Cambodia is a poor country. Angkor Wat is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Tourists are rich. You see where we’re going.
Most Cambodians are nice, honest people. But some aren’t. And Angkor Wat scams range from devious to humorous, idiotic to genius.
What kind of scams are we talking about? I’ve already written about the creepy aquatic robbers at Neak Pean. What’s next? Are you going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing a kidney? Kidnapped and ransomed for $100 in Clash of Clans credits?
Maybe, but it’s more likely you’ll experience…
Tourist Prices, Counterfeits and Incorrect Change
I never experienced price-gouging in Vietnam like I did in Cambodia.
You will be overcharged for everything, from tuk tuks to water. I remember when I was about to buy bananas from a street food stall I thought had been giving me a fair price for the past week on lunch. Wrong again.
The owner told us $4 for what looked like a paltry amount of bananas. I started to smile and say no thanks, when one of her other customers shouted our way:
“Those should be $1!”
On the plus side, turns out some Cambodians have great English skills.
That said, don’t expect a Buddha in shining armor to save you every time someone cheats you. My best advice for avoiding exorbitant foreigner taxes is to research expected prices online before your trip.
Remember, you don’t have to take that tuk tuk or eat at a certain restaurant. Ask about the price first before you’re arguing with an old woman in 100-degree heat over 50 cents. If you think you’re getting boned, walk away and find somewhere with a lower exchange rate on your whiteness/blackness/foreign-ness.
You will be tempted to buy lots of gaudy shit in Cambodia too, because that’s what people like us do on vacation. Just bear in mind that most guidebooks offered for a dollar are most definitely counterfeit, and so is everything else name-brand you lay your eyes on.
Once you do pay for something, make sure you’re getting correct change back. Nearly everyone in Cambodia accepts USD in addition to local Cambodian Riel, and the exchange rate has been holding steady for a few months (at the time of writing) just north of 4000 Riel per Dollar.
If you purchase something in dollars, you’ll usually get change back in equivalent riel. Or sometimes not-so-equivalent. Always watch the money leaving and entering your possession and make sure it lines up with how much you’re actually spending.
I wasn’t a victim of this personally, but I have read about it and did see someone who fit this description outside one of Siem Reap’s grocery stores.
The game plan is this:
Youngish woman carries around a baby outside a supermarket and asks for just a little money to buy baby formula. You’ll fawn over the hungry child and agree to martyr a Saint Lincoln for a tub of baby formula.
Only, the baby isn’t starving, she isn’t a mom, and she’s going to return that tub o’ powder to the store for a full refund, pocketing half. Good for the store, good for her, not good for you. You didn’t end child hunger, just lost 5 dollars.
Bullshit, Heed My Call
Ran in to this one at Angkor myself. Even though I would have said no anyway, I’d already read about the incense scam online.
Basically someone pretending to be a monk will approach you with some incense (used in Buddhist prayers) and offer to teach you a blessing. They’ll mumble some bullshit in Khmer that probably means “I am an asshole,” you’ll parrot back the incantation, and then you’ll go on your merry way…
…After you give them $10. Or $20.
In Buddhism, alms are mostly given in the form of food. And, real monks looking for donations don’t dupe westerners into giving them money.
I’m Not A Guide, I Just Play One On TV
This one is easy to avoid if you’ve been around the block a few times, but easy to fall for if you’re new to world travel.
If anyone approaches you at the temple or on the street with great English and offers to show you around, expect to get fleeced for an exorbitant amount of money after they’re done.
You know how beer at concerts and football games costs $15? Well, guides hanging around the temples are no different. If you really need a guide to take you through the park, arrange one with your hotel or guesthouse first.
Would You Like to Make a Donation To My Pockets?
Do your charitable donations instantly get posted on Facebook so you can feel good about yourself?
Do you ever check to make sure “Steve’s Totally leGit Canser Resurch Fund” is actually legit?
Getting into the mess of wasteful or downright dishonest charitable organizations in the US is a whole other (gigantic) can of worms, but the story is the same in Cambodia.
There are dozens of charities for landmine victims, poor children, recovering tuk tuk drivers, you name it. Some of those charities are cleverly named frauds.
If you want to fund a relief effort for Brad’s new granite kitchen island, be my guest. Otherwise, do your research ahead of time and determine which charities are actually putting your hard-earned cash to good use.
Have you ever read the book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie?”
No? Go to the library and read, you animal. It’s a modern classic.
The gist of the story is simple—give someone something for free, and they expect more and more and more. They will never be satisfied with your constant stream of handouts, yet increasingly think you “owe” them more.
The story could easily be rewritten as “If You Give a Kid a Fiver,” talking about the swarms of kiddie beggars at Angkor Wat.
Like signs at national parks warning visitors not to feed animals lest they become unable to fend for themselves in the wild, Angkor is plastered with signs cautioning tourists against handing out money to beggars.
Before you’re tempted to add that next barefooted, doe-eyed hustler to your will, consider this—every dollar entering the begging pool is another day those kids don’t go to school. Giving them money encourages them to stay home and wander the park (peak visiting hours overlap the school day).
That’s not even taking into account that many kids are actually working for someone. They take their day’s wages to their boss and maybe get a small cut. And when they don’t? They get punished.
So as counter-intuitive as it seems, don’t give money to kids. You’re not helping them.
Don’t Feed the Scammers
If you’re wondering why I’m so hard on beggars, it’s because they prey on the naive at the expense of the truly needy. When you offer to buy a $5 postcard from Tiny Tim at the temples, what you’re really doing is providing his gang boss with some quick cash and feeding the system.
Tim isn’t going to school, isn’t learning any skills to drag himself out of poverty, and eventually repeats the cycle when he’s older using other kids.
Here’s you daily dose of reality—thinking you’re a globetrotting Mother Teresa isn’t helping anyone. You waste your own money, enrich the dregs of society, and enable them to take advantage of future generations.
Watch your money like a hawk. Walk away from con artists. Don’t do anything dumb.
It’s simple. Enjoy your trip to Angkor Wat, and please remember to donate to my local charity in Siem Reap:
Make Nick’s Bank Account Great Again (a nonprofit for heroin-addicted stray dogs).