One thing important to learn before traveling to a foreign country is about the local customs when dealing with monetary matters. Things like currency used, preferred method of payment, gratuity expectations, sales tax, customs, etc. To learn about these, you could start with reading travel guides like Lonely Planet’s, Fodor’s, National Geographic Travelers, etc. which very likely have sections that discuss this topic. The important thing to note is to not assume that your normal way of conducting transaction at home is accepted the same way in the country you’re visiting. For example, in the United States using credit cards and sometimes even personal checks are acceptable as methods of payment when you go to stores. You take the same credit card to a foreign country, it may not be accepted there because the local merchants may be more used with cash payment, and even if they have credit card as an optional method of payment, it’s actually not preferred because of the extra cost that has to be paid to the credit card company for the convenience. Another thing to check with credit cards is whether there is foreign transaction fee charged every time you use your credit card for transaction outside your home country — this could amount to as much as 3-5% of the transaction amount.
When we went to Cambodia, we already had the travel logistics (hotels, transportation, and tour guide) arranged in advance, so by the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, we didn’t think much about the money aspects. The first time we had to think about this however was very shortly after our arrival. We had a driver with a car hired by our tour company coming to pick us up at the airport to take us to our hotel. The actual car pick up was already paid for through the tour company, but then during the ride Kristi and I had a discussion on gratuity for the driver. We were trying to figure out what was acceptable to give as gratuity once we arrive to the hotel. On one hand, I remembered reading in a guidebook that gratuity was not part of what’s expected in the culture, but lately with more foreign tourists coming to Cambodia, it became more widely expected. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what would be the proper amount to give that wouldn’t be considered as insulting if it’s too low, or too much. We also didn’t know how much the actual cost for the car pick-up from the airport. As far as currency, I knew that US dollars were widely accepted as currency; the problem was that I only had a $5 bill and the rest of the USD cash we carried were of larger denominations ($20 and $100). So it would be kind of awkward giving a large bill and asking for change to return when giving gratuity. I finally just gave the $5 to the driver as a tip. I think that turned out to be pretty good amount, and he seemed to be pretty happy to receive it, so we felt good with that decision.
Later on I asked our hotel front desk about public transportation to get around the city, and they suggested the best way to get around is to take one of the tuk-tuks (or also known as remorque) from outside the hotel. There was usually at least one of these tuk-tuk drivers waiting there to take hotel guests elsewhere. They said you need to bargain with the tuk-tuk driver, but typically you can get about anywhere within Phnom Penh from the hotel for $2.
When we were ready to go to a restaurant we selected from the guidebook for dinner, we went outside the hotel and we were met by one of these tuk-tuk drivers who offered his service. I showed him the name and address of the restaurant; he nodded his head and motioned to us to get into the passenger seat of his tuk-tuk. We followed that, and off we went… Then few minutes later, Kristi asked me about the pricing… oops, it happened so fast, I forgot that we were supposed to ask for the expected price and bargain first with the driver before agreeing to go with him.
We ended up getting to the restaurant, and the tuk-tuk driver asked me if we wanted him to come back again later to pick us up and bring us back to the hotel. I said yes, and before I had a chance to talk about the pricing, he said he’ll be back in two hours, and we can pay him later when we get back to our hotel.
Two hours later, after we finished our dinner, we went outside the restaurant, and sure enough, the tuk-tuk was waiting for us to bring us back to the hotel. We got back to the hotel, and I asked the driver how much the ride was. He said $5. Remembering what the hotel staff said, I said, no, it should be $4. He smiled and said okay. But then I thought, you know it’s only $1 difference, not much from my perspective, but in a country where in 2010 the GDP per capita was $810 (compared to $47,000 in the United States), $1 probably made a big difference to this driver. So I ended up giving him $5 and letting him keep the extra $1.
I think that’s one aspect that is somewhat up for discussion among foreign visitors from wealthier countries… do you tip or not, and how much do you bargain. You don’t want to be taken advantage of, but at the same time, I think you don’t want to be carried away with the bargaining part. I feel that in the end it’s better to be more generous to the locals especially if they did provide good service and you have the means to give extra. You never know how much of a blessing that could be for those who receive it, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to do that.
The photo below was taken from the passenger seat during that tuk-tuk ride to the restaurant, as we took in the night scenery around and familiarized ourselves with the area close to our hotel.