KOMPONG TRACH DISTRICT, Kampot province – It’s hard to find a motorcycle or bicycle in this area that is not fitted out to carry bags, baskets and boxes of goods. Kompong Trach’s proximity to the Preak Chark border crossing with Vietnam means that most adults are employed in the daily transportation—legal or otherwise—of produce between Cambodia and her eastern neighbor.
Smuggling is small-scale, but rife. With just one recently completed laterite road connecting Kompong Trach town to Cambodia’s southernmost border crossing, the majority of the frontier in Kampot province runs unguarded through rice fields. Across these now dusty expanses, anyone, or anything—as long as it is transportable by motorcycle—is able to pass.
The laxity of this border came under scrutiny from co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng earlier this month in his speech to the Interior Ministry’s five-yearly conference.
Deflecting attention away from the contention currently surrounding the Thai border, Sar Kheng criticized border authorities in the southeast for overlooking contraband trade and extracting bribes from its perpetrators.
“[Kampot] province has a serious trafficking problem,” Sar Kheng said. “The provincial governors have to be responsible for these cases. Local authorities allow smuggling so they can take bribes.
“Our nation asks for donations from foreign countries to develop the country, but our authorities allow smugglers to avoid tax, which should be part of our nation’s budget.”
But seen from the ground, the problem is of altogether different proportions. Chan Sareth is the deputy director of the police post of Russei Srok Khang Lech commune, just a stone’s throw from the border checkpoint. Sitting in the porch of his station on a recent afternoon, he spoke of the smuggling issue in relaxed terms.
“Most of the smugglers are students, who drive across the border after class and bring back one or two cans of petrol to sell in Kompong Trach,” Chan Sareth said. “They do it to earn money to support their study, so I don’t arrest them.”
In the shade of a palm tree beside Chan Sareth’s station, Sok Srey Mom rested beside her bicycle—barely visible under mounds of fruit in bulging plastic sacks. The 50-year-old vendor from Kompong Trach town makes the trip across the border almost daily to stock her market stall.
“I have been transporting fruit from Vietnam to sell in Kompong Trach market for more than 10 years now,” she said.
When crossing the Preak Chark border, Sok Srey Mom says she has to pay a bribe of 500 riel (about $0.12) to the border guards, but no official import tax. The price rises to between 3,000 riel and 5,000 riel (about $0.75 and $1.25) for motorbike drivers, she said.
All kinds of products flow into the area from Vietnam: vegetables and beer, gasoline and cigarettes pass the checkpoint daily. What flows in the other direction are the few commodities Cambodia can offer its economically vibrant neighbor: Motorbikes laden with timber and charcoal speed east in clouds of dust, and further south—out of sight of border guards—traffic of the human kind also slips over the border unchecked.
Motoring along the border road with a grin full of gold teeth, Vath Ratanak pulls up alongside newcomers to the area offering a controversial transportation service. Once or twice a day, he drives his motorcycle across the border through the rice fields, carrying Cambodian citizens looking for work in Vietnam or traveling to visit relatives in the Mekong Delta area.
“The reason these people need to enter Vietnam illegally is because some of them don’t have passports or any documents for the checkpoint police,” he explained. “So I take them into Vietnam another way.”
The work is risky, but the money is good; Vath Ratanak said he charges between 15,000 riel and 20,000 riel (about $3.80 to $5.12) per person for the trip. And the chances of getting into trouble on the Cambodian side are minimal, he added.
“Sometimes I have been arrested with customers, but I’ve never been afraid of Cambodian border police because we are all Cambodian nationality,” Vath Ratanak said. “But if I get arrested by Vietnamese border police, they fine me a lot of money—around 50,000 dong [about $3.30].”
But the Preak Chark checkpoint is a good place to transport many things, he said.
Policeman Chan Sareth was laid back about this clandestine immigration service. “I acknowledge that moto taxi drivers are very busy taking citizens across the border illegally by driving across the rice fields,” Chan Sareth said.
But justice for the smugglers, according to Chan Sareth, is a matter better left to bad karma rather than the efforts of local police. “I think [the smugglers] are driving a very bad way, so it is dangerous—a driver and his passenger died in an accident while crossing the border late last year.”