Aug 27 2012
A long time ago I waitressed at a posh restaurant in Dublin, the kind of place where the pandan chicken and monkfish in red curry sauce, though incredibly good, were of secondary importance to the hob-nobbing possibilities. This was where you went to see and be seen and, since it was offered, you might as well have a bite to eat while you’re at it. Staff at the restaurant were actually pretty well paid once tips were added on, and I suspect that we earned more than many of the black-eyed luvvies who swanned in the door – enough that when I finished studying and had to think about getting a “real” job, I was looking at taking a 60% pay cut.
But the restaurant also managed to earn itself a great chunk of tax-free income from adding a 10% service charge to every bill. The tips that were distributed to staff came from what people added over and above that amount, which of course not everyone did as they, quite reasonably, assumed that they had already paid the staff tip by signing off on the service charge. Not every restaurant did this of course, though some were even worse, pocketing any non-service charge tips that were left by credit card and only distributing cash tips. It was a sneaky sleight of hand perpetrated on staff and customers alike with the full support of the government that legislated on the matter using a pen they borrowed from their friends in the restaurant industry.
It’s an experience that has left me rather sensitive to the vagaries of tipping, so you’d think I should be able to give you some decent advice on tipping in Cambodia, but I can’t. One of the joys of living in an unregulated environment is that nothing can stop you except yourself. One of the downsides is that the chef who cooked your dinner last night probably didn’t wash his hands after a pre-shift trip to the bathroom because nobody mandates that he should, unless the restaurant owner specifically does. But you have no real way of knowing whether that’s the case.
The same applies to tipping. Some (I like to think most as I’m an incorrigible optimist) hotels and restaurants ensure that all tips are distributed to the staff who serve, clean, wash, cook and guard for you while you’re there. Some pool the tips and use them to pay for education and healthcare for their staff, distributing what’s left. Some pay the staff a nominal amount from the tips collected and keep the rest. Short of conducting a survey of every establishment in town, to which I may or may not receive honest responses, I have absolutely no way of telling you which does what.
A personal tipping policy is normally determined by context — in Ireland I tip in cash, not on my card. In America I would tip more because I like waiters even though I don’t like subsidising restaurant owners’ bottom lines by providing a tax-free channel for generating the revenue from which wages are paid. Everyone else has to pay salaries out of taxable income. In France I tip less because it is already integrated into the price on the menu. In Cambodia there is no context, so the only thing you can rely on is your own judgement in each case.
First though, do ignore any guidebooks that counsel that tipping is not traditional in Cambodia and can therefore be disregarded. Even if staff receive only a fraction of the tips left by customers, it is important. The average salary received by a waiter will vary between $40 and $80 per month. It follows that as a significant proportion of that even a dollar has the power to make a difference, especially if it is taken away. Cambodians are barely seeing a fraction of the tourism money that is spent in Siem Reap, and shutting off this particular, small stream is not going to help that (Siem Reap is still the third poorest province in all of Cambodia notwithstanding the millions that are now spent here every year).
My own randomly fallen upon method is simply to add 2,000 riel or US50c to any bill under $5, and $1 for any bill larger than that, up to about $30 or $40. I’ll add another dollar, or more, after that depending on various factors that might or might not seem applicable at the time. It feels mean compared to what we leave at home and elsewhere, and I still cringe when I do it, but it does add up proportionately when you consider that your waiter is earning not much more than $2.50 per day, or what you just paid for a latte, so that dollar can go far. It is also such that even if you are subsidising the owner’s new swimming pool, you’re not really going to lose sleep over the loss.
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