas.
I know it might seem a little scary at first and it’s easy to get flustered or nervous. I see it all the time. Backpackers getting angry and hostile with the cops hoping that it will help or getting bilked out of $20 or even $40. Now you know better, though. You can handle the situation with ease. Next time you’re hassled by the cops in Cambodia, just stand your ground, keep smiling, and happily hand over a couple of bucks.
You’ll be an old hand in no time.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Colloquial Cambodia – The Complete Course For Beginners: If the idea of talking yourself out of a traffic infraction (or giving away more money) in the local language is appealing to you, too, order yourself this step-by-step language book for beginners. You can also get it in an audio version on CD’s, if that’s more your learning style.
SCOTTeVEST Performance Shirt with 3 Pockets: Remember that thing I was saying about not pulling out a whole wad of cash? This performance shirt has a nifty shoulder pocket you could easily store a few dollars in for easy-access. It’s also super lightweight and moisture wicking, making it perfect for the Cambodian climate.
Phone Security Leash & Protective Case: This nifty gadget is perfect for travel (especially when you’re zipping around on moto). It ensures your phone never leaves your side (bonus: never mind theft, it’s a lot harder to lose!) and also comes with a protective case because, you know, you can never be too careful with your smartphone, and losing it while traveling is a total bummer.