At the Neak Leung Ferry Terminal, Bribes Pay the Way

Every year, tens of thousands of people cross the Mekong River from Kandal to Prey Veng province to celebrate the Pchum Ben festival with their families. For some, queuing at the Neak Leung ferry terminal breathing in the exhaust fumes of thousands of vehicles can be an arduous, daylong mission. But for those who can afford it, the wait can be over in less than an hour.

At the front of a 2-km queue Wednesday, pressed hard up against a chain that separated the masses from the ferries, were those who had arrived before dawn to be first in line.

Thousands of people traveling home for the Pchum Ben festival wait to board ferries to cross the Mekong River at the Neak Leung ferry terminal between Kandal and Prey Veng provinces on Wednesday. (Matt Blomberg)
Thousands of people traveling home for the Pchum Ben festival wait to board ferries to cross the Mekong River at the Neak Leung ferry terminal between Kandal and Prey Veng provinces on Wednesday. (Matt Blomberg)

However, another group present at the front were people who had paid bribes of about $5 to local police officers in order to bypass the hoards and take the fast route onto the boat via a shortcut.

Beyond the snaking traffic jam, a pair of traffic police stood guard of a free-flowing road that veered right off National Road 1.

“If people want to go straight, that is ok,” said one of the officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But this way is much shorter and much faster,” he continued as he gestured toward the unjammed road, which loops around and reconnects with National Road 1 just meters from the chain that separates commuters from ferries.

“We [police] have an understanding with the people; if they want to [take the shortcut], they give us some money; if not, they can go straight.”

Asked if he understood what he was doing was against the law, the officer said: “If you want to know more, you can talk to the big boss.”

A few hundred meters away from the main ferry terminal, there is a second shortcut manned by police officers uniquely for buses and large trucks.

Waiting in line, a 24-year-old employee of the Khai Nam bus company said he had paid police $70 to gain access to the shortcut and nab a place on the ferry before everyone else.

“I paid $70 [for access to the shortcut],” he said. “It saves us four or five hours when the traffic is like this around festivals. We always pay to keep our customers happy.”

At the same junction, an employee aboard a bus belonging to the Phnom Penh Sorya company, who also asked not to be named, said he had not paid police and that he was prepared to wait “many hours because Sorya does not pay bribes.”

Loeuk Dek district police chief Ros Chantha denied that his officers were taking bribes from people looking to cross the Mekong.

“Our police cannot take money [for shortcuts] because there is only one road to the ferry,” he said without elaborating.

Halfway along one of the shortcuts a military police officer was seen counting large wads of cash that had been extracted from commuters.

Some people who had paid the cash accused the police of outright extortion.

“I know it’s their normal business to take the money from us but they took money from me three different times today; it’s too much,” said Sek Thy, a 32-year-old who had re-emerged from the alternate route with his family.

“If they just take [money] for coffee, it’s OK, but I have already paid 20,000 riel [about $5] and I am still not at the ferry,” he said, adding that he had arrived at Neak Leung just an hour earlier.

Others, who couldn’t afford or refused to pay bribes, had much longer to wait.

“We arrived before 7 a.m.,” said a 54-year-old who gave his name only as Sokha and was still at least 500 meters from the terminal around 11 a.m.

“There are so many corrupt officers here letting people go in the wrong direction.”

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