Cambodian Conversations Part One

“That is the fakest 100 dollar bill I have ever seen.”

The young man looks up at me expectantly. Behind the innocence in his eyes is a mischievous sparkle. He’s handsome, in a boyish way, and he wears the uniform of a front desk clerk. I was just sitting, eating my breakfast baguette in the lobby of the King Guest House when he sat down across from me. He seems totally friendly- except for the fact that he’s clearly trying to rip me off.

Security Features of the US Twenty Dollar Bill

“You got change?” He asked, casually brandishing a $100 bill. Or at least, what a $100 bill would look like if you photocopied it, then cut around the edges slightly haphazardly. I wouldn’t have had the change even for a real bill, but this isn’t even a remotely good fake.

“That’s fake.” I said, with a smile on my face. I’d only gotten to Phnom Penh yesterday but I was already learning the rules of the game. Maybe he was trying to rip me off, but there was no way I was falling for it.

“Okay, then, $20?”

“I’m not giving you any money, that bill is fake- it’s too small!”

“$10 then,” he said undeterred. Were we bargaining?

“Look buddy, I’m American. I know what a $100 bill looks like.”

He stated at me expectantly and when he realizes I’m not budging suddenly his whole demeanor changes. “I’m just joking!” He announces to the room. We are friends now.

17 12 2010

His expression turns serious as he starts into what I’ve come to think of as the “Cambodian interview:”

Where are you from?

How old are you?

Where is your husband?

He seems to find my answers completely unsatisfactory but charges on.

Do you know Tiger Woods?

Eventually his friend sits down at the table as well. He’s thumbing through a stack of fake-o hundreds. I ask to see them- they look even worse up close.

“They are too small you see, they need to be bigger,” I take out a $1 bill for comparison. Why am I giving this guy forgery tips?

“If I make them bigger you will be able to see they are fakes!” he laughs. Can’t really argue with that.

The friend wanders off and before I know it my desk clerk is telling me about his village three hours away. How he’s only been in Phnom Penh 4 months. He hates it, it’s too busy, but he likes the money. He thinks maybe he will go to Siem Reap and work there instead, there are lots of guest houses.

He tells me about India and how he’s always wanted to go. He’s never been outside of Cambodia of course, not even to Laos although he tells me it’s “nice.” India is his dream, there’s a particular Buddhist temple far up in the mountains that he longs to visit. He needs to go before he’s too old to hike it himself. The people are poor in India, he says, but tourism helps them.

“Like Cambodia.”

“I GUESS,” he says, looking uncomfortable. Cambodia may be the poorest country I’ve ever visited but it’s not INDIA poor. Geez.

I have to marvel a bit. One minute this guy is trying to hustle me, the next he’s spilling out his life dreams. I’ve done nothing to deserve such openess besides being willing to listen. Cambodia seems to be the one place in the world where greed and friendship are can completely coincide.

I feel bad that I have to cut our conversation short, but I only have one full day in the city and I need to get a move on. When we stand up he is all business again, eye back on the dollar as he asks me:

“You want tuk tuk?”


14 Responses to Cambodian Conversations Part One

  1. Tracy Zhang March 24, 2011 at 10:26 AM #

    love this story, great post! Hope to be reading more of your personal encounters in the future!

  2. Elise March 24, 2011 at 10:40 AM #

    Gotta Love it! Always business, yet are so friendly too! Glad you could spot the fake note-did it look that bad really?!
    When we were in Cambodia, we had so many people at guesthouses etc inspect our money ALL the time-most of the time they were inspecting the money that we had just gotten out of the ATM!

  3. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy March 24, 2011 at 11:04 AM #

    That’s a fascinating conversation… it sounds like his scheme isn’t going to be very successful.

  4. Claire March 24, 2011 at 11:44 AM #

    Good story. Sounds like he could be a friend in a another life-one in which he hadn’t tried to hustle you first!

  5. Wandering Trader's Travels March 24, 2011 at 3:36 PM #

    Lol. What a funny story. He tried to hustle you and he ended up sharing his life’s dreams 😀 I admire how the ‘hustler-turned-friend’ turned the table around. I mean, he could have instantly left when you blew him off that his dollar bill was a fake. The things he did and the conversation he started with you seems like something straight out of a comedy film. Hahaha! So funny.

  6. Matt | ExpertVagabond March 24, 2011 at 3:48 PM #

    I love when they start interviewing you beforehand, trying to set you at ease before attempting to rip you off.

    It must work sometimes, otherwise they wouldn’t try, right?

    When touts start asking “the questions”, I come up with ridiculous answers.

    Tout/Scammer: “Where are you from?”
    Me: “Antarctica”

    Tout: “Ah! My cousin live there!”


  7. Candice March 24, 2011 at 11:09 PM #

    Great story. 🙂

  8. Lauren Quinn March 25, 2011 at 12:11 AM #

    it’s my third time hearing the story, and I still laughed out loud. Well told.

  9. Aimee @GoBedRock March 25, 2011 at 12:50 AM #

    Classic. I have a friend from Costa Rica who breaks into a barrage of Spanish whenever someone tries to hustle him. You can see their faces drop and eyes glaze over. it’s quite hilarious 🙂

    I love that he hits you up even though, as you say, you are American. You know what American money looks like. Eesh!

    Great story. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. Dad March 27, 2011 at 7:55 AM #

    Great Story and well told. Looking forward to hearing more.. It really is a different world over there. Have fun.

  11. Andrea April 19, 2011 at 5:13 PM #

    Some how missed this post and just read it. I can totally appreciate it more after having been in Cambodia. i loved this style of story telling!

  12. Zoe July 12, 2011 at 12:51 AM #

    Great story! People are so friendly in Cambodia, especially considering what they went through not that long ago.

  13. Sherri January 31, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

    haha! I had the same kind of experiences when I went to Siem Reap. anything for a buck! Every time we left a temple we were bombarded with children selling 3 or 4 bracelets for “a dollar”, coke for “a dollar”, literally anything for a dollar. My friend took a picture of a little girl and up walked her sassy friend, 5 or 6 years old- mind you- demanding in a high pitched voice “LADY! GIVE ME DOLLAR!!!!!!”

  14. Micamyx|Senyorita March 30, 2013 at 4:45 PM #

    That’s a nice story 😀 When I was in Siem Reap last year, I had some pretty interesting conversations with tuktuk drivers and young vendors. It has something to do with me being a Filipino and they keep on mentioning Manny ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao to me hehe

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