As a rule, I travel with 200 US dollars of emergency money. It’s supposed to cover landing in the middle of nowhere,with no ATM’s in sight. In my naive mind it’s also supposed to cover ransom and bribe money– apparently in a kingdom ruled by children with only marginal knowledge of global exchange rates. In reality, it gets spent on chocolate when I run out of a money and am too lazy to find an ATM.
This trip I’ve been far more cavalier with my emergency spending. After all, the unofficial currency of Cambodia is the US dollar, so ATM’s spit out my safety blanket that is the US greenback.
Now, considering that an English speaking tuk tuk driver makes $200/month during high season (for a family of 4) and that life in the rice fields yields $5/day during the harvest season, a 10 dollar note is a large bill most shops are not happy to take, and tuk tuk drivers may run you over as you walk away. This brings me to my main question: Why the fuck do local ATM’s spit out $100 bills exclusively?
Aside from the fact that $200/month does not cover expenses for a tuk tuk driver– think gas, repairs, bluetooth speakers under the seat, tuk tuk hammocks (I kid you not). And taking into consideration that Tuk Tuk Tom lives better than most here, after expenses, a $100 bill is the equivalent of US/UK ATM’s dispensing bills as large as the average family’s month salary.
Really? Why? Please, why?
I have gotten quite good at playing a game I like to call “pass the Benjamin” (Benjamin Franklin being the US president on the $100 bill for my non-US readers– or for the painfully unobservant Americans– OK, Donald Trump followers). It goes something like this. If a friendly bank is nowhere near, you go to lunch at a western frequented restaurant, and you pull out your $100 bill. This will inevitably be met with eye rolling, nervous smiles, and the pervasive Asian bow. You will be asked if you have anything else, at which point you pull out another $100 bill (carefully present in your wallet for moments such as these). You pull it out unabashedly, like it’s the only thing you ever carry– after all, most people here think we’re made of money. You either get lucky, or get turned away. In the latter case, you find an expat store. This is easy, as most expats can’t walk very far (especially in the heat). You will recognize these fine establishments by the insane amount of white people standing outside raising their hands in adoration, as they can finally find that soy milk yogurt, Marmite, or hazelnut Lindt chocolate that is impossible to find elsewhere (OK, that last one is me). Carefully proceed inside, and find the cheapest mints or gum you can kind (7 cents most likely), then nonchalantly pull out your $100 bill. It’s all about attitude; you must not flinch or appear uncertain. Nine times out of ten your bill will be accepted, though the cashier will keep playing this mind fuck of a game where she will find the largest set of bills she can, and pass them back (most likely a $50, a few $20’s, and an exorbitant amount of small useless Cambodian notes– never more than 10 cents at a time– purely given to completely overwhelm your wallet as penance for daring abuse the system with your king’s ransom of a note). At this point you’re almost done. You smile, and then continue playing this game while jumping from expat store to expat store with smaller and smaller notes. In about 40 minutes, you will have successfully broken your 100, not before paying the ridiculous fee of 6 month’s supply of gum and mints enough to cure Gandhi of his famed bad breath.
Sigh. The financial mysteries of southeast Asian economics.
p.s. If anyone has tips on how to break million dollar notes around here please let me know in the comments below.