There aren’t any coins in Cambodia. Instead there’s a lot of paper. Right down to the 100 riel note. That’s worth 2 and a half dollar cents.
So wallets, billfolds and purses bulge with dozens of notes – ranging from the crisply-minted to the well-used and filthy. But to many people, the riel is simply small change.
Almost all significant transactions are priced – and paid for – in US dollars. For the visitor it starts with the visa fee on arrival at the airport. But it continues everywhere else in the country.
ATMs pay out in dollars – and all but a tiny percentage of bank deposits are in the US currency.
As for lending, most financial institutions won’t even consider doling out anything other than Benjamin Franklin and his presidential friends.
Bombing the bank
International travellers are used to hotels and airlines setting their prices in dollars to get round local currency fluctuations.
But here the shops, tradespeople and even the motorbike taxi drivers accept the folding green. And young people entering the increasing white-collar workforce expect their salary to be quoted in dollars.
But there are no quarters, dimes or any other American coins in use here. So people use the Cambodian currency for anything less than a dollar.
Everyone knows the exchange rate – 4,000 to the dollar – give or take the odd hundred riel.
It’s been that way since at least the start of the century – so people are actually fairly relaxed about taking payments in either currency.
A $5 bill or a 20,000 riel note – it’s all the same to most Cambodians. Although the money exchanges at the markets do a brisk trade with people hoping to turn a profit from minor fluctuations in the rates.
It’s a system that seems to keep everyone happy. And when you look at the history, it’s easy to understand why.
Cambodia didn’t have a currency of any kind in the late 1970s – when the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge banned money, and blew up the national bank.
When the riel was reintroduced in the 1980s, the new, Vietnamese-backed government initially had to give it away – such was the lack of public confidence.
The revived currency plunged when United Nations forces ran Cambodia in the early 90s – bringing oodles of dollars with them. Eventually the riel settled into its peg of 4,000 to the dollar – and a clear role as second fiddle.
But recently there have been agitations for that to change. And they’ve been taking the long-delayed launch of the Cambodian Stock Exchange as a cue.
But there’s a powerful pro-riel lobby in the government and the National Bank. And they see the Exchange as, perhaps, the final opportunity for the riel to make it as an independent currency.
The solution is a fudge with a familiar ring to it. When the Exchange opens, possibly in a few months’ time, share prices will be quoted in riel. But trades may also be settled in dollars – at least for the first three years of the Exchange’s operation.
It could all be enormously confusing – or as simple as paying in one currency and getting your change in another. And it’s not as if Cambodia is short of practice in that.