One of our beliefs and goals during our three year voyage around the world is to avoid paying bribes and entering into corruption. Alex is very strong minded in this regard. Growing up in Brazil he witnessed first hand how corruption massively effected the quality of life of the Brazilian majority – hospitals, roads and schools lacked funding while rich politicians and powerful companies somehow ended up with all the money. He strongly believes that to eradicate corruption, you need to start from the bottom up.
So when we were stopped along with a handful of locals for riding our scooter without helmets in Laos (completely our fault), we prepared ourselves for what might come. Although the police became frustrated and threatened us when we refused to pay the bribe they requested, we stuck to our beliefs and eventually were let go without paying a single cent.
Below are our top tips for dealing with corrupt officials while travelling, followed by our story in Laos and how we managed to avoid entering into corruption by sticking to our laurels.
Handy tips to avoid paying bribes in corrupt countries
1. Do not pay fines on the spot
If you are fined in a foreign country you should ALWAYS be given a written document that details the circumstances and price of the fine and how you can go about paying it. You will never be requested to pay the fine on the spot.
2. Never give your passport to an official you do not know
Carrying a photocopy with you may be a better option. Corrupt officials have been known to request passports to ‘check information’ and then blackmail the owner into paying to get it back.
3. Don’t allow threats to scare you
Officials in some countries may threaten you with something bad if you do not pay a bribe. In our case the policemen threatened to take us to the police station and impound the scooter if we didn’t hand over some money. Alex knew that it was a loose threat made to scare us into handing over money. If you think about it, the policemen would actually be inconvenienced if they took us to the police station. It would mean they’d lose potential revenue they’d make stopping others at their improvised ‘check-point’.
4. Be persistent
Often corrupt officials don’t care if you are doing the right thing or not – they just want money. If you kick up enough of a fight and take up too much of their time they may just give up trying to get your money and let you go. A good way to do this is to insist on doing things the right way – for example if you were speeding insist on paying the speeding fine and not the bribe. Don’t let them sway you when they suggest it’ll be more difficult or timely than just paying the bribe.
5. Safety first
Despite everything we’ve mentioned above, your safety is paramount. If you ever feel like things are getting out of hand or dangerous, do not continue to argue with officials. Our situation occurred during the day among a crowd of other people – so we felt relatively safe enough to challenge the officers and not be put into danger. If you’re alone, its dark or there is no one else around and you feel insecure, go with your gut instinct and turn on self-preservation mode.
Our first experience of corruption – Luang Prabang, Laos
We hired a scooter for two days and used it to get out of town to see the countryside and a few waterfalls in the area. On the second day with the scooter we decided to go and get lunch just around the corner. It was stinking hot so we decided to drive but when we got to our hotel reception we realised we’d forgotten our helmets in the room.
Being lazy (and influenced by the countless locals who don’t wear helmets) we decided to risk it and ride the couple of hundred metres without helmets. Big mistake.
50m down the road a group of police were stopping everyone not wearing helmets and demanding 50,000 kips (US$ 6) as ‘punishment’.
Fair enough, we weren’t wearing helmets so we said we were happy to pay the official fine. However, the group of Lao policemen said that they’d left the fine book at the police station (despite the fact they’d set up an official check point and were stopping dozens of drivers on the road). This set off alarm bells and we realised that all the policemen wanted was our money.
We stuck to our principles however and stated that we would happily pay the fine as long as we were issued with the correct paperwork. The police then said that if we wanted to follow the correct procedures they would have to impound the scooter at the police station. We went along with their threat and said that wasn’t a problem, but that we didn’t want them driving the scooter their (as it was a rental).
This frustrated the policemen who then said it would be an extra 100,000 kip to put the scooter on a tuk-tuk (Asian mini-truck) to take it to the station.Again we said that was no problem, as long as we were following the correct procedure we didn’t mind how long or how costly it was.
This seemed to surprise the policemen and they got quite disinterested after this. We asked what was happening and they ignored us for a while. I took the opportunity to walk the 50m back to the hotel to get our helmets while Alex stayed with the police.
When I got back with the helmets we once again stated that we wanted to follow correct procedures. The police obviously didn’t want the hassle of having to take the scooter on a tuk-tuk to the station (as they’d lose time to be making money at their ‘check-point’).
We stated that if they wouldn’t take the scooter to the station and if they didn’t issue us a fine that we would put our helmets on and drive away. After a bit of frustrated communication between the police they didn’t even respond, so we took this as an opportunity to leave.
We popped our helmets on and after one policemen demanded to check our camera and delete any photos or videos of them, were free to leave.
Thankfully we fooled the police and managed to keep a few of the shots we captured on our camera. Check out the video below to see how it all went down!