In The End, It Was All About Money

I enjoyed my English class profusely. The class was lead by a Buddhist monk with great command of English (the best English I’ve heard any Cambodian speak – I’m guessing he must have gotten scholarship to study in an English speaking country, but I never actually asked to know for sure) and the students, who came from all walks of life were a wonderful bunch. Anyone was welcome to attend the class, but after the class, students paid the Khmer teacher (the monk) 500 Riel (there are 4,300 Cambodian Riel to a US Dollar) each. This didn’t apply to monks. Monks don’t pay.

The students also didn’t have to pay anything to me. The 500 Riel fee for the Khmer teacher was a regular per class fee they’d have to pay regardless of whether I was there or not, but there was no extra cost for the class with me. However, I had to make something very clear right from the get go. Unfortunately, being a foreigner, the first and foremost thing each of the students saw when they looked at me was money. It was really disappointing and it took me a while to eliminate it. Lesson after lesson, either during the class or right after it, various students would approach me with seemingly personal questions, but they always swerved into business solicitations. It would typically go about something like this:

Student: How long have you been in Cambodia for, Mark?
Me: Only for a little over a week now.
Student: How do you like it so far?
Me: It’s very hot, hotter than anything I have previously experienced but I drink lots of coconut so it’s manageable.
Student: Have you been to Angkor yet?
Me: Yes, I went today. It was my first day and it was amazing.
Student: Would you like a tuk tuk for tomorrow?
Me: No, thank you. I have a bicycle and I enjoy riding and exploring at my own pace.
Student: Where are you staying?
Me: In Prom Roth Guesthouse, right around the corner from here.
Student: I know a better guesthouse, can get you a special price.
Me: Thank you for your offer, I may take a look at it later but for now I’m happy with this one.

Day after day, lecture after lecture my students would be approaching me with offers clearly directed at making money at me. It only confirmed what I already knew – for a Cambodian, a westerner is nothing more than a wandering cash cow. It was a dog eat dog world in Siem Reap, though. Millions of tourists keep coming year after year, but for each tourist, there are dozens of relentless touts out there. Tourists are pushed beyond their limits and forced to lock in, disregarding any and all locals trying to approach them.

Needless to say, any foreigner who’s been in Cambodia for more than 5 minutes will be so fed up with aggressive touts, they will not accept any more locals into their personal space. As a result, locals know that their chances at striking a successful conversation with a random foreigner on the street are minimal. They simply know that each foreigner, regardless of how long they’ve been in Cambodia, has already been jumped so many time by locals (and each time it was solely for the purpose of making money at them), they have had enough of it and will just beat each next one off without listening to what they had to say.

Siem Reap is overflowing with money hungry Cambodians who wish to skin every foreigner that comes into view off every single dollar they have, but are unable to get to them because their boundaries were already crossed and all locals are already seen as aggressive, money hungry machines that don’t stop at nothing to get their dollars. And then they see me, standing right in front of them, within the walls of the same room, looking straight into their faces instead of looking away to avoid eye contact (in Cambodia, if you make an eye contact, it is perceived as an invitation to let them sell you something) and talking to them without them struggling to get to me. So what do they do?

That’s right… I threw myself right in the viper’s nest. Each of my students had the most seemingly helpful advice for me, because apparently if I buy from anywhere else but from where they say I should, I will buy badly. It went on like that for a few days until I could not take it anymore and made myself clear in front of an entire class. I said the following:

I come here to help you study the English language. I do not take any money for it and I do not expect any. I am here because I enjoy the lectures and like to share the knowledge. However, I do not like that you see my presence as an open invitation to sell me something or get commissions for me. I volunteer my time to help you improve your English speaking skills, but I must ask you to respect me and stop looking for the ways to make money at me all the time. Whatever the type of business you are affiliated with, whatever the type of services you offer – do not solicit any of it to me just because I make myself an easy prey by coming to your class.

Sadly enough, my class was not a part of some overpriced school so anyone was welcome to attend. This was a good thing on one hand, because not many Cambodians can afford to pay $400 per semester for a fancy classroom with a fly-by teacher. Classes like the one I joined allowed people without a sponsor or with lower income levels to still get some education and improve their chances at scoring a better paid job. But because it was so open and affordable, it left me exposed to endless solicitations. In the end, it was all about money for them. You offer them a finger, they don’t just take whole hand. They’ll take all of you.

Commission System That Takes Place in Cambodia

Cambodia is an impoverished country so when tourists come, the locals automatically (often mistakenly) assume that they have lots of money so as a tourist, you will always be seen as a packet of walking bank notes. Cambodians (Khmer) are generally nice people, but their tight economic situation forces them to take firm grasp of opportunities that deliver easy income. To earn an equivalent of one dollar in wages, a Cambodian would have to spend many hours at work busting his ass off. Realizing that one dollar is an easy tip and a cheap transport rate for most westerners, when an obvious tourist comes to vicinity, they get swarmed by dozens of locals at the same time, each competing for that much desired dollar that a tourist can easily afford to spare, but it means so much for them.

Tuk Tuk Driver Taking a Nap in Rain
Tuk Tuk Driver Taking a Nap During Rainy Season When There Are Few Tourists Walking the Streets

Unfortunately for you as a tourist this means that you will be hackled to no end on every step, repeatedly and unceasingly over and over, non stop at all times throughout your entire stay. None of the locals will let you just pass by without approaching you. You will be constantly hackled about something, being offered this and that and then something else and then yet some more. You will have those locals breathing down your neck non stop and if you say you’re good, they will continue harassing you never the less in hopes that eventually they will hit the spot and offer something you will need so you agree to use their services.

They will always make it look like they are “offering you their service and complimentary advice” but that is only because you don’t know what really is going on. The thing is – everyone in Cambodia, including business owners who cater to tourist will want to get the business of sa many tourists as possible. As such, there is this deeply embedded and omnipresent commission system that works everywhere and all the time. Basically, in 99% of cases involving a transaction with a tourist, somebody will collect a commission for that tourist. In other word, each time a tourist spends money – whether it’s for the food in a restaurant, or for a room at a guesthouse, or for a boat ride, or whatever else it is you are going to pay for, if you were taken there by a Tuk Tuk driver or other referred to (even if you don’t realize), your referred will collect their commission from the business you spent your money on. This commission system always works and never stops. And what’s best – oftentimes it’s you who covers the difference in price so the business can pay their commission to the referrer. In other words, you end up paying extra – you pay regular price plus the commission.

For a Cambodian, commission money can add up to a lot. Few regular jobs can earn money equivalent to the commission they can gather by “helping” tourists with advice. Because of that, there is never a shortage of locals preying on tourists offering Tuk Tuk rides to a better and cheaper restaurants than the one you are intending to use, offering stay in much better and cheaper guesthouse than the one you are intending to stay – often having any and all stories at the ready to deter you from going to your intended location. You could be told that the guesthouse is no longer in business because the owner dies last week, or that they had a recent rat infestation, or “fill in the blank”. These claims are hardly ever true. The real purpose behind them is to argue you into being taken to a place that offers then highest commission – at any cost to you. They will do anything and everything in their power to get you to a place that offers the highest kick back. Period. Never any other. Not for any reason.

Whether you see it or not, this commission system is deeply embedded in Cambodia and is a natural part of local life. As visitor to Cambodia, you will become a part of it by being hassled non stop, mostly by Tuk Tuk drivers. Because commissions can earn locals far more money than regular jobs, Tuk Tuk drivers heavily outnumber tourists even in the most tourist dense areas. You will have dozens of them on your back at any given time. You will have rejected scores of them yet you will continue getting approached. It will make you wonder what the deal is – can’t they see that if you wanted a ride in a Tuk Tuk you would have taken one of last two hundred who asked if you needed a ride in past 2 minutes? They will run to you, point at you, yell at you, clap their hands at you or use any other means to attract your attention. It is a nature of every person to not be rude and ignorant so you will turn your head and will have to explain yourself to them.

It truly is aggravating and pushes you to the limit. However despite all that, Cambodians are a friendly bunch and affordability of the place makes it extremely attractive. Afterall, they are just trying to survive. They do it in the worst way possible, but this is the way it is. Commission system always works. If you are a traveller on a budget, you can keep your stay in already inexpensive country down by going everywhere on your own and never taking on an advice for trying a different place from locals. No matter how friendly and genuine their “advice” may seem. It’s not. It’s always and only an advice to get you to a place that offer the highest commission.