IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER - Nng Thet Borey 1931-2008

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Reader discretion is advised: How do you fight corruption in a country where most people don't see it as corruption to begin with?

I and a motodop were pulled over by the police again, and we had to pay 2,000 riel each time. It was more a nuisance than something to be extremely angry about -it's not like they are asking for a lot of money.

But when I asked the motodop driver what he thought about corruption, at first he didn't really understand the question. I looked the word up in an English-Khmer dictionary, and he just shrugged and explained to me that it wasn't corruption.

The motodop was stopped because he didn't have rear-view mirrors on his bike, and that was the reason they stopped him every time, he told me.

There is a law in Cambodia that says you have to have mirrors on your moto, so in his mind he was just paying a fine, like we would in Sweden or any other Western country. That forced me to rethink the whole thing with corruption a little.

Is the lack of a receipt or a record enough to call something corruption?

Granted, the money you give to the police officer won't go to the state or be used for some public good, but then again if you think about it, as my motodop did, it is the same as paying a fine.

I heard something about the average salary for a police officer being $60 per month, and some one also told me they often late to pay for their positions. A woman I met here told me there is no budget for buying gasoline for the police bikes so if you run away from the police, they are unlikely to chase you very far or it won't be worth the 2,000 riel [fine], she said.

I went to Udong this weekend by moto, which isn't t the most comfortable mode of transportation, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was pretty soar once I got off at Udong.

My moto driver, Don, wanted us to go early so we wouldn't have to go during the worst heat. He looked doubtful when I got back home at 2 am in the morning about 4 hours before we were supposed to leave. I managed to drag myself out of bed at 6:30 am sharp, though, and I'm fairly proud about that.

There weren�t many visitors in Udong when we go there so all the small vendors and a group of at least 20 kids saw me as the only way to make money that day. Hence I was followed everywhere I went, and told that I needed to buy flowers, bracelets or just give them money.

The crowd started to drop off as we got closer to the mountain and eventually we were only accompanied by one girl selling flowers and two boys telling me that there were 150 steps to go up and 450, or something, steps to go down. Then they pointed at the statues and told me how to pronounce their names in Khmer and when they were built.

Udong was beautiful and the temple is well worth a visit even if the rest of the village is a little disappointing. I wonder what it looked like when it was the royal capital. Also, I finally found good use for those 100 riel notes I never know what to do with. On every step while you are climbing up there is a beggar and you are supposed to give them some money.

Since there are a lot of steps, it seemed that 100 riel was the standard amount to give. Because of the limited number of visitors on this day, many steps only had a little basket on them and a few had crutches or a cane as if to show that the person who would eventually come back and collect the money from this basket was in need of some extra money.

I ended up just giving a little extra to those who were actually there and didn't give any money to the lonely baskets.

Finally, at the top of the mountain, sweaty, muddy and tired, we went into the main temple. I don't know why, but religion in general and religions I don't know much about in particular always make me slightly uncomfortable, and I'm always terrified to mess up and do something disrespectful.

Don told me to follow his lead so we sat down in front of the Buddha statue for a few minutes before walking around the room putting the flowers down in front of the other statues. I kept seeing this image of myself falling over and breaking all the little Buddha statues that were standing behind the big one, or breaking something else or, even worse, setting something on fire with the incense sticks.

It was just like how I keep imagining myself setting off a moto-domino every time I walk past a long row of parked motos. I don't think I messed it up, but since people here won't really tell you if you are doing it wrong, I can't be sure. Anyway, nothing dropped from the sky so I guess I did OK.

Once we got down from the hill the boys informed me that they would take their pay now, and that they needed $5 to be able to afford school. Their parents were very poor, they told me, and that if I thought if was important, it was up to me to keep them in school so they could learn English. They had been fairly helpful on our way up, and they were fairly informative, so I gave them $1 each.

This Don told me, was way too much, but he also told me it was true they had to pay for school. Apart from the small bribe they have to give to their teacher every day, they have to buy uniforms, books and pencils or they can't go to school. I wonder what world I have lived in since I was certain primary school in this country was free.

One of my friends here told me that teachers often buy their positions, just like the police officers sometimes do, and then they are paid on average $40 dollars per month. Even with Cambodian discounts, that would be impossible to live on especially if you have a family to feed.

So, I'm guessing, in the eyes of those people corruption is necessary to survive, which is kind of scary. I really don't know what to think about it. Then again, there isn't much I can do.

About this article: This article appeared in the Cambodia Daily on Oct 25-26, 2008.

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