Upon our arrival in Phnom Penh in the evening, we had nothing planned and decided to venture out into the streets to see what was going on. We walked from the side alley where our guesthouse was located into the main street, along the brightly-lit row of street vendors and then towards the huge roundabout that housed the Independence Monument.
About 30 minutes later, we walked right into a big open-air concert that was simultaneously being broadcasted on TV. Undeterred by the drizzle, throngs of Cambodian gathered near the temple grounds of Wat Phrom, surrounded by TV crew and with celebrities and politicians on stage.
We had no idea what the occasion was, but laterlearnt that for years, Thailand and Cambodia had been fighting over rights to the Preah Vihear temple which stood on their border. The UN had eventually awarded it to Cambodia, hence the annual victory celebration.
We had left our bulky SLRs in the guesthouse so I used my point-and-shoot camera to take some candid shots, but it attracted the attention of the locals around me. They stared blatantly at us while we tried to be inconspicuous, which was impossible with our faces and dressing.
As the concert went on, I got carried away by the music and started clapping along. Oblivious to my surroundings, I put my camera into my shorts pocket without looping the strap around my wrist. Minutes later, I realized that the camera was gone!
We started searching the ground around us, knowing that I was most likely pickpocketed and it would be impossible to get my camera back. Which upset me the most was that there were more than 300 photos from our time in Singapore and Bangkok, mostly with family and friends and of the two of us. Some locals and the security officer near us tried to help, but it was a lost cause.
To cut a long story short, we ended up on the back of a motorbike with a police officer who took us all around the city, sans helmet, the wind whipping my hair all over my face. For over an hour, we were taken to random police stations in search of an English speaker, but most of them looked like secret hideouts or illegal dens with dubious characters who would look at us and say nothing. It was scary and depressing, and I remember asking myself what on earth I was doing in the country.
Nothing was done for us in the end, and I went back despondent.
The next day, we went to the Singaporean Embassy, and then to the Australian Embassy. All we wanted was a report in English so that we could file for insurance claim, and we were given a map for a "Tourist Police Bureau" somewhere in the city. E wisely asked them how much it would cost us, in case we were ripped off. The lady shrugged, unwilling to admit the presence of corruption but casually added it "might" cost us US$10.
We got our tuk-tuk driver to take us there and were greeted by a friendly Cambodian man whom, much to our relief, spoke decent English. He engaged us in small talk before taking out a huge stack of forms that had to be filled out. Although he had E's passport before him, he insisted on asking E to repeat his name, address etc. And then he asked for the most minute detail of the incident and what should have taken 30 minutes was stretched to over an hour. On the last page of the forms, there were two huge boxes at the bottom.
"You have to come back in the afternoon, because I have to let my boss sign this box, and my upper boss sign the other box. They are very busy now." We looked around and saw that the place was dead as a doornail, and we knew it was all a ploy to make the task seemed more laborious.
"How much?" E asked, expressionless.
"I don't force you, but please give me $10 and my upper boss $10."
"That's too much! I'll give you $5 and your upper boss $5."
The man simply replied himself, "I don't force you, but please give me $10 and my upper boss $10."
E nodded and we left in our tuk-tuk.
After some sightseeing, we were driven back to the bureau and it seemed like the man had not left his desk all morning. He took out the forms from his desk drawers and showed us where the two boxes had been stamped. E simply fished out $20 from his wallet and handed it over to the man, not wanting to cause any trouble.
Before we left with our report, E asked if we could take a picture with him, expecting him to refuse us. Instead, he was happy to oblige and even asked if we could give him a copy so that he could put it on his wall.
We found out from our tour guide in Siam Reap that the average salary for a government official in the country was US$20 a month, which was simply not enough to pay rent or feed a family, hence corruption was commonplace and necessary for survival. Even Cambodians have to pay bribe when they deal with the police.
And so I have managed without my trusty point-and-shoot for over 3 months since I returned from my trip, but I honestly feel like something's missing. I was waiting for the insurance claim but it fell through, so I decided that I would just have to get myself a new toy. E and I did some research and finally settled on a Ricoh R10, and we bought it at a good price online. He helped to chip in a third so that I could afford it, bless his cotton socks!