Bribes and Scam on Cambodian Border Crossings

The very first local I encountered upon my arrival in Cambodia stole my pen because it had a laser pointer on it and he decided he liked it. It was the only pen I had readily available on me so when he said something was missing on my arrival card, I pulled it out of my camera bag and filled the missing information in. He then took the pen out of my hand and took the card along with my passport to add his notes, signature, a stamp or whatever it is they are supposed to do with those cards on it. He then went to get something else done by standing up from his desk and walking up to the opposite counter and when he came back, the pen was nowhere to be seen. I asked if I could have my pen back yet he insisted he gave it to me previously. Needless to say, this was the last time I have seen my pen.

I had only been in Cambodia for two minutes, and this was the very first Cambodian I had to deal with and I already got my pen stolen and was lied to straight into my face. He was the perfect reflection of what awaits a visitor inside the country. From the moment you’re in until the moment you’re out, there will always be a plentitude of locals looking for the ways to scam you out of your money or possessions.

Because the Cambodian government took measures to prevent scamming by anyone other than their befriended individuals, immigration people at certain points of entry (such as the Siem Reap or Phnom Penh airports) can no longer directly request bribes from foreigners who’d just arrived. That doesn’t however mean that they will miss out on other opportunities to enrich themselves at your expense.

Similarly, many overland points of entry are still major bribery hubs so if you fly in to Cambodia and continue on with your travels overland like I did, then you will be subjected to scam from the very first person you encounter to the very last (and virtually everyone in between). Similar open requests for bribes at overland border crossing will await you when entering and exiting Laos (on both Cambodian and Lao sides), but from my experience, this is not practised by Thai or Vietnamese immigration officials.

When I went I went to Thailand, scamming ended with the very last Cambodian I had to deal with. It goes without saying that he DID insist on a bribe but it was a breath of fresh air to come to the Thai side and be processed without any scam attempt. It works similarly when entering Cambodia from Thailand whereas Thai officials would process you without requests for bribes, but as soon as you come over to the Cambodian booth and start dealing with Cambodians, it gets to be a whole new story.

Vietnam doesn’t offer visa on arrival (or visa free entry) when entering overland from Cambodia (October 2009) so you have to apply for it in advance with the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh (at least if you’re a bearer of a Canadian passport) but as is the case with Thailand, open requests for bribes will end with the last Cambodian you end up having to deal with.

Wat Kesararam – Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals

Wat Kesararam is the most confusing pagoda in all of Siem Reap. The inconsistencies in name were driving me insane and the more I was trying to find out which name was correct, the more confusing it was getting. Basically, aside from Wat Kesararam, this pagoda is often referred to as Wat Keseram. Not even Cambodians themselves know which name is right and which is wrong as each you ask them about it, they will give you different answer. Hence it is best to refer to it by its English name – Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals.

Photo: Wat Keseram in Siem Reap - The Pagoda of Cornflower Petals
Photo: Wat Keseram in Siem Reap - The Pagoda of Cornflower Petals

Wat Kesararam is located at the north west side of Siem Reap, right on National Road #6, en route to Siem Reap airport. It is a very colorful pagoda the beginnings of which date somewhere to the 1970’s. The paintings on the outer walls are very bright and so are the lions and nagas – seven headed serpents the body of which serves as a balustrade around the temple. The balustrade is held up by statues of divinities that are repeated all around the structure.

Photo: Lion and Naga - Multiheaded Serpent at the Steps to Wat Keseram
Photo: Lion and Naga - Multiheaded Serpent at the Steps to Wat Keseram

I have not walked inside of actual temple, but it’s said to house extensive collection of Buddha relics. Since it was the second day of Pchum Ben festival, the pagoda of the cornflower petals was very much alive. Traditional Khmer music was being played back out of bad quality, old loudspeakers and dozens of people knelt inside the prayer hall chanting their prayers. More people were coming in and out, all bearing bowls with food which is what the festival of the dead is all about. This food is offered to their deceased ancestors to ease their way in the underworld.

Photo: Buddhists Commemorating Pchum Ben Festival at Wat Kesararam Prayer Hall
Photo: Buddhists Commemorating Pchum Ben Festival at Wat Kesararam Prayer Hall

I noticed many kids running around and hanging off the barred windows of main vihara – prayer hall. There was some commotion coming from the inside and the presence of countless shoes before the entrance to it suggested that something must be going on in there (Buddhists always take their shoes off before entering pagodas or basically any other dwelling or sacred place). This is what attracted me to the vihara as it was also what detracted me from going to the actual temple to see what they say is a vast collection of Buddha relics. On the other hand, I’m glad I went in the vihara because this was my unique opportunity to witness real amateur Apsara dancing.

Wat Keseram Photo Gallery