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Around The Sun: The Camouflage Trousers

It's amazing what a man can be fined for by a policeman intent on pocketing soem cash, as Steve Harrison reveals.

I could tell you a lot of stories about the police in Cambodia. All of them are true, and none of them show the police in a good light.

When I first arrived I was told the local police would stop me while I was riding my motorcycle, accusing me of every conceivable traffic offence. This was merely a ploy to extract money. The military policewere a different matter. They carried AK47s, with instructions to use them if required.

Armed with this information I travelled the roads of Phnom Penh. If I vdenured onto Norodom Boulevard the local police inevitably flagged me down. I applied the local rurles. Turn around and head in the opposite direction, or accelerate past them. Eventually I decided not to use the main streets, meandering instead through the rabbit warren of back bumpy roads.

Crazy thing was that the police would overnight make a street one-way, with no prior notification. The locals would happily drive the wrong way along these. A foreigner attempting to do this was stopped, and money was demanded. The amount of the fine varied. If you pulled out US$10, then that was the fine. If you pulled out 1,000 riel (about 25cents) then, after some discussion, that was the fine.

It was generally accepted that the police were lazy, useless and never around when you really needed them. If money was involved they were always there. Motorbikes were often stolen. It was generally recognised that the police had a hand in these crimes. When you reported that your bike had been stolen they asked how much it was worth. If you said US$600 they would guarantee to recover the vehicle for US$200 or US$300, payable of course in advance. Those that paid the money had their motorcycles duly returned to them, sometimes within a couple of hours, or the very next day at the latest.

I was out walking one day along one of the main thoroughfares, Monivong Bouldevard. I was wearing my favourite camouflage trousers. They were comfortable and easy to wear with the added benefit of not quickly beginning to look dirty. The local police had a check point set up on the corner of that road and Sihanouke Boulevard. They were stopping motobike riders for not displaying license plates. Half the motorbikes in town were unregistered so for the police it was easy pickings.

To my surprise the chief police officer saw me blew his whistle at me and summoned me into his presence. He talked casually at first asked how long I had been in Cambodia and which hotel I stayed at. Then he asked if I was in the military, a solder perhaps. To my absolute amazement he promptly announced that he was authorized to issue me with an on the spot fine for wearing camouflage trousers. I laughed, I could not believe the audacity.

Again he repeated that he was charging me with wearing camouflage trousers and demanded US$10. By this time I was half in shock and half in a state of total disbelief. He told me I was a guest in the country and continued to press his absurd demand. I just sat down on the spot and stared at him in complete wonderment, whilst he carried on about me being a guest in the country and continuing his absurd demand.

After some 10 minutes I stood upright, expanded my chest, and strode past the policeman, then across the junction.

I found myself laughing helplessly. As I was saying, you can always count on the police there to come up with a new way of extracting money from a foreigner.

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