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 favour.
Previously, Lina has been based in Oakland, California, New York City, Dublin and London. Lina spends most of her time thinking about food, travel and synthpop. She's currently based in Siem Reap.