How to get from Pleiku to Banlung for only $1135

(If you want a sleeping, eating, doing report about Pleiku, check out my Pleiku page)

I have lived in Cambodia a short while now and there are many things that I understand in the abstract but of which I have not experienced enough to fully understand practically. One is corruption. Statistics get thrown around and I have pushed some dollar bills at Phnom Penh traffic cops, but what does corruption look like?

I still don’t know, but my most recent experience let me see at least a part of how it manifests itself in Northeastern Cambodia (I can hear the “uh-oh”s coming from Madison right now. Don’t worry, this story is not as exciting as you think it will be).

So it was about mid-day. I was finishing a Banlung-Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh City-Pleiku-Banlung trip. I had just one leg to go, the stretch from Le Thanh, the Vietnamese town that sits just at the Cambodian border, to my apartment in Banlung. It had never been hard to find a seat in a vehicle heading across the border before, but today it was. Eventually I was directed towards a young (18-ish), attractive Cambodian girl (from now on known as “Big Sister”). She was taking a van to Banlung. There was a lot of space, but no seats. If I didn’t mind sitting on the stack of cases of tonic water that sat just behind the front seats she would take me (and a German tourist who had wondered over to me looking for a way to cross) to Banlung for USD5 each. No worries.

Big Sister wore a loose-fitting sweat suit, one that was clearly meant to be seen and not used. Her jewelry, gold, gems, said wealth, but I had seen wealthy young Khmer girls before. The girlie pocketbook she carried was one of those that had the puppy face on the front, with the ears flopping out in front of it. And that pocketbook was filled with cash. I caught a quick glance. Looked to be mostly Cambodian Riel, so I wasn’t too impressed.

Off we went. The German, a young Cambodian boy, and I sat on the cases of tonic water. Behind us were five styrofoam coolers. Dunno what they had inside of them. And an older lady sitting on the spare tire which was also back there. Big Sister sat in the passenger seat. The driver wore large, mirrored sunglasses that reminded me of CHiPs. But being Cambodian reminded me also of the guy who said “Mien loi mien omneich!” in One Night after the War.

Our first stop was Vietnamese passport control. The German, Big Sister and I got out. The passport officer, a young, skinny guy forced to work in large sterile office in a large, sterile building gave Big Sister’s passport a quick look and a stamp but took his time with the foreigners. While we waited, Big Sister bounced over to the agricultural inspector window at passed what seemed to be two 200,000 VND bills (~USD20) to the other skinny guy sitting alone in other large sterile office. Nothing too exciting. Eventually the passport officer got bored of seeing both the live and passport versions of me and the German and sent us on our way.

Back into the van for the quick trip to the Cambodian checkpoint.

Four officers manned the small shack that was the Cambodian checkpoint. Three of their bodies showed the prosperity that came with their jobs, bellies hiding their belt buckles as they sat reading newspapers and chatting (the other was a younger guy who had to do all of the passport stamping). Big Sister wandered right over to the officers on break, flashing “I’m kinda innocent” smiles. While the German waited for the visa application paperwork to arrive (visas-on-arrival are available here, they just don’t happen often enough for the office to be stocked with all the necessary paperwork), I got my stamps and grabbed a newspaper. Eventually the paperwork arrived, the German filled it out and paid up, Big sister told one of the officers that he was naughty for saying what he did when he checked out the pictures on her cell phone, I realized that I really need a dictionary when trying to read Khmer newspapers, and we were off.

We didn’t get far. We stopped a few kilometers up the road at a wooden guardhouse in front of a particular building (I know which it is, but I think that’s too much detail).

During this short stretch of road, Big Sister had got to counting. She pulled some hundred dollar bills out of the doggie pocketbook, counting out six, and threw the rest back. She then pulled out some Moni’s (the Moni is what I call the 20,000 riel notes that have HRH King Sihamoni’s picture on them. “Moni” is not in use yet, but it will be, it will be…), 20 of them (=~USD100). When we pulled up to the guard house she bounced out of the van, the wad of bills very visible in her right hand, and wandered up to the guard on duty. Soon she came back, counted out another 20 Moni’s, and took them to the officer. When she came back, 800USD lighter, the older lady in the back told her that the foreigners were wondering about all this money changing hands, which I readily admitted to, though decided it best not to ask any questions to quench this curiosity .

We continued on to a police checkpoint, which most people drove through. She pulled over, hopped out, and gave one of the officers 60,000 riel (~USD15). She also worked some of her flirtatious magic. Hitting the officers with their traffic stick. there was clearly a reason that she was given this job. The young boy got out and grabbed a couple small bottles of water from behind where the officers were sitting. I guess they cost USD7.50 each.

We passed through O’Yadaw. Just to the west of town we stopped at a presst non-descript little house. Big Sister gave the man sitting in front USD200 and 200,000 riel (~USD50).

Finally, at one more police checkpoint she put together 200,000 riel (~USD50) and handed it to an officer.

After this final payment she began to compute how much she had paid to whom. She had recorded all the amounts on a sheet of paper and now took out a calculator to do the math. Upon finishing that task, she then took account of how much she had left. She pulled a wad of USD100 bills from the doggie pocketbook and began to count. Looking over her shoulder as she flicked through the paper I counted a couple bills more than USD4000. She recorded the amount and closed the doggie.

After all this money that had left the doggie pocketbook during this trip, the German and I knew that the USD10 coming from us was not a huge consideration. But when we got to my apartment, the German, who was staying right across the street, and I paid up and Big Sister went on her way.

She told me she crosses the border every day.

(If you want more info about Banlung or Pleiku, check out my Banlung and Pleiku pages.)

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