The curse of currencies

When you travel a lot, especially to a variety of different countries where each one has a different local currency, you end up accumulating a lot of coins and notes of various colors and values. It starts to look like play money.

Vietnamese DongCambodian riels

Mixing up money can be a costly affair.


When traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia, I had some Vietnamese dong left over (enough for the days I had in Cambodia), so I decided to change the money to the local riel. Having just travelled all day, I was exhausted so I just asked my tour guide where he recommended to change the money.

We were still at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, waiting for our group to get through immigration, so I figured I’d use the time productively.
He pointed at the dodgy-looking currency exchangers hovering like vultures by the border security, and said that they’re usually the best option. They give an ok rate, he said. I didn’t like the look of them, but since he knew better than I did, I took his word for it. There weren’t any other options at the border.

I made my way to the nearest one and asked to change my dong to riel. Bear in mind that after 5 months of backpacking and a dozen currencies, I could hardly remember the value of the dong let alone convert from dong to dollars to riel to be sure I was being given the right amount. I had to hope he was honest.

I’m sure these wandering currency exchange people prey on people exactly like me for this reason.

The exchanger counted out the notes I handed him and then did a quick calculation. He announced an amount in Vietnamese and proceeded to hold up a wad of notes, and declared it to be 50,000 riel. He showed me that there were 10 notes in the wad of cash, all of the same value, 5,000 riel.
He handed me three of these wads, a few small notes and said thank you.

I walked away and my head started to swim with numbers… I’d had about a million dong… that was about $50. Riel is about 4,000 per dollar….. I was starting to feel short-changed. As far as I could tell, I should have been given closer to 200,000 riel, not 150,000. Not cool.

I walked back to the exchanger and explained in English that he hadn’t given me enough money, he shook his head, apparently now he couldn’t understand. Yeah, right. My blood started to boil.

I grabbed my tour guide who spoke vietnamese and marched back to the exchanger. In angry tones, we demanded the other 50,000 riel. Sheepishly, the exchanger handed over another wad of money.

I felt better. The anger in me started to subside, and we went back to our group, telling the others to be careful and make sure you know in advance how much money to expect when exchanging currency.

As we sat down in the bus on the way to the hotel, far from begging hands, I counted out my new currency. Turns out that while the first wad of money was indeed full of 5,000 riel notes, the other 3 only had a 5,000 on the front and the internal notes were all 1,000s.
I was livid. The evil bastard had only given me about half the money I was meant to get, so he’d genuinely shortchanged me by at least $20, even after going back for more.

Thankfully, I had enough US dollars with me (also widely accepted in Cambodia) to get me through till Thailand where I was expecting to withdraw money again.

As foolish as I felt, after the initial fury wore off, I had to laugh at myself and considered the event a ‘Stupid foreigner tax’. I’ve certainly learnt my lesson, that’s for sure.

Speaking of stupid foreigners, the following day I saw someone in a worse situation than my own, which made me feel better. 😉

I was at a tiny Cambodian internet cafe with the cost being approximately $1/hr. While typing away, I heard a commotion at the front desk coming from an American girl holding 3,000 Riel and explaining that earlier that day she had used the internet and been charged 3,000 Riel but mistakenly paid in Thai Baht. She just wanted to swap it back.

3,000 Riel = 70c; 3,000 Baht = $97

That’s a big difference, but an easy mistake to make if you’re not paying attention to what you’re taking out of your wallet.

The internet cafe staff insisted that there was no Baht in the till, so the girl ended up leaving screaming about calling the police. I doubt she got her money back.

Lessons learnt:

  • Before changing money, make sure you calculate the expected amount yourself so that you know how much you should be getting.
  • Try to use reputable currency exchange offices when you can, or at least take a local familiar with the currency and language with you in case there are issues.
  • Count the money you receive straight away. Make sure it’s the amount you should get. Never rely on the other party counting correctly.
  • Consider traveller’s cheques. I’ve never used them, but many do.
  • Keep different currencies in different wallets, or at least in separate labelled zip-lock bags, because otherwise you end up wading through change from a handful of countries in the one change pocket.
  • Consider giving your remaining change to charity – most airports have boxes where you can donate your remaining change of any currency these days.
  • And, most importantly, know the value of what you have. Many countries especially where haggling is expected start out with ridiculous prices when you ask how much something costs, anticipating that you will bargain with them down to a normal price, or simply pay up, as a rich foreigner. This is especially common in poorer countries like China, Vietnam, Cambodia etc.
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