AFTER three days of trekking, sweating and snapping photos at the Angkor temple complex
in Siem Reap, a tour guide might lean back and ask over the puttering of his moto,
"You give me your ticket before you leave tomorrow? I can get 1,000 riel for
Most foreign tourists are happy to oblige - the $40 entrance pass being useless for
anything except maybe a souvenir. Or perhaps not.
Tickets to Angkor are being doctored and resold at a healthy profit by those who
are willing to take the risk. The scam is one of several that some Siem Reap locals
use to get a bigger slice of the Angkor tourism pie.
The relative peace in Siem Reap over the past few years has caused visitor numbers
at Angkor to skyrocket, with official tickets sales generating $1,672,513 in 1995,
according to the Tourism Office in Siem Reap.
The increasing flow of tourists shows no sign of abating either. In the first six
months of this year 32,945 paying tourists visited the temples, a 64 percent increase
compared to the same period in 1995.
Making sure all the income from selling entrance tickets ends up in the treasury
has been difficult for the government. Ministry of Tourism officials in Phnom Penh
estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of Angkor's foreign visitors are gaining
entrance with black-market passes.
The simplest of scams requires only a used ticket, rubber stamp, some bleach and
the right contacts at Angkor checkpoints, according to a woman who worked in a Siem
Reap guest house.
"One ticket like that, you must pay three people: the owner of the guest house,
the police and the guide," she said.
Unused tickets also are available to those who know the right people. A legitimate
one-day pass to the temples runs a foreign tourist $20. Travel agencies, guest houses
and tour guides can buy the tickets for $19 from the Ministry of Tourism or the Tourism
Office in Siem Reap and sell them for a $1 profit.
But Siem Reap guest house proprietors and tour guides said a one-day ticket can be
had for $15 or less, considerably boosting any seller's profit margin. The deal is
hard to pass up, and foreign tourists rarely discover they have been seeing the temples
on an illegal ticket.
"Our people know well about that," the Ministry of Tourism's Director of
Finance Nhim Khemra said, adding that the government is also losing money from foreigners
who sneak in before dawn or convince guides to enter the temples through an unguarded
service road. "We don't have this problem too much in the wet season. But in
the dry season there are many small ways to sneak into Angkor."
Khemra said that employees in the Tourism Office and at checkpoints were most likely
in on the deal.
In order to minimize graft, the Ministry rotates ten Phnom Penh employees up to Siem
Reap about once a month, including a team leader that they particularly trust.
One tour guide in Siem Reap, who had regular access to illegal tickets, said his
source temporarily dries up when a new Phnom Penh team arrives, but after about a
week they become corrupted as well and business returns to normal.
Khemra acknowledged the problem. "We send the people we think are really good
to Siem Reap to be team leaders. If he does good, maybe he will stay for three months,"
he said. "[But] if you stay in control for a long time, you feel you are the
boss and can do anything."
The guide said he was happy to buy the black market passes because he felt the $15
was doing more good for civil workers in Siem Reap - whose monthly wages are barely
enough to live on - than the $19 that normally goes to the government.
"Sure there is corruption, but it is all the way through the system," he
said. "Corruption is the system. At least the money is going here and not into
some Swiss bank account."
The argument is compelling enough to wonder where all the money goes from the 32,945
legal tickets sold in the first half of 1996.
According to the 1996 budget plan, all revenue generated from ticket sales must be
turned over to the Ministry of Finance. The Tourism Office said one-quarter of the
ticket money is allocated back to Siem Reap, with 11 per cent divided between the
area's police and military, 8 per cent budgeted to the governor's office, 3 per cent
to Conservation D'Angkor, 2 per cent to the Tourism Office and 1 per cent is spent
on ticket commissions.
The Ministry of Tourism takes control of another 18 per cent, distributing 5 per
cent of that to travel agencies in Phnom Penh, 3 per cent to Angkor checkpoint personnel
and keeping 10 per cent itself. The remaining 57 per cent is deposited into the treasury
of the Ministry of Finance as general revenue.
Some Siem Reap locals disagreed with the theory that black-market ticket sales
were doing more good for the community than the legitimate operation.
"I think the normal money is good because it goes to clean the temples and things
like that," one woman said. "[The corruption] is not good. The money does
not go to the government."
Sam Bun Heng, financial affairs director at the Ministry of Finance, said he was
not aware that tickets were being sold under the table, but stressed that general
budgetary reform has focused on ensuring all government revenue is accounted for.
"I do not know about this corruption so I cannot comment," Sam Bun Heng
said. "The Ministry of Finance will work with the Ministry of Tourism to take
the proper steps to fix this problem."
Khemra said his office has found it impossible to completely snuff out the illegal
sales, but the methods they now use are minimizing the problem.
"We cannot say we can do 100 per cent good, but maybe 80 per cent or 90 per
cent is not so bad. What we have done, we must continue, and if there is a new problem,
we must change to avoid it," Khemra said.
"All the money that we get from foreigners must go through the government. If
the money goes to the pocket it only helps one person."