This year I made the first-hand experience to be extorted by corrupt police. Looking back, the feelings of unfairness and powerlessness are interesting to observe. They are of a different kind, not comparable with shitty work life. Here is how being unsuspecting and blue-eyed can turn your holidays into a lesson on self-conception.
Living in Singapore, I was in the middle of my Master’s Thesis and decided to take some days off. A friend of mine joined me for a short trip to south-east Asia. It was the fifth day of our travel when we arrived in Vientiane, Laos. After some encouraging stories from other backpackers, we skipped our hiking plans and went to Vang Vieng. During the bus ride, we made friends with two French guys and later on all ended up in the same dorm room at Nana’s Backpacker Hostel.
We immediately came to good terms with the hostels’ barkeeper, who called himself “Zeus”. After many Beer Lao and clubbing somewhere down the road, I was standing alone on the dark street and lit up a cigarette. As it happens, Zeus walked into me.
“Where are all your friends?”
“My friend went with a girl from the club”, I said. He gave me a wink. “Does your friend know it’s a ladyboy?” Based on my reaction I got another wink. “But they are not too bad, you know. Welcome to Laos!” Zeus told me he was watching us in the club because he also found my friend quite hot.
Zeus asked what the two French were doing and I told him they were about to buy weed. He insisted that he would know the best place to buy, and we eventually called them out of some garage business.
Our barkeeper did his business at the back of some restaurant. Five minutes later they got their weed. Still at that restaurant, Zeus loudly announced that he had the weed in his pocket. As we asked him, irritatedly, why that would be important, he explained that he would not get arrested for it because he was good with the locals. Turns out, this had been our moment to catch up.
Back at the hostel, we found my friend who just had escaped a weird situation with the ladyboy. They had gone to someplace and started to make out. As things were getting more intense, my friend had to find out there was more down the pants of his fling than meets the eye. As my friend tried to leave, he found the door locked and the ladyboy was suddenly asking for money. He managed to get out by faking to have left his credit card at the hostel, where we then met again. However, the ladyboy had walked him there, so apparently, she was still waiting downstairs for him to return.
Zeus insisted to smoke in our room. With him working at the hostel there was nothing to worry about, he said. It was late at night when Zeus left us. My friend was already asleep, and I was just brushing my teeth when our dorm door burst open.
Police rushed the room, pulling my friend out of his bed and forcing everybody on the floor. They were all very excited and immediately collected our passports. However, the entire situation was weird. They knew exactly what they were looking for. And where.
Amateur actors were performing a world-famous play.
They brought us to a barrack-like little office which said “Vang Vieng Tourist Police”. They insisted on talking to us individually. We had decided beforehand to stand together and did not rat out any particular person. They gave us a choice: spend an undefined amount of time in a cell, without trial, or place a confession that all of us smoked pot. It did not matter who did what exactly. They just wanted us to file that confession.
One officer came up with the oldest ink pad on earth and we had to seal the report with a smudgy, red-inked thumbprint. We could not read most of their documents. Everything was exaggerated and the whole play was designed to be as daunting as possible. They kept our passports and sent us back to the hostel at 5 am. Their “top negotiator”, as they called him, was not there, so we were told to come back by 9 am.
Panic mixed with disbelief. Everything we had seen seemed very much “amateur”. This had to be scammers. Scammers with our passports. And yet this was, in fact, the local police.
The small village was deserted, shops closed and doors shut. The streets were lit by the moon with nobody around except us. Peaceful, almost.
The morning sun was on the brink to announce a hot day when we arrived back at Nana’s Backpacker Hostel. We asked the receptionist what we should do. He sighed at us to “… just give them money. They only want money.” He did not want to answer any other questions but insisted that it had not been him who called the police.
Did the ladyboy call the police? Perhaps she got frustrated with my friend not returning with a credit card. And then there was Zeus, who conveniently had left the room the very minute before the cops burst in.
Some restless hours later we went back to the police station. People in uniforms were bustling around and it looked more official, overall. Different people than a few hours ago. The “top negotiator”, who called us into his private office, started the conversation. “I want you to put your smartphones and watches on the table here.”
During the few hours back at the hostel, we had made contact with a friendly guy from Germany. He had fought with his girlfriend and could not sleep. We had exchanged stories over an entire pack of cigarettes. To that end, we had left all our valuables with him when we had to go back to the police station.
What a feeling to leave all your stuff with a stranger. Sleepless exhaustion mixed with translucent dispossession.
After a brief check that we did not have phones or other valuables, the “top negotiator” gave a little speech. “You have big problem in Laos. Marijuana is illegal in Laos.”, he said while pointing at an old, yellowed poster. It showed a comic of western people being caught red-handed by the Laotian police at different forbidden activities, including smoking a bong on the street.
We were told that the punishment for our offense is 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million Lao Kip. No trial required, of course. But he, the friendliest of all police officers, can make our “big problem in Laos” go away. For only 5 million Lao Kip per person (about $600). We tried to negotiate, but that only made him angry.
There is a withdrawal limit to the local ATMs. The police staff explained that we had to use all of the village’s ATMs sequentially to get the requested amount. Furthermore, they pointed us to a Western Union store, which just had opened. What a coincidence. They gave us one hour.
Reading up on this, we found many different posts, mostly on lonely planet, that confirmed our experience with corrupt police in Vang Vieng. That helped a little to soothe the panic and indicated that paying the money might be sufficient to get our passports back.
For me personally, this pinch was beyond money.
We considered going to the embassy. However, with my Master’s Thesis going on I could not risk being stuck in Laos for too long. Furthermore, I was living abroad, in Singapore. Generally speaking, there are better things to have in life than an ongoing drug-related offense in south-east Asia, when trying to re-enter Singapore. Additionally, the embassy in Laos was in a different city and going there would be an irreversible decision with yet unknown consequences.
My friend wanted to rebel against the corrupt police, either go to the embassy or even break into the crappy station and get the passports back. This was the hardest time for me. The situation was unfair, a scam, and on top carried out by the police. Something we usually go demonstrate against. Totally understanding where he was coming from, I found myself arguing in favor of the corrupt police. I convinced my friend to pay. And not just for himself, but my share as well. Broke student as I was, I did not even have enough money on my account.
For the first time in my life, I experienced the full consequences of extortion. You are brought in such a pinch that your freedom of choice boils down to black and white. And eventually, I was betraying my ideals of what I deem right and what I usually rise against. Facing the potential consequence of losing my university degree was enough to make me act in some horrible people’s favor. I learned a lot about myself and had to question my willpower and determination. How much could they have asked from me? And where was the line at which I would have fought them for real?
While we walked to the ATMs, we were faced with an intimidating contrast. Lots of backpackers were humming on the streets, having breakfast and embracing the beautiful morning with fresh fruits. We walked around a big pile of yesterday’s garbage. At least 10 big black sacks of stinky trash, starting to rot in the rising heat. We were zombies who were allowed to look through a window between realities. One of the French guys was suffering from food poisoning. Puking every 100 meters on the street, we somehow all managed to collect the cash.
Officers of the Vang Vieng Tourist Police batched the money in handy 1-million packs. We watched them count and share the packs among the staff. Then they had us sign a document with unknown content, written in Lao. Finally, one by one, we got our passports back, handed out by an officer who could not hide his smirk anymore.
The barkeeper, Zeus, had simply vanished. The hostel staff did not want to talk to us anymore and nobody knew Zeus’ whereabouts.
We spoke to many backpackers since and were told lots of second-hand stories. Apparently, this passport extortion scam is going on for years in Vang Vieng. The circumstances of the offense vary, but most often people get tricked into drug-related situations like ours. Once the police force gets their hands on your passport they will threaten you with sitting in a cell, no trial. So you eventually give them a confession and seal it with a smudgy, red-inked thumbprint. Then they will lie out some future options for you, one of which includes three ATMs and your smartphone.