British national Duncan Cousins said he and his wife Laura will leave Cambodia on Friday with a bitter taste in their mouths after being tricked out of $200 in an elaborate currency exchange scam at the Poipet border crossing.
The scam, Duncan Cousins explained, started on their journey from Bangkok to Poipet when the guides on their tour bus told them that King Norodom Sihamoni had issued televised announcements that the dollar should no longer be used in Cambodia.
“They told us that the King is on the TV every day asking people to use riel and not US dollars,” Cousins recounted of the message conveyed to the passengers. The guides, Cousins said, added that “there are no ATMs in Siem Reap and it’s difficult to change money there so you’re best to do it at the [Poipet] border.”
After spending 90 minutes queuing up to get through both Thai and Cambodian immigration, the same guides from the SMP Bus Company met the passengers on the Cambodian side of the border, and announced that it would be their last chance to change US dollars.
Cousins changed $540 worth of Thai baht and was given $372 worth of Cambodian riel by a currency exchange shop at the border. In their first transaction inside Cambodia, the British couple were relieved of $168 if calculated by the official exchange rate of approximately 4,000 riel to each US dollar.
Besides tarnishing his view of Cambodia, Duncan Cousins said the scam forced him and his wife to lower their budget and change their travel plans.
“If we didn’t get [scammed] coming here we would have spent more money in the country,” he said. “I haven’t even bothered looking at the map [of Cambodia] to see where to go,” he added.
The Cousins are not alone.
One table away from the Cousins at a restaurant in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake area, another group of travelers told how they had been fed the same, false story about the Cambodian King, local riel and US dollars, and then exchanged money far below the official government exchange rate.
Charlotte Pier, 21, of the Netherlands, said that after she crossed the Poipet border the official guides on the tour bus from Bangkok told passengers that US dollars were not used very much in Cambodia. Passengers were also told that the border was the last place they would be able to change foreign currency, she said.
As the guides worked with the tour bus and tour operator who arranged their transport to the border, Pier said that she and other passengers were inclined to believe them.
“They said you can trust me,” she recounted, adding that she changed $28 and got $17 worth of riel. Pier said she wasn’t surprised by her welcome to Cambodia: “I kind of expected to get ripped off at some point.”
On Dec 8, 2005, Prime Minister Hun Sen appointed National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy to head a committee to examine Cambodia’s international border checkpoints following reports from tourists crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia that they were being forced to pay between $25 and $30 for $20 tourist visas.
Immigration police officers on duty at the Bavet border crossing in Svay Rieng province said at the time that the extra money squeezed out of tourists was necessary to pay for cigarettes and coffee.
“This is not a small issue for us,” Hun Sen said at the time, adding that Poipet would be the Hok Lundy committee’s top priority.
Contacted on Wednesday, Pich Saran, immigration police chief at Poipet International Checkpoint, denied that any money exchange scam existed.
“We don’t have such cases in Poipet,” he said.
“We have set up two money exchange places—for coming in and out—that have the right rates,” he added.
Henry Tugendhat, 20, from London, who was travelling with Pier, said he was also tricked into changing Thai baht, but luckily not enough to be of great concern.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the Poipet issue was one related to tourism and not security.
“The tourists change money by their own right where they want to. We are not involved in this,” he said, adding that further questions should be referred to the Ministry of Tourism.
Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Ros Ren referred all questions to fellow Secretary of State Thong Khon, who could not be contacted.
Ho Vandy, secretary-general of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents, investigated the issue briefly on Wednesday and was told by government and police officials that the scam had finished.
“The tourist police and the immigration police said the problem was solved three months ago,” he said. “We will raise it with the Ministry of Tourism to prevent this from happening and find out who is behind it.”
Scottish man Ally Black, 37, a veteran traveler who crossed the Poipet border Jan 18, said the guides on his bus pushed the money-changing scam on him, but previous travel experiences had kept him from falling for it.
“The guy on the bus said there’s no ATMs in Siem Reap and tried to take us to two places [to change money],” he said.
Black said that although he had not fallen for the scam, it had left him with a dim view of the country. (Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)