The other day, Good ‘ol Facebook memories flashed up a pretty weird incident that happened when I was backpacking around Thailand 3 years ago, my first ever experience of police corruption in Asia! The incident went down like this…

Police corruption in Asia

One night I was out partying in the Patong area of Phuket with my boyfriend Iain and we decided to call it a night. We jumped in a (highly overpriced!) Tuk tuk back to Karon, which is where we were staying. On the road back there was a police road block, and our tuk tuk driver was signaled to pull over. A police man approached us and pointed towards my boyfriend holding a bottle of beer…

Policeman: “open beer not allowed”

Iain: “oh sorry, I didn’t know”

Policemen: “you will have to pay fine”

Iain: “oh, OK. How much?”

Policeman: “where you from?”

Iain: “Scotland” – he’s from Glasgow originally 

Policeman: looking confused. “where?”

Iain: “Scotland”

Policeman: “Australia?”

Iain: no. Scotland

At this point I was about a second away from explaining that Scotland was part of the UK, next to England, but thought better of it….

Policeman: “Scandinavia?”

Iain: “No. Scot-land”

The policeman then shrugs his shoulders and waves the tuk tuk driver to take us away. The tuk tuk driver thought the whole thing was hilaaaaaarious. “oh, you big man. No fine, no fine” he said. We were pretty sure the policeman was asking where Iain was from to establish just how much he could get away with demanding as a “fine”.  And faced with the embarrassment of not knowing where Scotland was just wanted to get rid of us to save face. You see, “saving face” is a massive part of Thai (and other east Asian countries) culture, and as a foreigner it’s really important to remember that when speaking to locals. 

tuktuk Thailand

Police corruption in Asia (and other parts of the world too) is something that is actually pretty common, where one in four are forced to pay a bribe. Although the way that things went down in our situation I guess isn’t all that common. In our six months of travelling around South East Asia I was told I needed to pay a “fine” by police THREE times! Phuket was the first, the second was at the Cambodian/Thai border. I wrote about that experience in full here. Well worth reading if you’re thinking of taking that border crossing as there are LOADS of scams and shake downs. Again, we managed to avoid paying the bribes and went on our merry way.

The third and final time we were stopped by police was in Bali. We were out riding our scooters near Uluwatu when we got pulled over by a huge police road block. I mean they were churning through hundreds of foreigners, mainly for driving offences. i.e. No license, no helmet, broken indicators etc. Which, let’s be fair are all valid reasons for being stopped and fined. However, we had the correct paperwork, were wearing helmets and they were STILL insisting we needed to pay a fine. We were taken into a room with about 20 other foreigners and they started putting pressure on us to pay our “fine” in cash on the spot, or we would have to go to the courthouse in 2 weeks- time. We just shrugged and said “that’s fine, we’re here for a whole month, we’ll go to the court house and pay.” Of course, that’s not what they wanted to hear and they certainly didn’t want anyone else in that room getting the same idea, so we were quickly ushered out of the room and on our way. I pretty much laughed all the way to the beach after that. I couldn’t quite believe we’d managed 3 for 3 avoiding police bribes!

police Thailand

If you’re from a country with a police force that rates very low on the Police corruption index this may all sound pretty wild. Offering a police officer money in the UK is likely to result in you getting arrested. However, bribes/tips/fines are just how society functions in some countries and as a foreigner you are much more susceptible to being taken for a mug, especially if you’re not prepared.

How to handle police bribes when travelling

  • Never raise your voice and always be polite. “Losing face” is a huge deal in pretty much all of east Asia. If you lose your cool and cause a scene it is a massive insult and will get you in to way more trouble than you are already in. So just smile and keep cool.
  • Some-times you just need to pay the bribe, that’s how the system works. I know I managed to swerve coughing up, but I have no doubt in my mind that the only reason I got out of paying was because the police officers I met didn’t want to lose face. See point 1! You won’t always be this lucky, or have the same circumstances.
  • Carry a special bribe wallet, with a small amount of money in it, and keep the rest of your cash hidden. This works well when haggling at markets or with tuk-tuk drivers too btw! This potentially can stop you from being totally rinsed, but be careful you don’t get too cocky as it could massively backfire. I’ve heard of people being marched to an ATM to withdraw cash or being threatened with jail.
  • Ask other travelers in your location about any local police road blocks, or scams in general. Find out what the “going rate” is for a shake down. If you’ve gotten into a dispute with a local or done something really stupid, all bets are off. Just cough up what you’re asked to.
  • Never refer to it as a bribe in front of police or a government official. It’s a “fine” or “tax” or whatever, even if you know it’s going straight into their back pocket. 
  • Do some research on local laws and customs. Yes, you can often just fall fowl of “foreigner tax”, but you really don’t want to accidentally break the law either.
Ben Tanh market Saigon

Of course, I definitely don’t advocate doing anything illegal or reckless and just paying your way out, I’m just offering some practical advice from personal experience dealing with police corruption in Asia. You don’t want to end up the next star of “Banged up Abroad”!