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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update.

August 2001

1.) Dengue - it's real
2.) Overland from Thailand to Siem Reap is a fast and easy trip now
3.) What's become of the yellow?
4.) Commissions - it's no wonder your motodop is so helpful


Dengue - it's real

Not to scare anybody, but if you're planning a trip soon to Cambodia, or Thailand, or anywhere in Southeast Asia, you should be aware that this is a bad year for dengue fever. In northwest Cambodia, where Siem Reap is, they are reporting a record number of cases. I might never have thought to write anything about it except for one small matter - on the afternoon of July 5, while working in Phnom Penh, the fever struck - I became one more dengue statistic. The origin of the bite was almost certainly my hometown, Siem Reap.

Dengue affects people in many different ways. Some cases are potentially life threatening, most are not. I was bedridden for two days with a fever and a lot of general pain, the worst pain being in my upper back and eyes. Eating was difficult. Several days later the telltale rash appeared on both of my arms.

The life threatening cases more often affect children. Adults are more likely to have a case similar to mine, but even then, I was on the lower end of the scale.

My actual sickness (fever and pain) lasted for only about eight or nine days, but recovery from dengue in any degree is a long process. For the following week I routinely slept twelve hours a night and had little energy for much else. Another week saw my energy levels reach a point where I was at least functional with nightly sleep down to a more reasonable nine hours or so.

I have seen little said about another aspect of dengue recovery - it also has an adverse effect on one's mental health. My first week of recovery found me in a fairly alarming state of depression accompanied by a lot of irritability that seemed to consume every waking hour regardless of what was occurring around me.

It's passing. The irritability has diminished, but I'm still snappier than normal some days. Depression still comes occasionally  - comes out of nowhere, leaves as stealthily as it arrived. One friend of mine who had a particularly bad case of dengue a number of years ago said the mood disorder lasted six months with him. Yippee.

I'm no doctor and I won't dispense medical advice except to say this about dengue:
1.) There is no vaccine. No cure.
2.) The only treatment is for the symptoms.
3.) Most cases are not life-threatening.
4.) Dengue comes on fast and hard. It won't take long to determine how seriously ill you are. Let common sense determine your next course of action. If you feel as if you need a doctor, then you probably do - so go see one. If you think you can ride it out, you probably can. But a trip to the doctor wouldn't hurt just the same.
5.) Anticipate a long recovery and take things slow and easy.

Dengue is definitely a problem in Siem Reap this year. Dengue mosquitoes are a day-time mosquito that bites most often in the early morning and before sunset. Take precautions - repellent, long-sleeve clothing, mosquito nets. And remember, while there is no cure, most cases are not life-threatening.

Overland from Thailand to Siem Reap is a fast and easy trip now

If you read the Lonely Planet Thorntree one of the most commonly asked questions on the Southeast Asia branch is how to make the overland trip to/from Siem Reap and Thailand. All too often the questions are followed up with erroneous and/or out-dated information. Since the border crossing at Aranyaprathet (Thailand) and Poipet (Cambodia) was opened in early 1998, the 160-kilometer road from there to Siem Reap has achieved legendary status. Fourteen-hour drives, craters bigger than a pick-up truck, bombed out bridges, drives through rice fields, roadblocks and demands for money, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with twenty-two Cambodians, etc. That was the road across northwest Cambodia. That WAS the road.

I've made this trip more times than I care to count - and a half-dozen times just between December and March of this year alone. Imagine my surprise when, in mid-April, while on a motorcycle trip I found an entirely new road materializing beneath my tires. Though not yet finished at the time (nor now), dozens of huge orange dump trucks, courtesy Korea, were hauling in huge loads of dirt from the west. Tractors and other earth-moving equipment were out packing, grading, and widening the road. On our bikes we made the Siem Reap to Sisophon stretch (110 kilometers and historically the worst stretch of road) in one hour and forty-five minutes. Trucks and vans still weren't moving so quickly as a couple of bridges were out and a few stretches of road were yet to be done. While it was plain to see that the road would be finished in a month or two (except for paving - wait until about 2003 for that), the question remained - would it last? The rainy season was approaching and combined with the fact that Cambodian construction projects aren't exactly known for their longevity, it was a reasonable concern.


On July 17 I stumbled out of my Siem Reap house shortly before 9:00 a.m. with a plan to make Bangkok that day. I got a pick-up truck at the Sokimex station lot at Route 6 and the river and the truck was off and running around 9:30 a.m. At 1:00 p.m., just three and a half hours later, I was already in Aranyaprathet, Thailand.

The road is holding up. Prior to this trip there had been some very heavy rains. You'd hardly be able to tell. The Siem Reap to Sisophon stretch alone was completed in ninety minutes. The driver hardly touched his brakes or swerved around a crater. Folks, forget the stories of drudgery on this road. It's a cakewalk.

Given that this trip has become so much easier - and it would seem that it's going to stay this way - more and more folks are going to do this trip. Just how does the first-time traveler negotiate the border crossings and the transport? Read on.

The border crossing

Poipet is the end of the line in Cambodia - a filthy border town of casinos, cheap hotels, knock shops, and a market I wouldn't eat at even if I were coming off a hunger strike. Between the two borders thousands of Cambodians and Thais cross every day, most on day-passes. The Thais coming to gamble, all in the face of large signs at the border warning them of the dangers of Poipet and the evils of gambling - a nice psychological ploy to keep currency at home. Many more Thais are coming for business purposes - everything sells for more in Cambodia and most all basic household products in Cambodia are imported from Thailand. A smaller contingency of Thais are coming on holiday - to see Angkor Wat and to satisfy their curiosity about their poorer neighbor, whose culture - language, music, dance, architecture, etc. have all had major influences on the Thai culture - something many Thais don't care to acknowledge. To many Thais, Cambodia is a crude nation of uneducated, dishonest, ugly people. And while many Thais don't care much for Cambodians, they do have an interest in knowing more about their much poorer neighbor making Angkor Wat and its environs quite popular with Thai tourists now. And many are crossing at Poipet. Their first reaction of Cambodia is usually to hold their noses and try to keep the dust off their clean clothes.

From Cambodia, many Khmers also make the crossing on day-passes. Just across the border in Aranyaprathet is a large marketplace. Walk around and have a look - most of the sellers are Cambodian. And between it all many dirty young children (mostly Cambodian) beg for money, pick your pocket, and make a general nuisance of themselves. In Thailand a long line of trucks is backed up at the border - bringing many tons of goods to Cambodia every day. Touts walk the border - Carry your bags? Help with visa? Need truck to Siem Reap? Go casino? Want lady boom boom? I'll discuss dealing with them later.

The border opens at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m.

Entering Cambodia requires a visa. Visas are available at the border. The guys working in the office usually turn up around 8:30 a.m. You need one passport photo and they'll hit you up for 1,000 baht. Technically the fee is $20 for a tourist visa, but it's been my experience that if you try to hand them a twenty they'll just tell you to go change it and bring back 1,000 baht. Seeing as this presently works out to $22 and change guess where that extra two bucks and silver is going? Don't think too hard now.

As you approach the visa office, a large booth really, it's quite possible somebody has already approached you offering to assist you with the visa process. Tell him to get lost. Obtaining a Cambodian visa at the border is an almost ridiculously easy process. If you're stupid enough to let somebody help you do what you don't need help with, you probably deserve to pay whatever it costs you. You'll also get offers to help carry your bags. These are generally legit, but given the overall bedlam of the border and the number of thieves wandering about, I always keep my stuff firmly in my possession. You might want to do the same. There's just too much chaos and confusion at this border, keep your belongings with you.

With visa in hand, head to the immigration office - the next building up on the right. By now you'll probably have had an invitation or two to go to one of the casinos and representatives of at least one overland transport company may also be chatting you up.

A sign informs you to have your passport, immigration form, and proof of vaccinations. The vaccination certificate requirement is a scam. Huh? How can it be a scam, it's a rather official looking sign? Yeah, well, so what? This is Cambodia. There is no law requiring any kind of vaccination to enter Cambodia - no one has ever been asked for vaccination proof when entering the country by air. What makes ground entry so special? If the border guards try to pull it on you, they'll inform you that if you don't have an international vaccination certificate (which you probably won't have), they'll take care of the problem for you - for a small fee. The best thing to do is simply say (politely!) "No thank you" and walk away. They'll probably tell you it's your choice but that you'll need the form to leave the country or possibly face some kind of fine. I've often seen law-abiding travelers exiting at Poipet with their 'official' forms in hand, dutifully providing the paperwork necessary to flee the country. The guards just hand it back without even a glance. This scam is most common at the Moc Bai, Vietnam - Bavet, Cambodia crossing, and fairly common at the Koh Kong entry, but it occurs in Poipet, too. There is not a lot of consistency as to when they try to play this game. If you look like a clueless traveler with no Cambodia stamps in your passport, they may try it. On the other hand, someone like me, with a dozen prior tourist visas and now on a long-term multiple-entry business visa - well, they don't waste their time with me.

Okay, now you're in. Maybe you hassled with the vaccination scam, maybe you're still wondering what scam it is I'm talking about. Now you need to get to Siem Reap or Battambang or somewhere.

The journey

This trip comes down to two basic choices - on your own or on a package. The package trip can be purchased at any Khao San Road travel agency, or most any agency in Bangkok, really. Going the other way you can get it at any Siem Reap travel agency or through your guesthouse. For anywhere between $15-25 you get transportation all the way from Siem Reap to Bangkok or vice versa.

If you're traveling from Bangkok, most of the companies will depart from Khao San Road around sevenish. By the time they get everybody picked up and sorted out it'll be a bit later. You'll be in an air-conditioned van. They'll dump you at the border in Aranyaprathet. Some tout for the Cambodia transport company will be wandering around. They seem to do a good job at locating their cargo, so don't worry about it. Check yourself out of Thailand, check into Cambodia.

Usually the staff of the Cambodia transport company will assist you with the visa/immigration process without demand for any payment, but like I said earlier, this is a snap, anyway. They'll toss you into a van, or a mini-bus, or a pick-up truck. You should inquire about the Cambodia transport in Bangkok, but there's no guarantee that you'll get what they tell you you'll get. If the transport is a pick-up truck there should be a price differential of at least five dollars between front and back. But with the road improvements, riding in the back is nowhere near the adventure it once was. At some point you'll want to eat. They'll often stop in Sisophon and you can grab a bite there. Still, grab food when you can. They'll eventually drop you in Siem Reap - usually outside some guesthouse that paid the company a fat commission for doing so. But you're not obliged to stay there if you don't want. The owner of the Hello Guesthouse seems to be one of the bigger commission payers so a lot of the trucks stop outside his place. However, many travelers have said good things about this guesthouse.

Going the other way it's basically the same process in reverse. Some form of transport will take you to Poipet - and you have probably a better chance of getting the vehicle they tell you you'll get as you and they are both at the point of origin, but anything can happen. In Siem Reap, they'll pick you up at your guesthouse. At the border some representative of the Thai transport company will manage to find you and they'll get everybody and everything sorted out and off to Bangkok. It's been my experience that there is no food stop going this direction with one of these companies. Grab food wherever and whenever you can. There is a well-stocked convenience store at the front of the Aranyaprathet market about 50 or so meters from the Thai immigration booth.

But, hey, that's the boring way. Be an adventurer. Save money. Do this on your own. Tell these over-charging transport companies what to do with their 200-400% mark-ups. DIY.

On your own - Bangkok to Siem Reap

There are two ways to Aranyaprathet. Bus and train. Take the bus. Really, take the bus. Okay, are you really that cheap? For about one US dollar, it's forty-something baht, there are two trains a day from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet. The trains are third class only - which means a hard bench seat on a ride that can take six hours. The first train leaves at some insane hour like six a.m., the second train leaves at around one p.m. - which means you're going to spend the night in Aranyaprathet and not save any money after all. Take the bus.

Get to the Northern Bus Terminal a.k.a. Morchit Bus Terminal. You can take a taxi, about 100 baht on the meter plus a forty-two baht expressway toll if you're really in a hurry (or don't like traffic jams). You can take the Skytrain to Morchit Station. Unfortunately, Morchit BTS (Skytrain) Station, and Morchit Bus Terminal are not one and the same. You can hoof it from one to the other but if you have more than a few kilos of bags you'll wish you hadn't. Probably some tuk-tuk driver will get you from one station to the other for twice what it should cost. The third and cheapest option is to take the public Bangkok buses from wherever you are to Morchit. I never do that so I can't tell you what buses to take. I can only tell you that it's cheap and slow. Me? I always take the taxi and use the expressway.

Buses depart for Aranyaprathet every hour from five a.m. until well into the evening. First or second-class bus service is available. The price differential isn't that great. The first-class bus is usually about 164 baht ($3.65), second-class maybe thirty or forty baht less (I always go first-class). First-class gets you a more comfortable seat, a free drink (water or juice), a little (and I do mean little) snack, and a toilet on board. Second-class gets you a ride to Aranyaprathet. I have showed up at Morchit and fifteen minutes later was Aranyaprathet-bound, arriving on average three-and-a-half to four hours later. Folks, the bus beats the train in every conceivable way except price. Take the bus.

Once in Aranyaprathet, you'll need to get from the bus station to the border about six kilometers away. If your luggage is light and you're alone you might get a motorcycle taxi. Pay 40-50 baht. More baggage or more than one person - take a tuk-tuk. Pay 50 baht. You might get it for 40 baht, but refuse to pay more than 50 baht. This is generally not a problem as 50 baht is a fairly uniform price here. Cross the border (see above) into Cambodia.

Now you have to get your transport to Siem Reap. This is not so simple. You've probably already had to deal with several transport representatives trying to get you into their vehicles for about $10 to Siem Reap. You told them to go away. Now they are telling you that it's the law of the governor of Banteay Meanchey Province (where you are) that you have to take a special tourist vehicle. This is a half-truth. Yeah, the governor did make some noise about this because a lot of tourists were getting ripped off by the pick-up trucks (I'll explain in a moment), but it's not really an enforceable law and residents like myself don't bother with these guys and none of us has been thrown in jail for it. They really can't make you travel with them, but they do eliminate a lot of headaches for the first-time traveler.

But this is about doing it on your own. Walk away from immigration east towards the big circle. More chaos. There will be some trucks here going to Siem Reap, but this is not where the best prices are. Get a motorbike to take you to the trucks. Pay 10 baht. Baht? Yeah, it's Cambodia, but the riel is kinda like monopoly money. Most of the country uses US dollars, but in Poipet, Sisophon, Pailin, Koh Kong, and somewhat in Battambang, Thai baht is used just if not more often than dollars as the main currency. Anyway, the trucks are usually parked five hundred meters to a kilometer down the road or sometimes in the market. Check down the road first.

This is important. You are going to Sisophon. Repeat after me, "I am going to Sisophon." Yes, I know you are going to Siem Reap, but do not tell this to the pick-up trucks. This is where the problems are. Almost all trucks running between Siem Reap and Poipet only go as far as Sisophon. In Sisophon they will pass you off to another truck. They will choose the truck for you and may choose an empty one that might sit for two hours or more. Furthermore, there is a money problem. Chances are you paid the guy up-front, the locals NEVER do this. In theory the money you paid is to get you to Siem Reap and the driver of the first truck is supposed to pay some cash to the driver of the second truck for your transport. Well, halfway out from Sisophon suddenly they're asking you for more cash giving you the option of paying up or getting out. Maybe they got cash from the first truck, maybe they didn't. How do you know? You don't. Hence, the governor of Banteay Meanchey ordered all the foreigners into tourist vehicles.

But you can do this on your own and avoid all these scams and hassles if you follow these three simple rules:
1.) Only tell the trucks you are going to Sisophon. This is also applicable when traveling from Siem Reap to Poipet or from either town to Battambang.
2.) Do not pay until you reach your destination.
3.) Choose the fullest truck.

Believe it or not, if you act like you know what you're doing, that means saying with full confidence, "Sisophon", haggling straight to the proper price (details coming soon), and not even considering paying until arriving at your destination, they will assume you've done this before and really do know what you're doing and the whole thing will most likely go off without a hitch.

How much to pay? In the front of the pick-up truck - it can be as cheap as 50 baht between Poipet and Sisophon and 100 baht between Sisophon and Siem Reap. Many foreign residents will pay double for two seats, and ideally for the seat up front. Considering they'll squash at least four across the bench behind the driver, buying half that bench isn't a bad idea either, if you're stuck back there. If there are a lot of trucks around you shouldn't have too much difficulty getting these prices, but don't get too bent out of shape if you pay 25-30% more. If you turn up late, especially in Siem Reap when most of the trucks are already gone, you may end up paying up to 30% more anyway, because they know there's not another truck about to leave that you could get. This doesn't seem to be as much of a problem in Sisophon where there's always complete chaos around the trucks, and as it's the hub for ground travel in northwest Cambodia, trucks are leaving for most of the day. In Siem Reap it's much more difficult to get a truck after about one p.m. Still, whatever happens, on your own is almost always cheaper than using the transport companies. If competition is stiff, be firm on the price - you should get it. And by doing this on your own, you get to ride in a truck full of Cambodians instead fifteen other western tourists.

Picking a truck. Always go for the fullest truck. There really is no queue. The drivers and their assistants stand around the trucks grabbing at passersby creating all kinds of mayhem. It's an utter free-for-all. I'd laugh at it, but sometime it's hard when some guy with bad breath is grabbing your bags and yelling in your ear "Siem Reap! Siem Reap! Battambang! Battambang! Sisophon!" and two more guys are on your arms yelling the same thing. I get nasty with these guys when they start grabbing me. This seems to be one of those rare exceptions in Asia when a little aggression gets you your way.

Now you're on the road, heading to Sisophon, sitting in the front, hopefully paying either 50 baht for one seat, or 100 for two. And you haven't paid them yet, right? Good. Remember, pay when you reach your destination.

The truck lot in Sisophon is pandemonium at its best. Your truck pulls into this lot and already eight guys are running after it shouting destinations throughout the region. Or just shouting, it's hard to tell sometimes. They spot a foreigner and it's twice as bad as they are hoping you don't know anything and you'll pay double or triple what you should. As soon as the truck stops expect the door to fly open and people to start grabbing at you. Me, I grab my bags, tell them all to "F&%k off!" and I don't yet say anything to anybody about where I'm going. Then I walk over to the restrooms and let them fight over the other harried travelers for a few minutes. Emerging a few minutes later, I'll find most of the touts will have calmed down a notch. Now it's time to glare and snarl and make them think you're too crazy to touch - but they'll still want your money so now you're ready to get your truck. Standing with both feet firmly on the ground and your hands and arms firmly on your bags, yell "Siem Reap" and watch the scrum develop around you. Again, look for the fullest truck and try your price -100 baht one seat, 200 baht two seats. If you switch to dollars it might bump up a notch, perhaps $5 for two seats (225 baht). Don't sweat it, pay it. If they balk, try another truck. And remember, don't pay until you get to Siem Reap. The driver will probably deliver you to a guesthouse that he thinks will pay him the best commission. The laughs on him with residents like me. I don't think my landlord is paying commissions to the drivers that bring me home from my forays in Thailand.

On your own - Siem Reap to Bangkok

Much as described above, but in reverse.

Trucks can be obtained in two places: across from Psah Leau (on Route 6 on the east side of town) or at the Sokimex station at route 6 and the river. The competition is greatest between seven and eight a.m. (cheapest price!) but you can get a truck anytime in the morning but it may cost you a dollar or more to sleep in. The same rules as above. Pick the fullest truck, only state "Sisophon" as your destination, and don't pay until you reach there. Siem Reap is a dollar town - expect $2.50 for one seat, $5 for two seats up front. You may end up paying $3 or $6, though. Don't pay more than $7, and for that they ought to give you the front seat.

In Sisophon expect the same chaos I described above. Same advice. Ignore them, go to the toilets, then find the fullest truck to Poipet. 50 baht one seat, 100 baht two seats.

In Poipet the truck should dump you at the front of the traffic circle, get out, pay the driver and walk to immigration ignoring all the touts. See "border crossing" above.

Once in Aranyaprathet you need, I assume, to get to Bangkok. Again it's bus or train. There's a one p.m. train. Why anyone wants to take the train is beyond me. But see above about leaving Bangkok for comments on bus vs. train. Buses run every hour. Same deal, first-class, second-class, etc.

As with coming the other way, you'll need a tuk-tuk or motorcycle taxi to get you from the border to the bus station. 50 baht maximum.

From Morchit Bus Station to wherever you're going in Bangkok it's taxi, public bus, or the Skytrain. A word of warning about taxis. As soon as you get off the bus expect a couple of taxi touts to approach you, "Taxi?", "Khao San?" whatever. IGNORE THEM!!! Repeat after me, "I will ignore anybody that offers to give me a ride anywhere." If you go with one of these guys you're probably going to pay at least twice what you would normally pay on the meter. There is a taxi queue at this station where a sign clearly states in English and Thai that these are metered taxis. Find this taxi queue. It's hard for me to describe where it is because it depends on where the bus parks, but there's a reasonable chance that it's *behind you* as the taxi queue is on the road that runs along the back side of the station. But whatever, walk around in circles if you have to, find this taxi queue and don't go with anybody. When you locate the taxi queue there should be no games or nonsense. It still happens, yes, but your chances are a whole lot better than if you were stupid enough to let some taxi tout cart you off three seconds after you disembarked a bus from Aranyaprathet. And the taxi touts know you just came into the country because it says 'Aranyaprathet' right there on the side of the bus.

So, as of July 2001, that's the overland deal between Bangkok and Siem Reap. Any questions?

What's become of the yellow?

A few months ago I stuck an article on this site complaining about this inane idea of the Phnom Penh Municipality to get everyone to paint their buildings a sort of off-white yellow. I anticipated that the scheme would soon be forgotten and given the lack of quality in the paint jobs we could expect a fast deterioration of the paint. I was dead-on. It's now the end of July and if you were just arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time you'd be forgiven for wondering what it was I was talking about. Where people complied (less then 50% of the buildings) with this painting request, many a paint job has already faded or become so covered in dirt you'd never know it had received a fresh coat just a few months ago. So what was the point of this stupid idea? The municipality has given up and the residents have done the same. A bunch of fresh paint jobs that looked like crap when they were done look even worse now. Pointless rubbish.

Commissions - it's no wonder your motodop is so helpful

It seems that hardly a business transaction occurs in Cambodia without somebody getting a commission on the deal. Whether it's a night in a guesthouse or a negotiated bride price, somebody will probably take a cut. Though Cambodia is hardly unique in this practice, this country has refined it to an art form.

I remember the first time I visited Cambodia, I was sitting with a group of mostly twenty-something motodops (motorbike taxi drivers) when I expressed favorable opinion on Khmer women. "You want Cambodia wife?" they all asked. Well, sure, maybe, I don't know. "Hey, no problem," and they began rattling off mini-bios of various cousins, sisters, friends, etc., assuring me in all cases these were clean (read: virgin, and they probably were), respectable young women who would certainly make a good wife for a foreign man. The following day, one even brought me a photo of one girl and introduced me to her on my second trip to Cambodia two weeks later. "Gee," I thought in my naivety, "these guys are so happy to see their women married off to foreigners. Gosh, what cool people! Imagine that happening in say, Korea or China."

Well, duh me! Marrying a Cambodian girl requires the prospective bridegroom to pay a lump sum of cash to the bride's family. In theory, this money is used exclusively for the wedding. But if you're a foreigner, you're kidding yourself if you think all that money is only going to the wedding. Regardless, the groom pays the cash while the bride's family does all the planning and production.

The price is determined by the relative wealth of the families of the bride and groom. A poor Cambodian man marrying a girl of equal status may pay only $500 to $1000. An upper-class wedding can easily run well over $10,000 with almost no upper limit. With foreigners it's a little different. Although there are certainly exceptions, the standard price for foreign man/Khmer woman marriages is generally around $5,000, which assumes she's a virgin, or at least believed to be so by her family, and she is not from an upper-class family. If you're marrying a taxi girl, well, that shouldn't cost you more than a cheap ring and two bottles of whiskey - for now.

Regrettably, it's not at all unusual to see foreigners, usually Japanese, drop $10,000, even $15,000 on a bride that might have only commanded ten percent of that amount if the groom was Cambodian. This idiotic nonsense not only drives up bride prices for all foreigners, but worse, throwing that kind of cash around a poor village only gives the residents a further corrupted view of foreigners and perpetuates the notion that all foreigners are cash cows to be bled at will. If you want to help the girl's family, fine, help them, but throwing out enormous sums of cash as bride price is not the way to do it.

Anyway, I'm getting off track, here. I'm supposed to be talking about commissions. Well, whether you're spending the still fairly high sum of $5K or you happen to be a complete moron throwing $15K at a peasant girl, this is serious money.

Serious money, indeed. So, you're heading to the altar with your oun (Khmer for 'sweetheart')? Remember the motodop who made the introduction for you way back when? Well, right now he's reminding the bride's family - who just relieved you of a few grand - that he made the introduction and you can be certain he's going to get a few hundred bucks for having done it.

While weddings are an extreme case, commissions are routinely paid for a variety of simple transactions. Virtually all hotels and guesthouses in Cambodia will pay a couple of dollars to the motodop that brings in the guest. Likewise, restaurants, souvenir shops, shooting ranges, brothels, you name it, they'll pay. If you're a tourist making a purchase - any purchase - you can be sure your motodop is taking a cut. In most instances I suggest you don't waste your time worrying about it. Let him get his cash, it will probably make no difference on the price you pay, anyway. However, given the prevalence of commissions, if you plan to do any serious money spending in Cambodia you might want to use a motodop you actually like.

Be fair. If a motodop really does assist you, i.e. takes you to the shooting range, or somewhere you had little or no knowledge of, I'd say he probably should get a cut. On the other hand, if you're already doing business with a shop or were already aware of a particular business and only needed a ride there, it might be to your advantage to inform the shop-owner that the person accompanying you had nothing to do with bringing you here except as your transport. This also holds true for hotels you had a prior reservation for.

You usually won't be aware of the commissions, either the motodop will return later or they may talk about it in front of you. You don't speak Khmer, now do you? But any exchange of cash will be done out of your view.

The rush for these commissions gets ridiculous at times. When I rented my house in Siem Reap, a motodop 'friend' of mine decided that he had something to do with my renting the house (he knew the landlord). Actually, he had nothing to do with it at all, I knew the landlord already and it was an expat friend who told me of the availability of the place. But that didn't stop my 'friend' from showing up and asking for, are you ready for this, a commission of one month's rent!!!! He tried to get $133 (I pay $400 every three months) telling this b.s. story that it was he who told me about the house for rent.

On larger transactions, the commission deals become more complicated and can have a greater effect on the prices you'll pay for something.

An example, for my photographic exhibition at the Grand, I needed to do quite a bit of framing and mounting, which by necessity had to be done in Phnom Penh. The cost for this was considerable. Not as much as a wife, mind you, but there was the potential for a serious commission that could affect my final price by as much as forty or fifty dollars.

I knew the shop that I wanted to use, the New Art Gallery, but having never been there and not having my own transport in Phnom Penh, I needed to rely on a motodop. I'm quite friendly with a number of the guys that hang around the Capitol and regularly use the services of a couple of them. While they still take commissions, due to my knowledge of the process and my friendships with the drivers it's generally a very transparent deal. Me, the driver, and shop owner will be upfront about the whole thing. However, on the day I was to head off to the New Art Gallery to get a price quote, none of my regular guys was around so I had to rely on a driver I didn't know. But other than obtaining some information, no actual business was concluded so I didn't think too much about commissions at the time.

Three weeks later I'm back in Phnom Penh to actually get the frames. I stop by the Capitol and the same guy that took me before sees me. First thing he wants to know is if I was doing business with the gallery, how many frames was I doing, and could he take me there? And he was quite anxious about the whole thing. Duh, I had completely ignored the commission issue and as the quantity of business I was doing was considerable, so too, would be the kickback. I found out from a Khmer friend who had once been a motodop that commissions at this store are usually two dollars a frame (which explains why he wanted to know how many I was doing)- and I was doing 44 frames. I ignored the motodop I had used three weeks prior and discreetly got one of my Khmer friends to run me over there.

After sorting out my framing requirements, I had a talk with the shop owner about the commission nonsense, telling her that she could probably expect the other guy to show up later asking for money. I told her that he did not introduce me to this shop, only brought me to it. I further added that I expected my price to be reduced. If she wanted to pay a small commission, that was fine with me, but there was no way I would contribute to an $88 pay off.  She agreed to knock down my price, leaving a commission of about $30 which I then tried to funnel towards my friend. Sure enough, five minutes after we left the other guy shows up hoping for a big chunk of cash. She called us on the phone and we returned and I let the three of them argue over who got what.

The lesson here is two-fold. First, you really can't eliminate commissions. Certainly, any future business I do with New Art will be commission-free, but it probably won't change my costs per frame. Secondly, if you know you're going to do a big chunk of business with someone and the possibility for a commission exists, really try to include only locals you know and like. And don't be shy to talk about commissions up front with both the shop owner and any local that stands to get a kickback. If they know that you know, it's been my experience that the whole thing can be done quite transparently.

August 1, 2001.



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