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Overseas Khmer Perspectives

By Ronnie Yimsut

Funny things happen to my young son, Derrick, and me while were on our way into (and out of) Cambodia during a recent trip. On the way through PP Airport last November 10, while submitting our visa applications for the entry into Cambodia, the officer in charge demanded, "visa fee" (at $20 each person) from us. I informed the ignorance officer in charge that "by law, overseas Khmer no longer have to pay "visa fee" to enter this country." The stoic faced officer, still holding our U.S. passports, then insisted us paying him service fee of $5 each. I asked for our stamped passports and simply walk away toward the Immigration section where our passports got another stamp.

The immigrant officer, smiling broadly, asked (begged) politely for some "tea money." I happily gave him $5 and went to collect our two checked bags. My wife and daughter were standing there waiting for us, wondering if we get into any sort of trouble with Cambodia's finest at this airport. Both of them, who arrived in PP a week before us, have had a hard time with the officers and were forced to spend an unspecified amount of money in order to get out of the airport. It was a sad, ugly, pathetic, and shameful situation that still plagued Cambodia's fledgling tourism industry. This sort of thing is still a routine in Cambodia, I gathered (one for HE Lay Prohas!).

The rest of Cambodia was absolutely wonderful--with the exception of the few occasions when one had to deal with Cambodian's official-for anything at all. Want anything done? Show them the money! It got done fast. If not, be prepared to sweat for a long while. Still, my family and I had a great time in Cambodia where we spent the next 7 weeks visiting friends and relatives all over the country, eating great local meals, going to temples, festivals, beach resorts, and even one too many wedding and funeral ceremony. Cambodia in general, despite all the sad reporting, is still a wonderful place to visit for all tourists. My two young kids even spent time attending a local school in Siem Reap, where we based, and learned to read and write our native Khmer language.

When my famous/celebrity cousin, who works as a reporter for VOA (Voice of America), and her daughter arrived for a visit with us after so many years away from her native Siem Reap, they too got into some situations with the visa and immigrant officials at the airport. More money (unnecessarily) exchanged hand before they were allowed to "escape" from the airport. They are still bitter about that unpleasant experience and they are no longer wish to return to Cambodia again, at least for a long, long while. This cousin was fed up enough that she wrote a nice, long complain letter to HE Lay Prohas, the new Minister of Tourism. Some actions were later taken by an official (the Captain of Visa Section) as a response, so that he "would not get into trouble." I thought his entire department was already in serious trouble when it decided to mess with this VOA reporter cousin of mine. She've got connection!

On the way back home to America via BKK, I decided to take my family through Poi Pet border crossing. I figured that we would get to see more of Cambodia's beautiful countryside, showed my kids the town where their mother grew up in (Poi Pet), while we saved a bunch on airfares at the same time. I did this route with my wife the previous year (in April 2003), when we entered Cambodia and stayed over-night in Poi Pet. It was a pleasant trip then, except at the border crossing where the officials wanted way too much money to allow us entry into our very own country! We had to pay then or else…

Anyway, this time this dusty road from Siem Reap to Poi Pet was in absolutely horrible shape. It took us almost five hours on a bouncing and overloaded bus (we were put on the back seat) just to get to the border. I would never, ever recommend this bus trip, along this awful route, to any of my brother or sister for sure. If they insisted, then they do it at their own peril. Best to keep Bangkok Airways well fed.

Yet, this rough and tumble land trip was nothing compare to the warm reception we received at the border crossing by Cambodia's finest. First, one officer demanded 200 baht just for him to look at our passport and stamp our exit visa. I flatly refused his demand with a disgusted face. After a lengthy wait in line with other foreign tourists in the hot and stuffy little office, a "visa pimp" simply cut in front of us and hand a huge bundle of passport for the officer to clear. A much longer waiting period ensued, until this money making deal is done. Ok, I can take this sort of thing one time and one time only, but when the second "visa pimp" appeared, I just lost it. I grabbed the pimp by his collar and shoveled him away from the line, cursing and sending him to the back of the line like everyone else. Cheer and applaud erupted behind me. Indeed, I was pissed and I could have gone whacko too! I remained cool, mostly.

After I cleared all four of our passports (and we were photographed yet again), we walked toward the Thai's immigrant office to get our entry visa into Thailand. Midway there, a Khmer police officer rushed toward us and stopped us from crossing to the Thai's side of the border. Damn! We were so close to our escape route. He bluntly demanded 200 baht from us or else. I also politely refused his demand. He then started to ruffle through our belonging as he continued to demand 200 baht payment in order to stop his search, which he claimed as "his duty" when I questioned him. I thought it was the duty of the custom officer to do the search, certainly not the border guard? It was only when I wrote down his Khmer nametag (Officer Hun Vanny) and threatened to report him that he backed off and walked away, disappointed if I may add. The two local kids with a pull cart, who assisted us with the moving of our belonging, were laughing their head off. It was the first time that they see someone who managed to get away from "these border vultures" (in their own words) without a pay off. They were simply amazed and so did I. That officer, one of many, could have messed me up real good. I told my wife, who was speechless and still in shock, to pay them off next time when she enters Cambodia alone. Save the extra excitement for me instead, if there is a next time.

My message (suggestion) to those in charge is to: 1) Teach these officials Cambodian laws and rules of engagement with just a touch of manner and a pinch of morality, 2) Pay just a few of the officers a decent salary (instead of too many officers doing nothing but harassing people), and 3) Fix the damn road between Poi Pet and Siem Reap with the illicit money collected by these officers. These three simple suggestions, if it can be effectively work out, ought to help improved Cambodia's fledgling tourism industry a great deal. I personally will support these initiatives!

And we were barely missed the earth quake and tsunami that hit Thailand's Puket beach. Another story.

Ronnie Yimsut

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