Now I’d like to start this post by saying what a beautiful place Cambodia is. Unspoilt by its more commercial Asian counterparts, but enough ‘home comforts’ and mod-cons to make you feel at ease, Cambodia and its people are friendly, welcoming and polite.
Cambodia is also a great place to visit, and I’ve highlighted some of the things you can do, and where to stay, in another articles.
However, I’ve written this post is to highlight one situation which has taught me to be much more vigilant when abroad. And if you visit the area, I hope this serves as a warning not to fall into the same trap.
So upon arriving at Siem Reap, the home of the legendary Angkor Wat, we joined the taxi rank at the airport to get to our hotel.
There was only one ‘official’ rank, ran by some kind of Transport Association. So official enough.
Anyway our driver was incredibly friendly, well spoken and managed to articulate the various places we should go and see. He also told us that he could take us around this afternoon to see various sights including Angkor Wat at sunset. This would just cost $15 US Dollars. He said he could also take us around the next day for the whole day, taking in all three temples and some further, out of town destinations to boot. This would set us back $45USD.
Now a point I have to make is that by this time, we’d kinda had our fill often dodgy taxi and tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok. Some didn’t understand English and dropped us of at the wrong destination, while others just tried their best to hike up the price of a short ride. One chancer even switched their taxi meter off for a short journey in an attempt to charge a higher fee for a quick commute.
So while our friendly driver in Cambodia was offering a premium priced fee, it seemed a price worth paying for ease of mind, convenience and a welcome break from haggling.
So we booked the driver for our first afternoon in Siem Reap. We’d planned to see the Angkor Wat at sunset, but we had a couple of hours to kill before then, so he suggested that we could see a few shops where local women make wooden items for sale. As there were few other options we went to the shop. Plus it didn’t seem like such a bad option, as I assumed it meant that we’d see the women actually make the crafts, or at least that was how it was sold to us.
However it turned out to be an air conditioned shop with the most full-on sales team ever. One thing I noted about Cambodia more than any other country I’ve visited – their sales patter is hard to the point of off-putting. It makes the salespeople on the souk stalls of Marrakech seem practically reserved.
So I found myself surrounded by about four sales people, each honing in on every item I looked at and asking me for a price. My hubby revived the same undue level of service, so we bought an obligatory magnet and made a quick getaway.
Whilst looking for our next destination, our driver also mentioned that Cambodia is mineral-rich and known for its sapphires, emeralds and rubies, and that they are cheaper here than elsewhere.
I know what you’re thinking.
Yes, my eyes did slightly light up. Especially when he mentioned a shop where you can see the gems being carved and made into jewellery. To say I was tempted was an understatement, after all I’d snapped up some bargain freshwater pearls in Thailand, so I figured a gemstone could fit in the mix. Plus, I figured the idea of seeing stones carved would be a nice experience.
Anyway, we arrived at the shop – Khmer Jewellers – to find that it was an air conditioned jewellery store, not the rustic diamond mine I expected. Nonetheless, the place looked legit if nothing else.
Despite being disappointed, I looked at some gems, out of politeness.
They all looked stunning, but I didn’t pay too much attention to any as I wasn’t planning on buying. However the pushy staff insisted on bringing out different pendants and necklaces.
Despite asking them to stop showing more items. They continually stalked us, showing us different stones, urging a purchase.
I did see some rings, one of which I liked, a sapphire with whites stones set in white gold. They said it cost $200 US dollars, but then immediately offered a discount to $120. I walked off, looked at some other items and then went to leave. Then they stalked us on the ring I liked, insisting we name a price. They even offered a gem certificate and free resizing.
As I wasn’t overly bothered about the ring, I gave an offensively low price of $50 to end the discussion. Despite initially saying they couldn’t go that low, they called me back as I neared the door, asked their ‘boss’ to agree to the price.
Now this all sounds terribly naive in hindsight. But at the time, in the air conditioned, authentic looking store, I had no real reason to doubt anything. And I figured a mineral rich country could offer a good price. Plus after spending a week bargaining hard in different countries across Asia, negotiating a 75% discount didn’t seem too good to be true.
Anyway, with a disgruntled husband slightly disapproving, I hurriedly purchased the ring, and took their certificate and didn’t bother asking about resizing. More fool me.
The excitement of the purchase soon fizzled away when I read a number of reviews on TripAdvisor naming and shaming Khmer Jewellers as sellers of polished brass and fancy glass.
Many people before me had been duped, after being taken by the same taxi company to the jewellers and believing they’d bought a genuine precious gem.
And while I haven’t had my bargain valued at a jewellers, for fear of being laughed out of the shop, upon closer examination of the ring, I can only conclude that I am the proud owner of an expensive piece of glass.
The only saving grace was that I haggled and got a pretty low price (well in the grand scheme of things).
But it was more the principle that bugged me. I would happily spend $50 buying postcards, wood carvings and all the other things being pedalled in the street, by incredibly poor locals, including young children. But instead, it was wasted on a very official con.
The people at Khmer Jewellers have no doubt cashed in on naive tourists, and they’re aided in their deceit by drivers like ours, who sell us a yarn along the way, and get a commission for their trouble.
Needless to say, I cancelled the next day’s full excursion with our driver. Instead we spent just $15USD on a kind and courteous tuk-tuk driver who took us around the whole day, waited patiently at each site and even dropped us off at airport. At the end we gave him a few more dollars as a tip, and he was unbelievably grateful for such a small gesture.
So despite feeling a bit cheated, I feel I got off lightly, and I’d impart the following advice when visiting Cambodia.
If you can, arrange your own transport. Otherwise you’ll end up with the Transport company, who make it their business to book up day tours and take you around at a premium.
Invest in a tuk tuk. Unlike Bangkok, Cambodian tuk tuk drivers don’t just do single trips. It’s the norm for you to have the same driver for the whole day, and they’ll wait patiently for hours as you take your millionth selfie in front of Angkor Wat. With our tuk tuk driver, we felt safe, reassured and taken care of. Plus it was great to know that he was getting the money, rather than it going to a big company.
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It’s easy to get swayed whilst in another country, you have to wrap your head around a different currency, you want to collect souvenirs, and if you’ve got an impatient partner, you have to make quick decisions.
But the rule of thumb is, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I would say that always be mindful that not everything is not always as it seems. So pay a price that you’re comfortable with, rather than what you’d expect to pay normally. That way you’re less likely to feel robbed.
I think I’ll stay away from precious minerals and stick to ornaments and fridge magnets when abroad. And perhaps the odd bit of costume jewellery.