Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shopping and Tipping

I had an email from someone who has taken a photo of the bus stop I mention in the previous blog entry on public transport. You can see the pic here on

It's a really good blog focusing on everything to do with traffic in Cambodia. The mystery writer also has another blog which compares prices between the different supermarkets in Phnom Penh--a very useful guide if you live, or are planning to live in Phnom Penh. Check it out here!

It's inspired me to write an entry on prices here in Siem Reap, where I now live. In Phnom Penh, we used to shop at Lucky on Sihanouk, cos we could walk there from BKK3. In Siem Reap, we go to the wet market in "Psar Jah" ("old market"), the market around Pub Street. There we can get broccoli (sometimes) for 10,000 riels (about USD2.50) a kg and Cambodian beef for USD5 a kg. The price for broccoli is similar to that back in Singapore. The only difference is that here, in Cambodia, you are paying for the stalk. In Singapore, the broccoli stalks are smaller. Here, they are really big, because I guess, Khmers eat the stalk as well. We prefer to eat (and therefore pay for) the florets because that is where the goodness is.

The other thing about buying vegetables in the market is the prices fluctuate wildly. Cauliflower can cost 3000 riels (USD0.75) a kg one day and 5000 riels the next, depending on supply. But in general, you can get good, fresh food at the market. For fancy cheeses and English back bacon (USD22 a kg!), you can go to Angkor Market along Sivatha Boulevard. It is the biggest supermarket, and even has trolleys. We usually shop at the minimarket just a bit up the road, and across the street, from Angkor Market, though, because it is cheaper. A 2 litre bottle of milk costs USD3.30 there and USD3.80 at Angkor Market. Just wait till Lucky opens! All these other minimarts that have been overcharging customers will be in for a shock. I can't wait.

The one supermarket I boycott here in Siem Reap is the one just in front of Sok San Palace, called Huy Meng. It has expanded recently because of demand, taking over the MaxMart that was previously beside it (MaxMart itself has expanded its other premises, about 200m south of Huy Meng). The reason I boycott this supermarket is because every single time I shop there, the cashiers try to shortchange me. Not by a lot, by a hundred or two or maybe five hundred riels (USD0.125), but for me, it is the principle. If I wanted to give away a freaking 100 riel (USD0.025) note, I would rather give it to the poor boy who loiters outside collecting aluminum cans or even to the beggar mother, than to be ripped off by some guy working in an air-conditioned convenience store who gets a salary for doing this job.

The way they do it is to round off the amount the charge you. So for instance, if your bill is USD3.10, they will ask you for $3 and 500 riels, when it should be 400 riels. Or USD0.15 would be 1000 riels, instead of 600. This was when the exchange rate was 4000 to the dollar, so please don't tell me that the mistake is because of the exchange rate. In fact, the first time I challenged the cashier, I asked what the exchange rate was before pointing out to him he was mathematically challenged (ok, I didn't, but I did tell him what the right amount should be).

I thought ok, it could be an honest mistake. But after the third consecutive time it happened, I lost my temper, and told the cashier (this time it was a woman) "Every time I shop here you try to cheat me of a few hundred riels. The next time this happens I will tell your boss." I had it in my mind that the owner of Huy Meng was unaware of how his staff was scamming customers. But who knows? Maybe he doesn't even mind, because it's not costing him anything (although it has cost him this customer). But I would like to believe he is in the dark about this.

The problem is obviously the staff regularly get away with this. This is one problem living in a tourist town like Siem Reap--foreigners who live here get treated like tourists. Tourists who come here think nothing of throwing riels around or losing a few hundred here and there (it is such small money, it hardly seems worth it to quibble). But as I have already written, if you have money to spare, please give a thought as to how you are spending it. Do you really want to give it to the cashier as a tip (where in the world do supermarket cashiers get tips?), or could that 100 riel note be better used elsewhere. Again, it takes effort to think, instead of saying, "keep the change" or worse, not even engaging your brain to realise you have been scammed.

Here is a thought: instead of letting people cheat you out of the small notes, why not get your right change, keep them all, and drop them in a donation box for the Bopha Angkor Children's Hospital?

Here is another thought: instead of tipping, you could do the same with your tips. Why? Because I think tipping subsidises the pub or restaurant owners. Instead of paying fair wages, they underpay and use "tipping" as a way to attract staff. I just met a 23 year old guy who works at a restaurant on Sivatha who gets USD40 a month to work as a waiter 8 hours a day, 7 days a week with no annual holidays. His meals are covered by the restaurant and of course, the owner says, "you have tips".

This country is not like Italy, where I've been told, waiters take their profession as a career, and are treated as professionals. Waiters here are just trying to make a living, and the moment they can find a better job, they'd leave. This is why restaurants and pubs here are forever looking for service staff. Even the established and huge Red Piano has had a help wanted sign since I moved here almost 4 months ago! Another posh restaurant in a small lane has been looking for a (woman, they specify) manager for three months to no avail.

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