Most of the approximately 1.5 million people who have poured into Phnom Penh for this year’s Water Festival are here for fun. But for vendors, taxi drivers, and even police, this is the best time of year to make money.
Municipal cabinet chief Mann Chhoeun said about the same number of people visited this year as last. Traffic was reduced, however, because about 400,000 of those visitors flocked to newly developed Chroy Changva commune along the Tonle Sap river.
Vendors on the Chroy Changva side said they were able to set up shop without paying fees to police. On the other side of the bank, near the Royal Palace, it was a different story. Vendors said they were getting squeezed harder than ever.
Khun Mala said she had been approached by at least five groups of police each demanding a daily “fee.” Some wore police uniforms, others merely carried papers saying they were police, she said.
“They would bang on our table and demand 500 to 1,500 riel ($0.15 to $0.35). If I don’t pay, they will ask their boss to come and close my business.”
Khun Mala, a mother of four, said she had already paid $30 to Phsar Kandal commune police for a vendor’s permit. In previous years that had prevented further police harassment, but not this year, she said.
Taxi drivers complained of fewer customers, bringing their prices down. Hor Nguon, who drives the Battambang to Phnom Penh route, said he usually gets 40,000 to 50,000 riel ($10 to $12) a passenger, but this year passengers were paying more like 25,000 to 30,000 ($6 to $7.50), virtually wiping out the holiday premium.
Drivers blamed bad rice crops for the drop-off in customers. Passengers are also paying less along the Battambang route because the road quality has improved, they said.
Police checkpoints set up on the blocks near the waterfront were designed to prevent accidents and congestion, said Suon Chheangly, municipal police chief.
“We need to keep people safe from accidents by allowing them to walk without vehicles around,” he said.
But the checkpoints did not always work as intended. Police were only supposed to let through vendors or people who lived in the area, all of whom were supposed to have special tickets distributed by the Ministry of Information.
In fact, a bribe was all that was needed. Motorcycle taxi drivers said they were typically charged 500 riel or 1,000 riel if they were carrying goods.
As for the tickets, they typically cost $5 from police, vendors said. It was unclear Tuesday whether this was a legitimate fee.
Some police acknowledged collecting the money, often putting it in a black bag to be shared among the officers at the end of the day.
“Five hundred riel is not expensive for people entering with vehicles,” said one police officer deployed near the Royal Palace on Tuesday.
One police officer, who declined to be named, blamed his commanders for sponsoring the moneymaking operation.
“If a police officer gives a bribe to his commander, he is selected to stand at some [lucrative] checkpoints. So these police are forced to…take money from vehicle owners who want to pass their checkpoint.”
(Reporting by Kuch Naren, Kay Kimsong and Thet Sambath)