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Sometimes It’s Better to Just Pay the Bribe

What not to do if you’re pursued by police in Phnom Penh.

As our car weaves through taxis, tuk tuks, pedestrians and bicycles piled with three or four kids balanced atop the rickety frames, a motorcycle-mounted police officer is in hot pursuit behind us. I can’t believe I’m in this situation and I don’t know how I’m getting out of it.

Flashback to Asia, 2006.

I landed in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, the day before but sans luggage due to a bad connection. That morning, the airport calls to say the bags have arrived, but that they don’t deliver and we need to return to the airport to pick them up. Our hotel offers to drive us for what seems like a reasonable price. Already overwhelmed by a country vastly different from my Canadian home, I delay learning how to negotiate taxis, let alone confirm if I can pronounce “tuk tuk” correctly.

Once our luggage is successfully reclaimed, I’m able to relax in the air-conditioned car and marvel at one of the many unique aspects of Cambodia. Generally, Cambodians drive on the right-hand side of the road. However, every road—regardless of width—has an additional mini-lane along the curb for vehicles traveling against the rest of traffic. It’s most often used by motorbikes, bicycles, and tuk tuks, however, full-size cars take advantage of the extra lane.

To the untrained eye, it looks like traffic chaos but to local drivers, it’s an easier way to make left-hand turns. Traffic in Cambodia is highly congested; vehicles weave around each other to occupy any available road space. At the time, I only see two traffic lights in the entire capital city. (Today in Phnom Penh there are more than two traffic lights.) Lanes are only suggestions and intersections are mostly a free-for-all. Police officers are dispatched at major crossroads but they seem to stay out of the fray in the shade.

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So, we’re surprised to see an officer step into the thick of it all, just a few cars ahead of us. Traffic is stop-and-go and he’s delaying the traffic even more by talking to a driver. Additionally, school has just let out. Children dressed in crisp uniforms mount their bikes and also wait in traffic—they almost outnumber the regular traffic.

In the blink of an eye, the officer rolls dramatically up onto our hood.

Though the vehicles around us are barely moving, our driver honks with annoyance at the delay. Not to have his authority questioned, the officer strides toward us. Instead of rolling down his window or even giving an apologetic wave, our driver pretends not to see the police officer. When space opens up in the next lane, we dart into it and drive on. The bang of the officer’s fist on our trunk echoes in our ears.

A few minutes and intersections later, a police motorcycle pulls up next to us and then accelerates in front of us. While the traffic inches along, the officer repeatedly accelerates quickly and then stops even more suddenly. I’m impressed by our driver’s talent in anticipating when to brake. It slowly dawns on me that this is a ploy, confirmed when the cop stops so quickly that our driver can’t help but hit him. It’s just a tap, but the satisfied look on the officer’s face as he dismounts makes his purpose obvious. Money is expected to change hands.

But instead of showing contrition or opening his wallet, our driver opts for a shouting match in Khmer. Standing in front of our left wheel, the officer snaps open a pouch at his hip. I fear he’s drawing his gun, but it turns out it’s just his radio. As he, assumedly, calls for backup, our driver decides he’s had enough. He glances back at us with a polite but nervous “sorrrryyyy!” (his only word in English so far), he hits the gas pedal and attempts to swerve around the officer.

The officer remounts his motorcycle and a cat-and-mouse chase through the streets of Phnom Penh ensues.

But his driving talents fail us: our swerve is not wide enough. In the blink of an eye, the officer rolls dramatically up onto our hood. Now, given our low speed, it seems more like he leaped onto the car rather than us hitting him, but I can’t tell if it was to avoid impact or to raise the stakes of the bribe. It’s clear that he’s not injured as he slides off with an elegant twist and lands on his feet. Given this and a convenient gap between vehicles, our driver chooses to flee. Our tires squeal as we lurch through the stop-and-go traffic, horn blaring.

The officer remounts his motorcycle and a cat-and-mouse chase through the streets of Phnom Penh ensues. Somehow, our driver finds an open path. We swerve around corners and through side streets, narrowly missing countless tuk tuks and children on bikes. After a few blocks, it seems we’ve lost our pursuer.

I’m wondering how we pulled it off as we park in front of our hotel. Exiting the car, it becomes clear. We have not. Our hotel’s name is emblazoned on the car doors in large letters: The officer knew exactly where to find us. As we extract our bags from the trunk, his motorcycle calmly pulls up. With urgency, our driver walks ahead of us to the lobby and by the time we get up to our balcony, the car is long gone. We watch the police officer drive away shortly after. I can’t tell if his wallet is thicker.

You might now ask yourself what I did while this all went down.

The answer: next to nothing. I stared wide-eyed at the police officer, even when I thought he was pulling out a gun. My even wider eyes simply darted about at all the mopeds and kids we swerved around. I just squeezed my eyes shut and held on when I thought we might hit someone. My friend was wiser. At least, he tried to anticipate crashes and take measures to protect us from impact.

It never once occurred to me to do anything but let the drama play out. The driver spoke little English, and the only Khmer I knew was “soos-a-day” (hello) and “aur-koon” (thank you). But I’m certain I would have been well understood had I assertively asked the driver to stop

Your trip, your life, and at times, the lives of others are in your hands.

We were two westerners in the back of a car marked with one of Cambodia’s most famous hotels. We were putting the lives of Cambodians at risk and did nothing to stop it. That’s wrong. Even if I had to pay off the police myself, surely that’s better than risking someone’s life. Luckily no one was hurt, but it could have turned out very differently.

Your trip, your life, and at times, the lives of others are in your hands. While it’s unlikely that most of us will be in a police chase, slow-moving or not, dangerous or uncomfortable situations do arise. Don’t just sit there waiting for it to be over. Assess the situation and determine if you can do something to protect your own safety and the safety of others.

Even if it means paying the bribe.