Cambodia generally uses a bartering system when people buy things or services. Vendors, unlike some other places, are generally not aggressive, and if you’re lighthearted and friendly, it’s totally fine to barter to a reasonable price or at least what you would consider a good deal.
This post is more for people who are living in Cambodia for two months or more. I almost want to laugh when people expect to just be given local price or think that everyone is trying to “scam” them. I’m amazed at people who complain that they are being screwed over when they don’t take the time to learn some basics and for some reason expect everyone to speak English when you are in an Asian country. Honestly, a month is more than enough time to ask a few Khmer people what the local price is to get a benchmark or learn some basic Khmer, Cambodian language, to get the price down.
Why should a vendor give us local price automatically? If I was a tuk tuk driver and I could make five dollars for driving tourists for seven minutes compared to $1.50, I would do it if they agreed to the price.
I have definitely paid way more than local price my first few weeks in Cambodia. At the time, I thought I paid a fair price. I got a decent deal, the vendor made a good sale, everyone won. Or it was my fault for not putting a bit of effort to do some homework to find out the average price. If I agree with the vendor, then it’s my own fault for overpaying. Some days I’m just lazy.
I talked to this vendor who was very friendly and very honest too. Unlike most other people I pass at the market, she didn’t try to sell me anything, so we chatted for a bit. She said, “If I think a tourist is only here for a few days, then I will charge $12 for this item. But if I become friends with someone, I don’t need a big profit I just charge $5.”
There are generally three prices in Cambodia:
1. Local price: $0.60 for a full plate of noodles
2. Know-a-bit-of-Khmer price: $1.25 for a full plate of noodles
2. Tourist price: $2.50 for a full plate of noodles
Two ways to earn local price
I’m always grateful for my Cambodian friends who introduced me to the key places I need to shop. I asked them to tell some of the vendors, “If you give my friend the local price, she will keep coming back to shop here.” And I do. It’s nice to be able to know the names and greet the same people on my weekly grocery run.
Even people I know who don’t speak Khmer can get a reasonable price by developing a relationship with a vendor or being friendly.
2. Learn some basic Khmer
After a month, I learned some basic Khmer, including knowing enough numbers to barter. Now I usually get the mid-range price or local price if I develop a relationship with some of the sellers.
I generally know how much it costs to get a tuk tuk from our place to the city centre. When they initially ask to charge me $3, I say, “6000 riels” in Khmer and they generally don’t argue back because they know I am in Siem Reap longer than two days.
When I went to lunch with a friend and of course, they knew we were expats and handed us the tourist price menu, which was $2.50 for a plate of rice, which expensive for Siem Reap. So I politely turned to the waitress and said I Khmer, “One plate of rice, $1.25?” looking surprised that I knew some Khmer, she immediately agreed.
I think it is more respectful to at least make an effort to learn some basics of the country you are living in, not just visiting. It’s beyond the point that people don’t need to learn Khmer to be able to get around in the very touristy city of Siem Reap. It’s about learning about the culture and immersing yourself.
Develop relationships, ask questions, learn from a Khmer friend, and you’ll get around just fine.