Quick travel advice: don't let someone steal your passport in a third-world country. It sucks.
Cambodia has beautiful beaches, inspiring temples, and some impressively apathetic police. When my passport was stolen from my hostel locker in Sihanoukville, I knew that I wouldn't be seeing it again. All I needed to get was a police report on the theft, and the American embassy could grant me a new one. It turns out Cambodian police reports are a little harder to procure than one would expect.
A mini-lesson of this adventure: don't let people get leverage over you when you travel. For better or for worse, locals still see you - the tourist - at best as an opportunity, or more likely as a walking ATM. If someone can exploit you, in many cases they will, and the most dangerous thing a tourist can do is give someone leverage over them. Ironically, my good friend at the motorbike rental shop tried to use leverage failed. Looks like he got the last laugh.
While I was waiting for the police station to open from lunch, an old woman came up to beg for money and I gave her a dollar. Seeing her provided one of those little moments that puts everything in context. This passport episode was just another part of travel; most people deal with much more devastating problems on a day-to-day basis.
I recently finished reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The author is a psychologist who survived four concentration camps during WWII, who discusses what he terms the "tragic optimism" of retaining perspective in difficult situations. In one chapter, he recounts asking his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz, "what has been taken from us that truly cannot be restored?" Keeping that in mind helped me appreciate that this, at the end of the day, a solvable problem.
Becoming a citizen again: How Nik Got His Passport Back
Here is how I was able to get a rapidfire tour of 9 Cambodian police stations in 2 days. (By catching rides on the back of a dozen or so moto taxis...)
- Trip to the police commissary (Police #1.) They were out to lunch from 12 to 2, so I left and came back again 2 hours later, to be informed that they only handled business, and not tourist, visas.
- Trip to tourist information & police booth (Police #2), with a 45 minute wait that ended with the secretary telling me the police officer wasn't coming in that day, so on to Police #3!
- At the third police station, they were unable to process theft reports, so sent me down to a fourth station.
- And finally, to end the Sihanoukville chapter, Police #4 asked for a $150 mandatory "administrative fee" to file a police report and make a photocopy. (It was at this police station that I ran into a Spaniard in the same situation as me who had paid the fee - I've probably never cursed as much I did with him talking about the corrupt local police in Spanish while they sat across the desk from us.)
Not seeing any prospects for moving ahead in Sihanoukville, I caught the last bus up to Phnom Penh, the capital, to try my luck with the police and the American embassy there.
- I started my day in Phnom Penh with some gnarly food poisoning from the night before and a visit to the tourist police office (Police #5.) As I probably could have expected, the building was no longer there.
- From the non-existent tourist police, I went to the regular municipal police (Police #6), who only dealt with citizens, and not visitors.
- The municipal police forwarded me to the immigration police (Police #7), from whom I would eventually get a report. However, I told them my passport was stolen in Sihanoukville and they couldn't file any reports in Phnom Penh for thefts from Sihanoukville. (Ironically, telling the truth turned out to be the biggest obstacle to getting a report.)
- From the immigration police, I paid a visit to the American embassy, who in turn directed me to the exit visa police office (Police #8.)
- The exit visa office unfortunatelycould only provide exit visas to tourists who already had police reports, but could not provide police reports themselves, and so they directed me to the General Immigration Office (Police #9.)
- When I arrived at the General Immigration Office, characteristically, it was closed 2 hours for lunch.
It was time to make an executive decision. Somehow, I had to get a police report. And my best bet was going to be the helpful but apathetic officers who I had visited at the immigration police office. I caught one of my last moto taxis of the day back to the office and was able to pay the police a baby bribe for a report that detailed how my passport had actually (read: not actually) been stolen by a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh the night before.
With report in-hand, I went to the embassy and then to the exit visa office, where I paid my second bribe of the day to expedite my visa process (I did ask if I could get a receipt for the bribe #2, which gave the officer a good laugh.)
How to bribe a police officer (if you have to, or just want to):
Admittedly, my experience bribing police is limited so far to Cambodia, so I will be sure to update this if I end up finessing my technique in Africa or future destinations:
- Keep most of your money in your shoe. If you open up your wallet and a police officer sees all your money, they will ask for everything you have. (Also good advice if you are driving a motorbike and an officer pulls you over for 'speeding.')
- Don't mention the word 'bribe.' Try something more friendly, like 'administrative fee' or 'down payment.'
- Just give the officers the money - don't try to slip it in an envelope or crumple it up between your fingers and give them a slow high-five to handoff the cash like they do in the movies. They will look at you like you're an idiot, and probably wonder if they should just rescind the bribe offer all together.
All in all, it only took me about $45 in bribes, 20 moto rides, 9 police stations, and 3 days to get my new passport! It's a wonderful system once you learn to work it. If I could go back and do it all again, I wouldn't.
Nik / 1.16.17