Money Issues

Just one of the dozens - maybe hundreds - of money exchange booths scattered throughout Poipet

There are a lot of quirky things about living in Poipet, and money is one of them. Being American in Cambodia is surprisingly convenient, because the dollar really is the functioning currency here. ATM machines dispense dollars, and most prices in shops, restaurants, and hotels are given in dollars. Many times, shop owners prefer dollars instead of carrying around a huge stack of riel bills. American coins aren't used, though; any change less than a dollar is given in riel.

But Poipet is a border town, and the currencies get all mixed together in confusing ways. Not only do we use Cambodian and American money, but also Thai money. Normally, I carry three different currencies with me - Thai baht, Cambodian riel, and US dollars. The functioning exchange rates for the three usually hovers around $1 = 30 baht = 4,000 riel.The supermarket, well inside the town itself, gives prices in Thai baht. When I go the market and ask the price of, say, a kilo of bananas, the owner says, Thirty. Now, I can interpret that different ways. If I pay in baht, it's 30 baht (about $1). But I can also interpret this to mean 3,000 riel - about 75 cents. If I pay with a dollar bill, I'll get 1,000 riel back.

When I first started shopping, this was incredibly confusing for me - especially when we start pushing into the hundreds. When a shop owner tells me the total is 180 (they never say 180 what, just the number!), I can pay either 180 baht (which is a rip-off), 18,000 riel, or $4 plus 2,000 riel (I seriously had to stop and think that through, even as I'm sitting here! Can you imagine how difficult it is when you're in the market?!).

If you are money savvy, you noticed that 180 baht does not equal $4 + 2,000 riel. Actually, 1 baht = 130 riel, so you can usually get the shop owner to convert the total to baht if you only have baht. But that's the kicker - they gave you the price in "baht" language (180), but if you pay in baht, you should actually pay less (around 135 baht), because they really mean riel.

Confused yet?

And then to top it all off, there's one more confusing element: sometimes Cambodians say riel when they really mean dollar - as in, That chair costs ten riel. You know they don't mean baht, because 10 baht is about 30 cents, and 10 riel would be less than a penny. So what they actually mean is $10. 

So the moral of the story? Just because you understand the words people use doesn't mean you understand what they really mean. It has literally taken about 2 years for me to be able to get prices quoted in the market, converted in my head, and the correct change handed over!

Money is just one more thing that makes living in Cambodia...complicated.
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