Monday, February 22, 2016

Money in the Kingdom

“We cannot accept.”, the bank teller looked at me, her eyes meeting mine and then quickly averting to the counter. A glass window separated us.  I'd used a little sliding drawer to give her a check for some reimbursed work expenses. 

“ I want to deposit this check into my bank account,” I fumble for my ID hoping it will make a difference.

“Your name is different on the account. Our policy is that you cannot deposit this check.”

 Feebly, I try to explain. “The bank account has my middle given name, but in the Western custom we generally do not use it. So you can see that the names are the same except for the middle name.” 

I can feel my frustration mounting.  When one goes to the bank in Cambodia, one has to be prepared to wait. On this visit, it was 30 minutes of watching the tortuously slow progression of the numbers on the screen as they advanced to the small slip of paper in my hand. I tried not to watch the flat screen as it looped, silently, the same 3 minute advertising spot for the bank’s new property development.  The new luxury neighborhood featured the bland imprint of suburbia. The homes featured massive entry halls that were decorated in polished marble, stunning chandeliers and inspirational staircases. New cars entered the gates.  It all looked very expensive.

I’ve been thinking of money lately.  The city shuttered during the Chinese New Year earlier this month as the business owners spent time with family in the new Year of the Monkey.  I am realizing that I will intentionally not be generating income very soon.  In fact, I'll be  spending savings on traveling in nature while unemployed. The last time this happened was in 1993, when I took the winter off to travel in Costa Rica. 

With the upcoming transition,  I’m wondering about the legal reporting implications of moving my cash here in Cambodia back into the states and morning the loss of Cambodia's quite generous interest rates.  When I step foot in America, I will be throwing bills in the air as I get settled: car (and insurance and debt),  professional clothing, a phone plan, health insurance. The differential on expenses in the US versus Cambodia is wide.  At times, I wonder how the Asian and American attitudes, values and assumptions  around money are different.  As an example, during Chinese New Year the red envelopes appear.
Phnom Penh Post 3 February 2016. 
"Members of Sok Kong’s family hand out donations to police officers
yesterday in Phnom Penh during the lead up to Chinese New Year."

Philanthropy, as Americans and Europeans engage in it, is an emerging trend here. The culture of giving is often focused on what comes in return. Many Cambodians will hand out small change from the window to the people on the street: women carrying drugged babies, grandmothers and children with jasmine garlands, men with flip flops on their knees and the singing bands of blind people that play on the corners around town.   The very impressive fundraising efforts of the Cambodia Red Cross (about 13-14 million every year) are closely linked to the fact that the president is Bun Rany, wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.  The Cambodia Daily reported in April 2015 that, "Legions of donors lined up to present Mr. Hun Sen with an envelope, bowing to the the premier as the amount of their contribution was read over the loud speaker."

In this country as is over the world, cash is king.   The women who sell all sorts of items on the street carry a fanny pack, filled with loads of bills in no particular order.  If they need to make change, they rummage through their purse until they find the correct amount.  At times the cash is also laid flat, 9 pieces of a denomination wrapped by the 10th.   One day, I watched an expat woman dressed in a vintage polka dot dress, likely a new arrival, as she pulled a large wad of the local currency from her purse to pay her motodup, as the others looked on, joking among themselves about rich white people. 
An old photo of the Nagaworld Casino next to
The Buddhist Institute.

Both the rich and the poor think that the rich are lucky, born under a promising constellation.    Luck is considered to be a strong part of any success.  The local casino now overshadows the school of traditional Buddhism as nearby, the groups of tuk-tuk drivers hover over the cards, drink beer and wait for their turn. Here, without access to credit, many Cambodians rely on informal credit groups called tong tin, The credit groups are built on trust among the richer members-- who take some risk in having a loan not repaid-- but also have potential for a big payout if they keep their funds in long enough. 

Other schemes are the typical get rich quick frauds.  In the decrepit mall next door, a new store opened in 2015. It features expensively packaged serums and potions, supplements of questionable merit, and the promise of the wealth from vertical marketing.   In the months after, they opened a training center in the space nearby to demonstrate the eager riches that can be gained by taking advantage of others. This country feels ripe for predatory lenders, pyramid approaches and generally anything that involves making money on the backs of others. 

One step at a time. 

Would you put your money here?

Just three  years ago, the World Bank reported that only 4% of people in Cambodia have a bank account in which they can deposit money.  Last year, for the first time, the Ministry of Education provided electronic transfers of the school budget to the District principals. In years past they would come to Phnom Penh for their annual school budget in cash before returning to the province to pay the teachers.  It's good to remember that the Khmer Rouge blew up the National Bank of Cambodia in 1975 and the local currency was only reintroduced in 1980, so it is no wonder that people value cash more than a deposit book.  Even in the days before the 2013 elections, there was a run on the ATMs and transfers of cash from the country were pronounced. 

Now, as I prepare to depart, my own cash transfers and the eventuality of the "Leaving Sale" comes into view. In months past, I've watched the "goers" will post their furniture and housewares on the expat websites and pages with prices and photos. $10 for a fan. $5 for a rattan shelf.  

I am taking a different approach.  I have a list of the special gifts, but really I am planning to give most of it away.  I want to trust in abundance and keep my own needs minimal, simple and cheap.  


  1. Good post. I feel your bank pain and am kind of fascinated with these money pouches stuffed with bills...does this receptacle hold the family' entire cash stash?

    1. Hi France. I think not. I suspect that many people have a safe at home where they keep the money. I think the fanny packs contain a day's worth of operating cash for inventory purchases and making change.

  2. Good luck with your transition. Sounds challenging.

  3. interesting post, Ellen, I wish you safe passage to the U. S. and enough cash to cover new expenses! (we take so much for granted across the "pond".