After my first meeting with Ha’s daughter, I knew it wasn’t going to be our last. This sort of caught me off guard as all my recent encounters with kids were negative – either trained clowns able to fake-cry on command, going out of their way to get money off of you and telling you to F%$k off if you don’t give it to them, or screaming the entire flight turning an already exhausting experience into a nightmare from hell – so if you even remotely brought up anything to do with kids, I would have told you to keep them as far away from me as possible so nobody gets hurt. But bubbly personality Ha’s daughter was radiating got the best of me.
After I embarked on my third day of Angkor exploring, I took on the Grand Circuit in a counter-clockwise direction with a mandatory stop at my new-found friends’ from the Sras Srang village. The temple of Banteay Kdei was about 12 km away from where I stayed in Siem Reap, and just a corner turn away from the Grand Circuit which made it a perfect, strategic stop to recharge on energy with coconut water and cool off the sweat the ride so far has resulted in. But I also had an extra plan for the stop at Banteai Kdei.
When I first went with Ha to see her daughter, I made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy candy. I thought it would make a kid happy and pre-occupied enough to leave me the hell alone. It did make her happy – beyond happy – but it didn’t keep her off of me, though by that time I didn’t mind. Obviously, buying the kid a simple thing which her mother could not afford to buy meant a world to the little girl. Anticipating my next meeting with her, I thought I was gonna buy something more sustainable and less damaging to her already spoilt teeth. I had to take two things into an account:
Ha was always by my side, except from times when I was at Angkor
I wanted to make it a surprise so buying anything in Siem Reap would defeat this idea. And since any business in Siem Reap would try to rip me off as much as any tout at Angkor Archaeological Park would, there was no benefit to buying in town over buying at Angkor. On top of it all – my relationship with the Sras Srang villagers was nicely developing so I thought I’ll get the best of both world and buy something for Ha’s daughter from them.
As much as I enjoyed the company of the villagers, they were still Cambodians and I was still a foreigner. For them it’s always an “Us Against Them” game so as I kept spending more and more time with them, but buying nothing except a whole pile of coconuts every day, they continued bugging me and requesting that I fall for their sales pitch and spend more money. Under normal circumstances, I would not give in to the pressure of pestering touts (except that one time when the little girl tout who broke into tears after a would-be customer bought from somebody else), but since I wanted to buy Ha’s daughter something anyway, so why not from my new friends? Whom better to support financially than people with whom I was gonna spend several month with (though at the time I didn’t quite know it yet)? So I did just that. It didn’t ease the pressure one bit, but gave me an extra argument to counter theirs with when they tried to force me into buying some more.
Granted, everything they sell at Angkor is a piece of junk. There are basically two types of items you can buy: bootlegs of all sorts and miserable quality t-shirts. I didn’t have many options so I went for a low quality t-shirt. I’m not very good at buying presents so I had to make it easy on myself. The biggest challenge I was faced with was trying to guess the right size for Ha’s daughter. They had children sized tops with elephants on them in both small and medium. I asked my friends to get some four year old girl touts to come over so I can test the size on them. Since Ha’s daughter was the same age and racial differences are minimal between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, I thought this was gonna help me choose the right size. I ended up going with medium sized top as small seemed as though it was meant for infants. I also thought buying the top that’s a bit too big would be better in a long run than getting one that’s a bit too small. The four year olds grow big quickly, so if the garment is a tad large right now, it’ll fit just fine later. Whereas if it’s already tight, it’s gonna be completely unusable very soon.
My suspicion was correct – the medium sized top was still a bit too big for her, but that mattered not. Both Ha and her daughter were beaming with delight when I pulled the top out of my camera bag and handed it to the little girl. I haven’t seen this much happiness in a very long time. The girl was so excited she instantly wanted to pose for pictures with her new top on. She loved having her pictures taken and as a photographer, I loved taking them. Four year old, but so photogenic and just shining with glamour. Little did they know at the time that this was naught but the beginning. The main surprise of the day was yet to come.
Gallery of pictures I took of Ha’s daughter wearing the top I bought her from the villagers at Banteay Kdei temple is below:
One of the reasons why Cambodia has grown to become a popular tourist trap is because it’s cheap. At least that’s what most people who visited the country claim. But let’s take a closer look at some undisputed facts before we jump into conclusion and find a more reliable answer to how cheap Cambodia really is (or whether it is cheap at all).
Is Cambodia Cheap?
Let me get ahead of myself and say it right up without beating around the bush – Cambodia is NOT cheap. Just because most visitors are able to spend less money in Cambodia than they would have in, say Canada, the United States or Germany, it doesn’t mean that Cambodia is cheap. As a matter of fact, vast majority of articles for sale in Cambodia are more expensive than in any of the three mentioned countries (or elsewhere in the world). Since no serious manufacturer would open a plant in a country like Cambodia, where quality of workmanship is so low and work ethic nonexistent, very little is manufactured there. As a result, most items of everyday use must be imported from abroad. Personal hygiene products are a good example. Thinking you could buy a tub of Colgate tooth paste for cheap in Cambodia would set you up for a big surprise.
Similarly, good luck trying to buy a Snickers bar for a price similar to that in western countries. Yet don’t even get me started on electronics or motor vehicles. Check out the classified ads for prices of overused, 30 year old beaters. They sell for the price of brand new sedans in Canada. Electronics? Thinking of replacing that broken camera that was stolen while you were visiting Cambodia? Prepare to shell out on average 40% more than you would in your home country.
Genuine Products in Cambodia
But that’s only the beginning. If you buy a camera from a retailer in a western country, you can be pretty sure you are buying a genuine product and you will get a reasonable customer service (sometimes even a time-limited no questions asked money back guarantee) should the product not perform to your expectations. Not only are these unheard of in Cambodia where similar product would cost much more, you would have to consider yourself blessed if you lucked out enough to obtain a genuine product for your money. And if the casing is genuine, than at least some parts of what you buy will be stripped off and replaced with cheap, generic substitutes. That’s real Cambodia so really – it’s not cheap there. The perceived cheapness most people experience is just a skewed reality that camouflages itself as cheapness, but in reality it’s not.
$2 Burger in Cambodia vs $6 Burger in Canada
Since I’m from Canada, the best way for me to compare products available in Cambodia is with those available in Canada. The example below can be used for any other western country, just replace “Canada” with the name of your home country and you’ll get the desired result.
Let’s say (for illustration purposes) a burger in Canada costs $6. Then you come to Cambodia and find them selling burgers for $2. An average person who buys that $2 burger in Cambodia would end up writing a blog post, or telling their friends that Cambodia is cheap. But I’m not your average person. I like to disclose the whole truth to my friends and readers of my blog, not just the convenient part, so let me break the cost of each burger down a little:
Cost of Hygiene
In Canada, even though the burger is perceived as more expensive, you get certain guarantee of hygiene and freshness. If nothing else, at least before a license to handle food is granted, some form of inspection of premises is made (and can be done later on as well). You don’t have anything like that in Cambodia. Burgers can be sold out of a self made push-cart that’s parked with the swine overnight before it’s taken out to carry food. In conclusion:
guarantee of hygiene in Canada – some
guarantee of hygiene in Cambodia – none
Cost of Safe Ingredients
In countries like Canada, internationally recognized standards and principles are followed to ensure that the food safety requirements are met. The body that’s responsible for the enforcement of these rules is called the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Before any edibles can be offers for sale, they must first be approved for sale by the CFIA.
It’s important to acknowledge that it is a dog eat dog world out there and everything seems to be about profits nowadays, yet still at least there are some institutions that would remove suspicious lines from shelves of grocery stores if there was a reason to believe they posed a health hazard to the public. This has happened many times and will continue to happen even if it means that the removal of products will push the company that provided them to the retailers to the brink of bankruptcy. Producers know it very well so food safety controls are rather rigorous. In conclusion:
guarantee of freshness and safety of food in Canada – some
guarantee of freshness and safety of food in Cambodia – none
Cost of Decent Service
The burger itself is merely a part of your experience buying it. In order to have it freshly made so you can munch on it, you must first order it with the server. And here’s where the real difference of a burger in Canada vs a burger in Cambodia comes to place.
Ordering a burger in Cambodia (or anything else for that matter), will undoubtedly require you to have to deal with a Cambodian national and that won’t go without a need to put up with their laziness, attitude and rudeness.
Ordering a burger in Canada requires an interaction with a server who – whether genuinely or by pretense – will usually be nice and respectful to you. This is a western way of life where customer is seen as a person important to success of a business so staff know they need to treat them with respect and dignity or the business fails. There are mood swings and other variables that can make the experience questionable, but for the most part, dealing with business attendants usually results in fair and dignified treatment. You pay $$$ for it, but you get it.
In Cambodia, on the other hand, you can get your burger for $2, but you will be served by a rude local who takes you for a pest. You will have to deal with their slowness as they scrape their feet against the floor pissed off that they have to serve you, you will have to deal with them barking at you if anything is unclear and you request clarification, you will have to put up with them laughing at you and not hiding that they are talking about you while they’re having themselves a good time at your expense and you will have nothing on your side to prevent that from happening.
Cambodians are very rude in general and nothing makes them happier than misfortune of another. This is true of all of them, including the monks. Even a monk will laugh his ass off at you if you bought a bus ticket with a dedicated seat and the seat is taken by somebody else even though it should belong to you. But then again, just because someone shaves their head and puts on a saffron robe, it doesn’t mean they become any less of a Cambodian. Afterall, Cambodians don’t get ordained for monks out of sheer interest to become a better person and do good. That’s not why they do it. They become monks when there are benefits for them in doing so – for example if becoming a monk will save them from going to jail or if it provides them with free education. But as soon as it becomes clear than the benefits of being a monk are over and leaving monkhood would be of more benefit, you’ll see them gone and back being their usual selves.
Cost of Customer Service
Shopping in Canada comes with some customer service. If you have any form of post purchase issue or complaint, there usually is a dedicated customer service representative, a manager on site, or if all else fails, at least bodies like the Better Business Bureau. Once money is spent, you still can often get either a replacement or a refund should something be wrong with the product purchased.
In Cambodia, once money is spent, consider it final. There is no accountability whatsoever. You pay for a silver pendant and find out it’s just some cheap metal – tough luck. Not only will there be no one to take care of the issue for you, you will be laughed at, mocked, pointed fingers at and threatened if you try to stand up for yourself.
I learned all about Cambodian customer service after my cell phone was stolen. I called Metfone’s customer service in a bid to cancel the number that went with the stolen cell phone. Since thieves got my phone, I at least wanted to make sure they couldn’t take advantage of the credit I had on the SIM card. But dealing with Metfone’s customer support revealed the true face of Cambodia.
Not only is calling Metfone customer service from Metfone phone numbers a paid call, their representatives are typical Cambodians – rude, self righteous bastards with holier than thou attitudes. Basically, after hours of wasting money being put on hold and passed from one person to another, I was told that everything was my fault for not paying attention, that they’re not there to take care of such requests and was called names for bothering them with this bullsh1t.
Cost of Enjoyable Experience
Let me get back to those burgers. One of the most important differences is that even though you would have spent $6 for your burger in Canada, you could sit in a facility where you could enjoy your bite without someone blowing smoke in your face, chewing with their mouth open so the leaves fall off the trees it’s so loud and disgusting, or being bothered to no end by beggars ready and willing to tell you to “f%$k off” or call you “stingy” if you refuse to give them money while they’re turning your dining experience into a nightmare.
Which Burger Was Cheaper?
Yes, you did need less money to buy a burger in Cambodia than you would in Canada, but it was not cheap. If you look closely at what you’re getting and how much you sacrificed and put at risk (including your health which will catch up with you one day, whether you like it or not), you did in fact overpay by shelling out those two bucks.
Cambodia is NOT Cheap
Cambodia is by no stretch of imagination a cheap country. Considering what you receive for your money, it is in fact ridiculously expensive. If you were to sacrifice all the good things Canada protects you as a consumer with, you could live in Canada for less than in Cambodia. Go sleep in a ditch with rats in a really dangerous part of a ghetto, eat filthy leftovers dumped in the bins by spoiled kids and you’ll see that Canada is really cheaper than Cambodia.
Why Is Cambodia Perceived as Cheap?
It is only because some people lower their standards of acceptance and willingly put their personal safety and health at risk that they are able to stay in Cambodia and spend less money than they would in their home country. And then they go around telling everyone that Cambodia is cheap, while conveniently leaving out the details of why exactly it seemed cheap.
One more time – if you take into account what you get for your money, Cambodia is a bad, bad value for money and an overall expensive country. Unless of course you take personal abuse, health hazards and endangerment of life as acceptable standards. Then it is cheap but that way it can be cheap in any country, including Canada.
The best and the only way to avoid the mistreatment Cambodia greets visitors with is by not going to Cambodia. Khmer temples can be visited in other countries (such as Thailand or Laos) and outside of that, by giving Cambodia a pass, you won’t be missing out on much.
Scamming foreigners by selling them worthless counterfeit products is a very common and widely practised way to profit. While in most cases it would mean the loss of money, Cambodians push this a whole flight of steps further and won’t wink over potentially killing someone if it leads to easy income. For example, Cambodia is a global leader in sales of fake malaria pills, and that’s a serious threat to health that could easily lead to death. Imagine you’d buy the malaria pills in Cambodia and thinking you are protected, you’d go exploring Angkor Temples and get bitten… I can’t stress this strongly enough – stock up on everything you’ll need before coming to Cambodia and never leave purchases of anything that could affect your health or life for Cambodia. Ever!
Cambodians don’t believe in earning a living through hard work. They either want handouts or easy income through scam or theft. I said it many times before and will say it again – you can’t be 100% alert 100% of the time. Sooner or later, after a long tiring day you’ll let your guards down for a second and with dozens of con artists hanging around waiting for that opportune moment, one is bound to notice and take advantage. This will make your stay in an already expensive country even more costly and as it turns out, of all the people with whom I spoke (and who comment on my posts), virtually everybody had something stolen in Cambodia. A lifetime commitment to thievery makes them very skilled thieves. They also work in teams and know how to distract an unsuspecting tourist to make the pull successful. The only safe way to avoid it is by not going to Cambodia at all. By taking a risk and going you stand a very solid chance of becoming a victim. You have been warned!
While I was chatting it away at Banteay Kdei temple as part of my break from the sun, something happened that made me break my #1 rule of not supporting the culture of handouts. Saly, Sarein and Kai kept sharing stories of the village life with me when loudish, argument like screaming came out of the temple gate and one little girl walked out of there in tears.
I’ve had many children approach me with fake tears during the course of my stay in Cambodia, but this one was different. This girl was not faking it to trick anyone into giving her money, this girl was sincerely hurting. Everyone, including Saly, Sarein and Kai as well as everyone else who was around completely ignored the child as if it was nobody else’s, but her own business to get over it.
I was appalled and wanted to at least know the reason why she was crying so I could attempt to make her feel better. Everybody was telling me that it was nothing and that she’d be over it right away but I wanted her to tell me what it was that made her cry so much. Through endless sobbing, she eventually let me know that one of the other child slaves managed to make a foreigner buy postcards from her, a foreigner whom, as she said, she was the first to talk to.
Child slaves who are summoned by their parents to bother tourists at Angkor Temples are instructed to say certain things that are proven to maximize their chances of selling. Because foreigners are accosted on every step of their way at Angkor, they impulsively reject every attempt at being sold something as they would have had a million and one chances to buy the same stuff from hundreds of previous touts they were jumped by along the way so far, if they had any intention to own any of the junk.
Common responses to impulsive rejection include the “Where Are You From?” question the purpose of which is to get the foreigner engaged in a conversation so they eventually feel connection with the tout and agree to buying something because of that. If that fails and there is no stopping the foreigner from exiting the territory in which the touts is allowed to operate, the touts will utilize the last resort phrase by saying something like: “I’ll wait for you on your way back, OK? When you come back you buy from me!”
This is obviously what the heartbroken girl told the tourist as he was walking inside the temple where she was not allowed to harass anyone, but then when he was walking outside and already had his set of postcards purchased from some other tout, she felt betrayed by whoever the successful tout was and that made her cry and get in an argument with that other girl.
It felt as though the sale of that pack of postcards was a “must happen” for her that day. Perhaps she was threatened by her parents who control her that if she doesn’t sell anything today, she would not get anything to eat or worse. Why otherwise would a 7 year old girl cry like that over an unsuccessful sale? Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter to me at the time. I was right there and at that very moment there was one devastated little girl who was this close to making one sale but someone else ended up with the score.
Sadly, Cambodians draw great pleasure from other people’s suffering. Nothing makes them happier than seeing someone else get in a tight spot. Everyone around, especially the other little girl touts were laughing their asses off and so were the rest of the locals who were nearby. I found this behaviour absolutely atrocious and because there is no stopping of Cambodians who have themselves a good time because they see someone else suffer, I told the girl to follow me so I could withdraw her from this abuse and mockery.
I walked with her across the road where shops are lined up and told her that I would buy that pack of postcards from her. I had no need for any of her postcards – as a matter of fact, I could not possibly consider buying anything as when you are on the road for a long time, wasting money on useless junk is not a smart option but most of all – there is only so much room you have in your backpack and even if you stick with mere necessities, hauling it around on your back over and over will make you understand that you’re not gonna add to it unless it’s really important.
There was absolutely nothing any of the relentless touts could possibly say to make me buy anything from them. Yet in this very moment, all of my personal reasons and beliefs dwindled aside and gave way to making the difference in a life of one single person. The pack of 10 postcards she was trying to sell was of absolutely no use to me. But the one dollar she would make would mean everything to her.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any one dollar bills on me so I took a five dollar bill to Saly and asked her if she could break it for me so I can buy the postcards from that little girl. And Saly did exactly what I should have expected – she took my money and came back with two one dollar bills and a Bayon t-shirt she said was worth $3 and I had just bought it. Well damn!
The premise of not buying anything you don’t need when you’re on the road is a big one. If I were to buy a t-shirt from every place I visit, I’d quickly need another backpack. This was simply not an option. I had just enough t-shirts to get by and the only way I’d buy a new one would be if I needed to replace one I had worn out. I wash my clothes by hand and wear them in all imaginable situations, including crazy adventures so when a piece of garment wears out, then I’ll buy a new one – to replace it, but not until there is such need.
Saly made a decision for me about this t-shirt, though. I ended up with a t-shirt I didn’t even like and a set of 10 postcards I had nobody to send to (I live in a digital age. Old school snail mail is not for me. Instead of postcards, I send my family and friends digital pictures I took via email). But that’s what I get for making friends with touts.
I wasn’t mad though. I ended up with more junk to haul around, but I thought it turned out being a wonderful day so in the end, it was all worth it. I didn’t want the t-shirt so I donated it right away and the postcards – yeah, I actually did haul them around until my return back to Canada in December.
I had to face a lot of rage from other child touts after the purchase of those postcards, though. Each of them wanted me to buy from them and I gave each of them a firm “No” so when they found out I had eventually bought the postcards despite previous claims that I couldn’t buy any, it gave them the reason to blame me. Honour is not a virtue that’s commonly found in Cambodia. Touts are used to lying – they’ve been lying every day of their lives since they could talk. Expecting any form of honour from a person whose life is based on lies would be foolish. As a result, any villager I didn’t buy from would treat me as an unwanted intruder during my 2 months long stay in the village.
I was only two weeks away from my booked departure to Cambodia and I still needed to purchase a few essential electronic devices to make sure I am able to document my journey around the world and maintain my positive cash flow while I’m on the road. The absolutely most essential piece of equipment was a powerful and reliable laptop. Throughout my life, I have owned and worked on several laptops so I really didn’t need the buying a laptop for dummies guide. I purchased a top of the line SONY laptop a few years ago, but the screen on it died shortly after a year of moderate use. I sent it in to SONY authorized service centre and was told that whole screen needed to be replaced which would incur the cost of $1,400. Given that I paid $3,500 for this machine just a year ago (it was the most powerful and advanced laptop at the time), I was not impressed with the quote. I did not pay this much money to have to pay an additional $1,400 to keep this expensive piece of machinery usable after one year. But because it was shortly after one year of ownership, the warranty on the laptop was expired so SONY was not willing to assist. I was basically left with the extremely expensive piece of laptop I paid a lot of money for but could not use it. Needless to say, this was the last time I have purchased anything made by SONY.
I also had another laptop. It was an old Toshiba I bought back in 1999. It still have Windows 98 Millennium Edition installed on it, it was ridiculously old and slow, but still worked like a charm. This laptop went through hell with me yet it has never let me down. I purchased the above mentioned SONY laptop in order to replace this old Toshiba because it was old and no longer matched modern criteria for computer use. I could still use it as everything on it worked like new despite extensive use for almost a decade, but it was simply too slow so I needed a new one.
After SONY let me down and burned $3,500 out of my pocket, I fell back to using a desktop which is what I was on at the time of making all of these arrangements to start the worldwide travel. I could not take the desktop with me. I needed a new laptop. I simply had no way around it. It’s impossible to haul the desktop around when travelling, Toshiba laptop was too slow and SONY didn’t work because it’s a piece of junk. So I brushed off my buying laptop for dummies guide and started to look around to see what there was for laptops at the moment so I could buy one.
One thing I have learned after purchasing the SONY laptop was that when buying a laptop, go for as small a screen as you can read. The SONY laptop had a 16.9″ screen. I thought it was awesome cause I was gonna get this nicely large viewing area along with super-powered components inside, but it proved to be the worst decision ever. Case in point is – if you want large screen, get yourself one for the desktop. When buying a laptop, go for light weight and small size. Even if you’re not a traveler, you will want to take your laptop with you when leaving your house for a variety of reasons and the bigger a laptop, the heavier and larger a chunk you will have to haul around with you. 17″ screen laptops are near impossible to use onboard a plane or in a car. They are simply so big that you can’t even open it on your lap. Plus you will need a rather large case to fit it in making your carryon luggage chunky and heavy. Lightweight laptops are the only way to go, whether you travel a lot or not.
So I went out to look for a laptop to buy but was discouraged by low availability of quality machines. I looked at Toshibas because the one I have still works and it’s more than 10 years old, but Toshiba seemed to have fallen asleep in 2009. Their laptops were underpowered and overpriced. The processors were from 2008. Memory was insufficient, hard drive space not much – plain and simple no where up to par with 2009 laptops. And these machines were priced at the same level as other brands which were equipped with superior processors, twice as much memory, larger hard drives, better video cards and all other components. It made no sense buying any Toshibas in mid 2009.
After ditching Toshiba laptops, I had very few options left. I only had a couple of weeks till departure so I really needed to get the laptop asap so I can load it up with necessary software and all files I need to have instant access to. But the quest to find a machine I’d be comfortable with was failing. Mid 2009 was also the time when Microsoft announced the release of Windows 7 operating system which would mean that one would want to wait until laptops loaded up with this new operating system are available (#2 rule from the Buying Laptop for Dummies guide), but I simply could not wait. I was leaving in two weeks so even though the laptop purchased now would come with operating system that’s becoming obsolete, I had to buy it.