Mar 08 2011

Get riel: Shortchanged in Cambodia?

Published by at 9:28 am under Money & costs


Store counter in Phnom Penh asking customers to please check that they have been given the correct change

Check your change in Phnom Penh

On the list of little things about Cambodia that are not worth worrying about but are still decidedly irritating, is the fact when you pay for something you’ll very likely be getting less change back than you are owed.

I asked one cashier in Sihanoukville about it after she tried to short me 300 riel for the second day in a row. Barang, she told me — using the Cambodian word for French people-cum-foreigners — don’t care about 100 riel notes. Sometimes they don’t even want them. So she doesn’t bother giving 100 riel notes foreigners anymore, even when they are owed, and keeps the money for herself.

This is a common problem, particularly in Phnom Penh. Cashiers are paid very little, and the extra dollar or two they can earn from stealing a couple of hundred riel from each customer can add up to a substantial part of their income. Foreigners are a particularly good target for this scam because we often shop at stores that give prices in dollars and change in riel, and most of us aren’t quick enough to figure out how much we are really owed and tend to trust the cashier with the calculator.

Right now, the exchange rate is 4,020 riel to the dollar. Most stores use a 4,000 riel to dollar exchange rate, although the larger chain stores will have a posted exchange rate on their counters that may different slightly. Using the 4,000 exchange rate, 5 cents is 200 riel. Most stores round down from 49 and up from 50, so if you’re owed 549 you’ll get back 500 and if you’re owed 550 you’ll get back 600.

On days that I’m feeling particularly disagreeable, I use my phone to calculate how much change I should be getting back when I’m at the counter of a store. I find that I get the correct change about half the time. The other half, I’ve been shorted anywhere between 100 and 500 riel. Incidentally, I’ve only once been given too much change — indicating that the problem is deliberate.

Some stores are actively trying to combat the problem. Smile Mini Mart now offer a free litre bottle of Coca-Cola to any customer who receives the wrong change or who isn’t given a receipt. A large sign is plastered on the counter of all of their stores, pleading customers to call the management team if they are short-changed. Notes on the receipt say the same, and give tips for checking to make sure you’re given the correct change.

So what? my friends ask. It’s just five cents. And I can’t think of too many real reasons why this truly matters, other than it angers me to be treated like a fool. I also tend to think that such a high tolerance for stealing and corruption is bad for the country as a whole. So every time you calculate your change and ask for the rest, you’re doing Cambodia a favor.

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8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Get riel: Shortchanged in Cambodia?”

  1. Jeff McNeillon 08 Mar 2011 at 11:19 am

    Absolutely, it is not the money but the thought behind it that is corrupting.

  2. AbigailatPenhandInkon 08 Mar 2011 at 12:05 pm

    The easy answer is to buy at local shops and markets where prices are always in riel, or change your money into riel before you shop. After all, many convenience stores, supermarkets and malls are not owned by Cambodians and therefore do little directly for the local economy.

    It’s true that lots of barang don’t want small change – I’ve heard some really offensive comments about Cambodian toy money, made to and in front of Khmers.

    However, when you consider that 500 riel can buy a bag of cooked rice, it’s easy to see why cashiers skim it off, but also why budget-conscious barang would have need of it. I know plenty of expats who know where the best exchange rate is, to eke out those extra hundreds!

  3. eastweston 08 Mar 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I’m in the category that doesn’t want the 100 riel notes. So, partly to blame for the problem then.
    It just takes up a lot of space and in the beginning I saved them and after a few weeks used them to buy something small. It wasn’t worth the hassle.

    Do I agree on the practise of short-changing? No, but it’s 5 cents and they do me a favor. And you can’t be angry all the time.

    To say that this is equal to stealing and corruption is way too much for me. Doing Cambodia a favor? Don’t make me laugh.
    It’s just a minor nuisance and if it’s important to you, ask for those small Riels and you’ll get them. I hate that attitude of “we have to educate these people” and therefor I will always ask for every single Riel I’m shortchanged”.

  4. Khmericanon 09 Mar 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Stealing is still stealing whether its 100 riel or $100. By not speaking out, you are essentially saying its okay to steal from foreigners. Just yesterday I was at a restaurant waiting for my 800 riel change. I would have gladly left a tip, however, after asking repeatedly for my change, the service worker pretended not to understand me. After I stated the amounts in Khmer, she still shortchanged me; she only gave me 600 Riel. Her unapologetic attitude showed me that I was not the first person she had tried to shortchange, nor did she think she was doing anything wrong. I understand that this is a nominal amount, but would you (@eastwest) think it’s still stealing if it were $100 versus 100 riel?

  5. ChrisInCamboon 11 Mar 2011 at 10:54 am

    @AbigailatPenhandInk All of the major supermarkets and mini-mart chains in Cambodia are owned by Khmers, I can’t think of a single one that isn’t. Still that doesn’t mean the money is staying in Cambodia as I would guess that less than 20% of the products on the shelves are produced in Cambodia.

  6. Linaon 12 Mar 2011 at 11:34 am

    @ChrisinCambo Smile is foreign-owned, which may be why they are the only ones who seem to be concerned with this matter.

  7. [...] his opinions any number of subjects, an opportunity that I took advantage of. (He told me that Khmers are often given incorrect change too, which was a relief.) Vannak sits down to lunch with his students after [...]

  8. Steveon 04 May 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Probably true, but I think it’s ridiculous that people care about this, foreigners coming here usually make 10-50x the amount of money Cambodians do. Plus, Americans bombed this country to hell in the 1960’s because of their ideology that had Cambodians had nothing to do with. It wasn’t the other way around, Cambodians bombing you for something Canada did. That’s why the country is still so undeveleoped. So you still owe them, don’t be ridiculous counting the 5 cents that a poor cashier shortchanges you probably to feed some kid.

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