Why Supporting Local Businesses In Cambodia Is NOT a Good Thing

Supporting local economy by buying from small local businesses is definitely a good thing and is both rewarding and empowering. I always follow this golden rule to the last letter and strongly encourage all travelers to support local businesses any way they can but as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, unless Cambodia puts an end to open discrimination their society is riddled with, I will maintain that supporting local Cambodian businesses is equivalent to promoting racism.

Unless you pop in a business that’s part of a nationwide chain, you are unlikely to see any prices posted visibly next to the items they apply to. There is a very good reason for that. Prices are not clearly displayed to allow for racial profiling which results in business owners applying different prices to different ethnic groups.

This type of racial profiling is not practised in any of the neighboring countries but then again, most businesses in the neighboring countries try to establish themselves by offering quality product and/or service whereas most Cambodian businesses specialize in ripping the customer off at any cost the first time they come to buy something.

Not all Cambodian businesses are like that, though. Visitors to Cambodia have an option to do business with non discriminatory companies and support good business practices, instead of scam and racism. Examples of good businesses to shop with in Siem Reap are Lucky Mall, Angkor Market or Angkor Trade Centre. In these businesses, prices are clearly marked and visibly posted and apply equally to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.

Photo: Lucky Mall in Siem Reap - Sustainable Business Worth Supporting
Photo: Lucky Mall in Siem Reap - Sustainable Business Worth Supporting

Aside from wider selection of items, these businesses also offer better pricing on most items however when it comes to fresh produce, you will always end up paying more when buying it from any of the non discriminatory businesses. Going to a local market and haggling for a price with a vendor there will land you a significantly better price. For example an average price for a water melon (an excellent source of energy and hydration in this heat) in Lucky Mall is $1.05 – $1.50 whereas the price for the same in Center Market or Old Market would only be 2,000 to 3,000 Riel (equivalent to roughly $.50 to $.75) or somewhere in that neighborhood. However in my mind, I will gladly pay a premium for the privilege of being treated equally than to be subjected to racial discrimination even if it saves me some money.

Unfortunately, you will also get local Cambodians shopping at these malls and Cambodians believe lines don’t apply to them. If you go shopping during a busier time of day, you may have a few people at every open cash register, so you just step in line and wait your turn. Other foreigners will step in line behind you or behind whoever the last person in the line where they want to wait their turn is, but when a Cambodian comes, they will simply step in the personal space before you and start rudely piling their stuff on the counter, completely ignoring everyone who have been politely waiting in that line for their turn. Cambodians are naturally rude and disrespectful so this type of behavior is normal.

By supporting local businesses in Cambodia, you will be directly supporting racism and discrimination. Small local businesses are an essential part of local economies, but if Cambodians care about their local economies, the change must start with them. I would never pass by the business that displays their prices visibly and gives me room to look at their merchandise without pressuring me into buying something from them. The formula is simple – you either leave me alone so I can carefully evaluate what I want to buy, or I’m not buying anything from you at all. I continuously need stuff to sustain my travels yet no business that tried to pressure me ever succeeded in making me to buy from them. I always go where I feel comfortable and am granted with space to breathe and time to decide.

Cambodians like to whine that business is slow, yet they don’t try to address the reason behind it. Nobody likes to be discriminated against and treated like crap. Many foreigners who come to Cambodia end up spending less money that they would if they were not constantly under pressure from aggressive touts. They go to local markets, but end up just passing from one stall to another, avoiding eye contact with the shop people just so they don’t have to put up with that constant pressure. As a result, they end up buying nothing because no business would leave them alone to decide what they could buy in peace.

Refusing to do business with businesses that don’t treat customers with respect is the best service you as a foreigner can offer to the local communities. When businesses realize that they are ripping themselves off by being rude, travellers will stay longer and will spend more money. It’s time for sustainable solutions, not short term, shady business practices. Help make the world a better place and do not support local Cambodian businesses that base their business model on racism and mistreatment. Criticism from faux-supporters who support this deadlock situation is superficial and unsustainable. Make the right choices that will promote the real change. It will help to make Cambodia a better and safer country, which right now it is not.

Wat Damnak

I woke up to a new day ready to explore more of Siem Reap’s pagodas. The sun was already baking the air outside which made me happy since it was rainy season in Cambodia, but this was the second day with no rain. Already well aware of how devastating Cambodian sun is, I fortified my skin with natural sun block (as close to organic as it gets), applied powerful mosquito repellent (don’t even bother with anything that contains less than 30% deet – Cambodian mosquitoes are vicious, plentiful and active during all parts of day and night), sat on my mountain bike and off I rode for Wat Damnak.

Photo: Wat Damnak Courtyard with Temple in the Rear
Photo: Wat Damnak Courtyard with Temple in the Rear

As always, I used the map provided in Angkor Siem Reap Visitors Guide to find locations of most relevant temples and pagodas in Siem Reap and used it as my main guide in choosing the best itinerary to get me there. Not that it’s in any way difficult, given rather small size of Siem Reap.

Wat Damnak is located near Phsar Chas aka Old Market, just on the opposite side of the Siem Reap river. If you were to take a walk around the Old Market, you would see the stone bridge right on its south-east corner. Take a walk across the bridge and by the time you made it half across, you will see the roof of beautiful Wat Damnak to your slight right.

Photo: Wat Damnak Front Gate with Cables Spoiling the View
Photo: Wat Damnak Front Gate with Cables Spoiling the View

Once I was across the river, I just followed the road that seemed to go in the general direction of Wat Damnak and it got me there. The entrance gate was the same way I got used to seeing from other temples I have visited before – magnificent, but spoiled by presence of disorganized bunch of cables which are used to electrify Cambodia. These cables spoil the view of basically every important or nice to look at structure in Cambodia, except from Angkor Wat temples since this part of the country has not yet been electrified. This was driving me up the wall as no matter where you go, you see beautiful temples, but you have no means of finding an angle under which to take a picture so it is not ruined by crap loads of cables cross knitted along each other.

This would have been the second day of Pchum Ben Festival. The 15 days long Festival of the Dead is an important part of Buddhist Khmer culture so during these two weeks I was encountering it on my every step. Pchum Ben was the most prominent within temple grounds. It always involved presence of dozens of monks, very loud traditional Khmer music played from really old loud speakers (awfully painful for the ears) and lots and lots of food and then some more.

Photo: Wat Damnak Vihara, the Prayer Hall
Photo: Wat Damnak Vihara, the Prayer Hall

Just as with any Cambodian temple during Pchum Ben festival, there were many people around and lots of traffic in and out. It was a scorching hot day but locals were all nicely dressed and carried bowls with food they’d use as offerings to their dead ancestors and to local monks. I parked my bike by Vihara – the prayer hall. It was close to Wat Damnak’s entrance gate and there seemed to be most commotion happening there. Aside from noticeable crowds, there was also obvious audible effect as Buddhists inside were repeating chants with powerful unison after the leading monk.

Photo: Mass Prayer at Wat Damnak Vihara
Photo: Mass Prayer at Wat Damnak Vihara

Wat Damnak Photo Gallery

Phsar Kandal – Center Market in Siem Reap

As I was exploring Siem Reap on foot, I spent most of my time battling off ever aggressive Tuk Tuk drivers who kept approaching me on every step. It was early morning yet and my first day in Cambodia so I have immersed myself into the atmosphere and took on scorching rays of clouded sun. The rain has just stopped, but puddles have already been cleared off the roads and sidewalks by intense heat. The life around Siem Reap seemed to be in full swing despite early hour and all shops were open, inviting the visitors in. I figured it was time to confront the notorious Khmer cuisine which is said to be both delicious and inexpensive (translation: cheap). But first I wanted to pay a visit to Phsar Kandal (Center Market), an open market area which is said to be abundant with all sorts of trinkets I could care less for, but also fresh vegetables and fruit which is what I wanted to explore.

When you are traveling in countries with questionable health care, it is absolutely essential to ensure that you have proper intakes of vitamins and minerals to provide your body with means to battle potential issues before they develop into something more serious. Eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables is often all it takes. It’s a delicious and inexpensive to not need a doctor. As a well aware tourist, heading to a closest market place (in this case Phsar Kandal aka Center Market) was a natural instinct which I have followed subconsciously.

I have crossed the bridge over Stung Siem Reap (Siem Reap River) which was labelled as Wat Bo Bridge by the Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide map I was following. The bridge was named after Wat Bo, a lovely pagoda bearing that same name. According to the map, Phsar Kandal (Center Market) was further up Samdech Tep Vong Street which is the street connected to the bridge I have just crossed. After the bridge, however I had faced a major challenge of crossing the road. It was suicidal to say the least and I have come to understand very quickly the very rule of driving in Cambodia – bigger has the right of way. No motor vehicle will attempt to stop, slow down or avoid you in any way if you are on the road. It’s your responsibility not to get killed. Cars and motorcycles will simply continue undeterred if there is someone hierarchically smaller in their way.

Despite slight difficulties, I have made it across the street without getting killed and paced forward to get to Center Market. It only takes a minute to get there as Siem Reap truly is a small town that can be easily done on foot but despite many stalls with fresh fruit, I felt discouraged and simply walked by without buying anything. Everyone seemed running towards me as soon as I have come to vicinity trying to force me into buying from them. Everyone at Phsar Kandal seems to keep approaching you, assuming that you are rich and can afford anything in the world. To top it up, there were no prices on anything displayed and having just lived my first minutes in Siem Reap, I knew I would get easily scammed if I were to buy anything at Phsar Kandal. I really wanted to, but not even slowing down seemed like an option as I would get swarmed by the vulture like people who would not let me go until they have squeezed the very last penny out of my pocket.

Despite true desire to bury my teeth into a juicy pineapple, I have simply walked by all the stalls and got nothing but a glace of luscious fruits laying on the tables. Had everyone left me alone and given me the room to breathe so I can take a closer look and decide unpressured, someone would have gotten business from me. But being jumped and repeatedly yelled at with offers of what I should buy from them and how they are gonna give me the best price ever and how I should buy after I come back from where I’m going if I’m not buying now, yadda yadda, I felt intimidated and pessimistic so ignoring entirely was the only option that lead to at least some sanity and peace of mind.

I continued on leaving Phsar Kandal behind me. The day was just dawning and I have just woke up to my first day in Cambodia. Surely there are safer places to buy fruit from. The ability to avoid hasty decision is one of the strongest assets a traveller to foreign countries can have. This time the prudence has prevailed. But Cambodia has introduced itself as pretty hostile country with extremely aggressive locals who stop at nothing to squeeze as much out of everyone who looks like a tourist as possible.