Khmer Money

Handling money in Cambodia is an interesting thing. Cambodia is one of the few countries where two currencies are used side-by-side and in the same transaction.

The local currency, Riel, is close to worthless with 4000 Riel to one dollar US. Like other currencies in the area (Kip, Dong) it is only useful in its country of origin and attempts to exchange it elsewhere are usually futile.

What many people don’t know and what the money changers at the border don’t want you to know is that the USD can be used in every Cambodian city. And it’s not just accepted, prices are quoted in USD in every place that is remotely in touch with foreigners. ATMs dispense USD, not Riel.

The Riel comes into play when fractional amounts need to be paid. There are no USD coins in circulation and instead the local currency is used. Paying for a $1.25 meal requires a dollar and 1000 Riel.

The smallest note in circulation is 100 Riel, roughly equivalent to 2.5 cents US. As even a small bottle of water costs 500 Riel, I got most of my 100 as change when shopping at the local equivalent of a 7/11. In uncirculated condition it is a nice souvenir (I have a dozen or so as bookmarks) and in the western world you probably couldn’t print a note like that for 2.5 cents.

Things get ugly when notes are used. In Cambodia I came across some of the dirtiest and filthiest money I ever laid hands on. Money doesn’t stink? It does in Cambodia and sometimes it made me wash my hands in the bathroom before touching any of my private parts. I always gave such notes to the beggars – don’t think they care too much.


Still no news on the job-front, the idea of leaving this country becomes more and more appealing. Doing business with Kiwis has been no fun so far. How different Asia is in that regard, here’s my collected know-how on getting good deals in SEA.

Everybody knows that in Asian countries bargaining is common and locals often try to charge foreigners ridiculously high prices. So how do you bargain successfully, how do you get a price you know is not completely hilarious? Remember: If it doesn’t have a price tag, the price is negotiable.

Should you even bargain or is it not better to give some money to all these poor people? While it is true that the locals can use every single dollar you have to spend, allowing them to blatantly rip you off will have a negative impact on the local economy.

In Battambang, Cambodia, tuk-tuk drivers beat each other up because they all want to drive the westerners around and charge a fortune for their services. In Bangkok locals sometimes struggle to get a taxi because the drivers hope to get a western passenger whom they can charge five times as much as a Thai.

The first step to successful bargaining is knowing a realistic price for the item or service you want to purchase. If you need a taxi, tuk-tuk, moto or the like, the internet and locals from your hostel/hotel are a good source of information. If you are shopping for souvenirs at a market, ask several vendors for the price of an item you are interested in. There is always more than one shop selling the same stuff.

Once you have an idea of what you should pay you can simply ask for a discount, you don’t even need to give a reason. Quite often that drops the price a little already but it usually is still too high. In general, the more touristy the area, the more unrealistic the initial price.

Your next step is to suggest a price yourself. Quote a price lower than what you are willing to pay and try to meet the seller half-way between his idea of a good price and yours. That is somewhat of the most traditional form of bargaining.

Now you have dropped the price but it still seems to high? Time to play your best card, the walking away joker. Tell the merchant that you will think about his offer but want to have a look around first. He knows that he is not the only one selling whatever you are interested in and will become concerned that you might purchase elsewhere.

There is three possible outcomes of that maneuver. Firstly he might let you go which means the price he offered you is as low as he is willing to go. He might also suggest a new, lower price but you should reject that offer as well. Almost always a second drop will follow and that price is basically as low as he is willing to go.

Sometimes you might hear ‘ok, how much you pay?’, which means the merchant initially quoted a price that was completely made up and is now trying to get as much money as possible out of your wallet. It’s open fire now, he tried to overcharge you massively so don’t hesitate to make a ridiculously small offer.

It is important to remember that you don’t need to buy from a specific shop (or driver), there is plenty of supply (unless you are trying to get a taxi during a monsoon downpour) and the fact that you have the choice is what gives you your power in the bargaining game.

Some specific information: A good way to lower prices on markets is to buy bulk. If you want to get four t-shirts, get them all at one shop, you’ll get the biggest discount that way.

Taxis, tuk-tuks and their two-wheeled companions are usually cheapest if flagged down in the streets. Those waiting at the corner of a touristy area are just looking for big money and won’t give you a good deal. Go to a street that leads to where you want to go and hail drivers as they come along. They might be going your way anyway and will rather take you along for small money than don’t make any money at all.

And remember: Always be friendly, smile and don’t raise your voice. Ass-holes don’t get good deals, nice guys do.

Speaking the local language is always a big help and yes, Eric was drunk in that video, Khmer doesn’t require moving your arm like that.

In Hindsight

Still no news on the job front. The agency apparently had a bit of trouble and I had to call them twice to get things going. By now all my referees have replied to them and hopefully they’ll provide some feedback to the company early next week.

Can’t stand this waiting around without anything to do. The job is so attractive that I’m not seriously interested in applying for other offers and thus there’s not much to do other than wait. I utilized the time to build my social network in town – going out for drinks in other words – and came across some interesting people.

I was asked how the different SEA countries compare for me and here is the rating.

1. Thailand

The first major pro is the food. It is readily available everywhere, delicious, usually of good quality and very affordable. So is everything in the country. Despite Thailand being the most developed nation in the region, it is the cheapest one to travel in. Travelling is also very easy as decades of tourists have paved the way and knowledge of the English language is wide-spread although not very sound.

The touristy touch is also a downside as it can be difficult to get what is called an authentic experience. I do believe though that it is still possible and travels in regions like Isaan can still lead far enough off the beaten track to be adventurous. These regions and the authentic experience they promise are one of the reasons why I keep learning Thai.

2. Laos

The cultures, cuisines and languages of Thailand and Laos are very similar and put Laos far up my list. It gets more points for being extremely laid-back and adventurously undeveloped. As reported, it is easy enough to go to places where few tourists go and I’m sure it would be possible to not see another westerner for weeks if one was eager to do that.

It’s development status also brings negative points into the equation. Safety standards are poor and if the steering on that bus to Luang Prabang had broken at another part of the mountain road…

In addition Laos has few domestic tourists and every price tag is adjusted for western wallets. Especially in regards to accommodation, the value for money is pretty low.

3. Vietnam

Scammer’s paradise is a close third behind Laos and had I seen more of the country, it might have ended up farther up the ladder. Basically for me the country simply has less to offer than Thailand and Laos but feels nicer than every country lower on the list.

4. Cambodia

The best thing about the country might just be the temples of Angkor. It certainly is not the food and for me that can pretty much disqualify a country. Honestly, the best food in Cambodia I had at various Indian places.

For some reason I never felt totally at easy in the country. There was always a bit of tension in me, especially in Phnom Penh. In the busiest areas groups of police are on every other corner, one of them usually carrying some form of heavy artillery. And these guys are so dodgy, they probably wouldn’t even get a driver’s license in Europe – here they get to handle assault rifles.

Now police are corrupt to the bone in every country around, but only in Cambodia have I seen them operate so openly, dragging people from their motorcycles and holding them in custody until a bribe was paid.

5. Singapore

Boring and expensive.