I’m in Toul Toum Pong, at the French-Khmer fusion cafe, waiting for the quiche to come out of the oven.
I come down here from Riverside, at the other end of the city, and today I got into an argument with a tuk-tuk driver who wanted three whole dollars to take me. Drivers here in Cambodia negotiate a flat rate based on destination. When I first came here, six years ago, a dollar was accepted for short hops to adjacent neighborhoods. Longer trips were a dollar and a half or two dollars; traveling across the city might cost you three.
Drivers charged more to go from tourist and upscale districts, less from poor neighborhoods. Drivers typically asked for as much as they thought they could get – five dollars for a two-dollar trip, say, to come down to three. A trip from the airport cost about eight dollars; drivers would ask for ten or more or try to get a tip at the end. Motodup drivers charged about half as much as tuk-tuk drivers. Most drivers charged more after dark.
Now, a short hop usually costs at least a dollar and a half; most drivers will open with a two-dollar bid. Two or three dollars is normal for a ten-minute trip. Driving across town costs three or four dollars minimum. A trip to my NGO is at least four, often five. Trips from the airport can cost as much as twelve dollars, especially if you want a taxi. Tuk-tuk drivers will negotiate, but are less interested in low fares. I have been turned down more often, especially in tourist districts.
Yesterday, I got into an argument with a sugar-cane-drink seller who wanted fifty cents. In the morning, I expressed shock at a coffee vendor who wanted a dollar for an iced coffee. I complained about a tailor who wanted to charge sixty dollars for a jacket. A friend warned me that I might have to pay as much as ten dollars a meter for wool suit fabric. I turned my back on a man who wanted five dollars to take me across the city, a trip that would take at least half an hour. I have tried to buy cotton for three dollars a meter and complained about cocktails priced at two for five.
We tend to refer to it as being cheated when Cambodians demand twice or three times as much as they would accept if challenged. That term might have some merit from expats, who to a certain degree participate in the local economy, although they tend not to be compensated in local terms.
But from tourists, being cheated only makes sense if we are entitled to goods and services at prices far lower than what we pay at home, prices that require labor to be costed out at far lower wages than we would accept, wages that sustain a far lower cost of living than we would accept. We know that the people providing these goods are services are poor. Their poverty is visible. This country is famously poor.
Tourists come to this part of the world because it is cheap – because we expect to pay low prices for low wages for a low standard of living. We believe that the man grinding sugar cane deserves a few dollars a day, and that the man renting the tuk tuk deserves a few dollars a day. We believe that the woman cleaning our floors deserves significantly less than a hundred dollars a month, and that the woman serving our food deserves the same.
We feel entitled to luxury on the cheap, and we resent their attempt to bargain for better prices. We call that dishonest and unfair. We say that their sense of our resources is naive – that they think we have godlike wealth – even though their judgment of our ability to pay is basically accurate, and even though the prices they demand are typically lower than what we would pay in our home countries.
We travel to tourist dumps and orphanages to offer charity at its most basic. We travel to the killing fields to commemorate the devastation whose legacy is grinding poverty. We donate to NGOs attempting to relieve poverty at current and generational levels.
And we get annoyed when a dollar rises to two.