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.