Only One Dollar

Cambodian Street Seller

“Please miss, only one dollar!”

“For you, just one dollar, one dollar miss, only one dollar!”

“Two for one dollar! OK, OK miss, three for one dollar!”

This is the soundtrack to Cambodia, the slightly mournful cry of the street vendors, often just kids, who are trying to scratch a living out of the tourist trade around all the major sites in the country.

As well as feeling as though I’ve entered the word’s biggest Poundland (OK, Dollarland), it also feels very sad to see such abject poverty. The general consensus is that buying from street kids worsens the problem and discourages school attendance, so we’ve had to master the art of patiently walking past with a constant dialogue of, “No, thank you; no, thank you.” We’ve donated to a number of NGO’s and eaten in good cause restaurants; but it feels like a drop in the ocean.

This also got me wondering, why the US dollar?

Cambodia operates a dual-currency system. Even in the major supermarket chains, prices are quoted in US dollars, but you can pay with either USD or the local currency, riel. It’s highly confusing, as you often pay with USD and get the change in riel, necessitating some agile mental arithmetic to work out if your change is right.

It was actually while researching some background on the Khmer Rouge campaign that I found out why this is. We watched the Killing Fields whilst in Cambodia, a chilling but fascinating account of the human tragedy that took place in the 1970’s. The genocide is well documented and, quite rightly, it’s the human side that got most of the media attention.

What I didn’t realise was that the KR also carried out what must surely be the most drastic economic experiment ever to take place in modern history. They destroyed the currency. I don’t mean they wrecked the economy so that the currency was devalued; I mean the literally burned all the currency, blew up the banks and burned the cash, and destroyed all the account records, so that in the aftermath, everyone was effectively starting from zero again.

Just try to imagine that in your home country.

No wonder the US dollar has taken a hold here as the currency of choice; there was no currency in place for in the late ‘70’s. Plus, the UN injected thousands of USD into the economy when it ran the country for few years in the early ‘90’s.

Since then I’ve been reading up on how there’s a split of opinion of whether the country should go for complete ‘dollarisation’, or work on making the riel a world currency. Many campaigners hoped the launch of the Cambodian stock exchange would decide one way or another, but that too sits on the fence, with prices quoted in riel but accounts that can be settled in Dollars.

I find it fascinating. It takes me back to my A-level Economics days and it will be a story I follow with interest as Cambodia continues to develop.

In the meantime, I’ll distribute my dollars as fairly as I can in this beautiful country; and remember to be grateful for the dollars I have in my pocket. By accident of where I was born. Life could have been very, very different.

7 thoughts on “Only One Dollar

  1. I’d have had to give her something – poor little mite! But you are quite right in what you are saying – it would only be helping to worsen the problem. Nothing ever changes for these poor people though. There seem
    to be so many corrupt governments in these countries that it’s a wonder anything can ever change.

    Well, it was the last day of school today. This time last year Megan was counting how many days she had left with the girls, now she’s counting the days until she sees them again! How long before you go to Sri Lanka?

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    • Hi Sam – we are flying to Sri Lanka on 28th July, so just a few days now. And then onto home from there. We are all very much looking forward to so many things from home, and the girls cannot wait to see Megan. We will have to get lots of playdates in the diary. As soon as we get our beds set up again, we’ll have to have Megan for a sleepover! Janet xxx

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      • We’ll keep a look out for a chap called Selva over there. Everybody knows him and he’s a well respected guide. He could arrange a lot for you all. Sri Lanka is such a lovely place – you’ll love it.

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  2. Excellent resolve! I work for one of the organizations in Cambodia that discourage giving/buying for/from begging children. These children are often times managed by gangs, who take control of the profits.

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    • Oh, that’s awful, I thought they were just working for their families, but that is even worse. I am glad we didn’t buy anything now, even though it broke my heart to say no.

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      • Don’t feel so guilty, most are is better shape than they look and are receiving support from NGOs. But begging is their job, so they have to make themselves look as helpless as possible (by not wearing their shoes, holding babies who have been rented by their mothers, etc.). Here’s a project of my org if you want to learn more. http://www.childsafe-international.org/TFResidents.asp

        cheers!

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  3. Hi girls,
    I am absolutely delighted that you are coming home very soon! I have received all of your postcards and my Mum has laminated them all. I had a haircut a month or so ago, so I hope that you will recognize me,you will recognize me, right!?!?

    We have some new people in our class there’s ,Sean,Vinay,Kieran,Mathew and Peter!

    No matter what I’ll always be able to tell you apart, your ribbon colours were Gold for Tettie,Violet for Mima and Green for Evie! Please tell me if they are wrong,for it was a long time ago so my mind is abit crusty!

    I hope you will reply to me. Are you still thinking of me as your best friend? Because I’m still thinking of you as my best friends!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Love From Megan XXX

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