The Cambodian Buddy System

And by buddy system, I mean extortion, bribery, and preferential treatment. This is a common way of doing things in Cambodia – though this is also the case in many other countries. (Russians even have a specific word for getting something by knowing someone: по блату. Google Translate translates it as ‘to pull,’ and Wikipedia under-estimates it by comparing it to the old boys club.) In Cambodia, here’s what this ‘buddy system’ looks like:

  • Every guesthouse has specific tuk tuk drivers that it calls for all guests. I don’t know if they’re friends of the guesthouse workers or if they provide kickbacks, but it’s definitely not an open system. Most tuk tuk drivers also have a preferred guesthouse that they try to sell you on, if you arrive without an existing reservation, so that may be the compensation method.
  • When we took the bus back from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the drivers stopped on the outskirts of town and gave money to some guys sitting in plastic chairs near the side of the road. In return, they got an envelope of some sort with a piece of paper. Now, it’s possible that this was a formal exchange – similar to a US toll booth on a highway. However, the informal nature of it all (plus the wife beaters the guys were wearing) made it seem slightly off.
  • Cambodian Bus View

    View from the bus

    On that same bus ride, we stopped at an extra rest area, where a larger, well-dressed man got on. (I mention his size because in this country, it still correlates with wealth.) He brought his own plastic chair to sit on and chatted with the drivers. I saw him pay them a bunch of money right before they dropped him off, in Phnom Penh, but still far from the bus terminal. An off-the-books passenger, so to speak.

  • Buses that run on that particular route stop about halfway to allow passengers to eat. They stop at very specific restaurants that I imagine provide kickbacks for the courtesy of having so many ‘rich’ customers. (B pointed out that the options might also be limited, since the restaurant needs to be able to accommodate a lot of passengers pretty quickly.)
  • Bus companies let tuk tuk drivers loiter, waiting to swarm disembarking passengers. They do this in exchange for the tuk tuk drivers helping them unload bags from the bus immediately on arrival.
  • Did I mention the weird extortion thing at the French restaurant in Kampot?
  • If you go to the Embassy to get your Cambodian visa extended, the formal process can take weeks. If you pay extra at a travel agency, they’ll get it back to you in four to six business days.
  • And at (land) border crossings, some people stick money in their passports for the officials. Others convince tourists to pay them for being taken to the front of the line. They share their take with the officials that let them cut the line.
  • Our host in Phnom Penh mentioned that you sometimes have to pay cops to help with a traffic accident, because the government doesn’t do it.
  • One of our guesthouse owners always gives the cop who comes in a free drink, just to grease the wheels, so to speak.
  • No prices are posted anywhere, so there is a lot of price segmentation. Locals pay less, of course, which can be justified by the higher cost of having to learn to communicate with foreigners. But the difference can be large – even among different foreigners – because you are rewarded for knowing what something is worth, and for being willing to bargain.

If you visit Cambodia, it’s always a good idea to know someone. We liked staying with AirBnB folks in Phnom Penh, because they made us feel confident that we were paying a fair(ish) price and dealing with a legit business.

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3 thoughts on “The Cambodian Buddy System

  1. Pingback: Moments in a Cambodian Village - Novelty Buffs

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