Dual pricing in Cambodia: the excuses debunked

Dual pricing based on race is very common in Cambodia, from the bus companies who charge white faces more to the hospitals that have one rate for Khmers and another for foreigners. Even the government-owned airline has one fare for Cambodians and another, much higher fare for everyone else. This is frustrating on many levels, not least when it’s foreign-owned businesses that are perpetuating dual pricing. Here are some of the most frequently cited arguments in favor of dual pricing — debunked.

dual pricing cambodia

At fancy hospitals there is one price for foreigners and one price for Cambodians. Even with the reduced rate, care is out of reach for poor Cambodians.

But Cambodians are poor

It’s true that Cambodians, by and large, are poor. And it’s also true that most expats are better off than most rural Cambodians. But it’s important to remember how outdated is the oversimplification that Cambodians are poor and Westerners are rich. These days the streets of Phnom Penh are clogged with gas-guzzling Lexus SUVs, and they are driven by rich Khmers, not Westerners. Perhaps just as surprising, there are Western expats sleeping on those very same streets.

Pricing based on race is a blunt instrument, and one that has failed. This failure grows more apparent as the Khmer riche get richer and the average expat is no longer on a generous relocation package — these days, expats are just as likely to work a “regular” job as anyone else. The wealthiest 1 percent in Cambodia is made up not of Westerners, but rather of the Khmer elite and (some) Asian expats. While most expats are solidly middle class, they are still leagues behind the Khmer upper class and elite, financially speaking. And much of Cambodia’s dual pricing benefits the Khmer upper and middle class and has no impact on the lives of the poor; you won’t find subsistence farmers getting a price break on yoga classes or on flights to Bangkok. These benefits go to those who are already privileged and do nothing for those who are truly in need.

Dual pricing is based on nationality, not on race

First off, Cambodian nationality is, for the most part, based on race (non-Vietnamese minority tribes are the exception). Any child of a Cambodian mother is granted Cambodian citizenship, regardless of where he or she is born. The child of non-Cambodians, though born and raised in Cambodia, is not granted Cambodian citizenship. Ethnically Vietnamese families who have lived in Cambodia for generations are, for all intents and purposes, stateless as far as the Cambodian government is concerned. So the argument that the dual-pricing system is not racist because it is based on nationality is flawed, because there is no attainable path to Cambodian citizenship for non-Cambodians (and I don’t call paying a $50,000 “facilitation fee” attainable).

Moreover, non-Cambodian Asians often benefit from the dual pricing plan, paying the local rate even when they don’t speak much Khmer and are citizens of Western countries. In practice, actual nationality seems unimportant; looking Khmer matters more. Khmer-Americans are also given the “local” price by many businesses, whether or not they have Cambodian passports.

dual pricing cambodia

Airlines one price for Cambodians and another price for non-Cambodians.

But tourists should subsidize things like national parks for the locals

I don’t disagree, but there are other, more sensible ways to accomplish this. In the Philippines, I went to national attractions that had one price for locals and one price for tourists — and anyone with a long-stay visa was counted as a local. In Cambodia, on the other hand, anyone who looks like a Cambodian gets the local price, even if they’re tourists, while long-time residents who don’t look Cambodian are charged as foreigners. Thus Americans with one Cambodian parent are given free passes to the Angkor Archaeological Park, even if they’ve never set foot in the country before. For everything from bus tickets to meal prices, plane tickets, entrance fees and more, it would be easy enough to separate locals from tourists by asking to see a long-stay visa or a lease.

The prices are meant to reward regulars versus tourists

If that’s the case, reward the regulars, or define locals based on residency. As things now stand, a Cambodian-American visiting the country for the first time will get a lower price on a bus ticket or flight than an expat who makes the same trip five times a month.

Maybe it’s unfair, but right now dual pricing is necessary to help Cambodia develop

Some businesses may be eager to help poor Cambodians, which is admirable, but these pricing policies only perpetuate a tradition of long-standing, entrenched racism in Cambodia, which ultimately helps no one. Instead it serves to deepen the divide between expats and locals. That divide is perpetuated by Cambodians when they treat foreigners like cash registers and by expats when they pay Cambodian staff far less than they pay their foreign employees. On both sides, the disparity is based on the idea that Cambodians need special treatment, whether that be lower prices or additional training.

On a more immediate level, if a business can charge a foreigner twice as much as it charges a Cambodian, at a certain point Cambodians will be shut out of the market. Why bother selling your widget to a local when, if you just wait around, you’ll make twice as much by selling to a foreigner?

But it’s only 2,000 riel!

Since this was first published, many people have pointed out that the price difference between what locals and foreigners are charged for in tuk tuk rides or vegetables in the market is very small. That’s true, and that sort of dual pricing is not what bothers me, particularly since it’s just as often based on perceived wealth as it is on race. What does bother me is institutionalized dual pricing, for flights, hospitals, yoga classes, etc., where there’s one price for Cambodians and a different price for non-Cambodians that is non-negotiable. When pricing like this is institutionalized, learning Khmer and whining “tlay na!” won’t change anything. If you are not Cambodian you will never get the Cambodian price for flights, no matter how long you live in this country.

(As an aside, I have heard that the few Westerners who do possess a Cambodian passport have difficulty entering the Angkor temples for free, but overseas Cambodians without a Cambodian passport are allowed in without question. Tell me again that it’s based on nationality and not race.)

This sort of dual pricing benefits only rich  Cambodians who clearly need no help in maintaining their wealth, and has no effect on those wealthy expats for whom an extra $50 for a plane ticket is chump change. Poor Cambodians rarely benefit from these policies, apart from perhaps getting free tickets to the Angkor Archaeological Park. And that benefit would not disappear if all residents, foreigners included, were given the local rate. Poor Cambodians don’t fly on Cambodia Angkor Air, and they get no benefit from a wealthy Khmer getting a reduced rate.

The Cambodian economy would not crumble if instead of having prices based on Cambodian versus non-Cambodia, prices were based on resident versus non-resident. When you see dual pricing based on race, complain. When at all possible, avoid companies that use it.

tl;dr Institutionalized dual pricing on things like airline tickets, hospitals, yoga classes, and bus tickets that are based solely on race and nationality are wrong. Tiered pricing based on residency versus non-residency would allow long-term residents — who are a tiny fraction of the foreigners who visit Cambodia — to pay the local price, without raising prices for Cambodians.

30 Responses to Dual pricing in Cambodia: the excuses debunked

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    Mo says:

    As a Cambodian American, should I purchase Cambodia Angkor Air tickets in advance or in person?

    Grayearth says:

    Hi Everyone,
    First I would like to say that I hope you are all well and happy. Life can be tricky sometimes.
    I am a simple man who has been living in Cambodia for about 7 yrs. I return to my country of employ for some months at a time as I have a small business there which needs a little personal love every now and then.
    I have been to about 60 different countries and have lived for 3 months or more in about 15 of them. Some, for 1-3 years. I would say that on a humble scale I am reasonably worldly. I am definitely an adventurer.
    I have experienced dual pricing in quite a few different countries. Here it can be quite strong, agreed.
    The Chris with a capital C, made some good comments. Let us all think about this word racism. It’s a shocker isn’t it? Have I had better experiences in some countries than others, yes. Do I like the culture of some countries more than others, yes. Do I dislike the ego and blatant disregard for other nations wellbeing that particular countries seem to display, yes. Do I like the smooth sound of some languages and not the guttural sounds of others, yes. Are there many examples like this, yes. Does this make me racist, maybe it does.
    Does Cambodia invade other countries, like so many of the world powers, no. Does Cambodia produce a huge amount of mass marketed products that are killing humans, animals and the planet, no. Does Cambodia steal the oil of other nations, no.
    I guess we all have our good and bad points.
    I can hear some of you saying that Cambodia does not have the wealth or power to do such things. And yet many of our countries have the power and have completely abused it. Which is less excusable?
    Expats, hmmm! That’s an interesting topic. We come here with more money than the average Khmer, can make more than the average Khmer, and have to pay more than the average Khmer… and in our own selfish way, that is apparently unfair. Seems like a fair enough tax system to me. How many of you pay full tax on your local wage? Maybe using local Khmer as an excuse for not paying full tax isn’t fair because that is as much a part of their culture as dual pricing.
    All around the world I have seen people from richer, more dominating, more arrogant cultures demanding everything they can get their hands on from some poor local. We so often take all the good we can get and then quickly complain or blog about something we didn’t like. Suck it up Humans. Take the good with the bad.
    Simple question… If the way of life in your own country is so good, then why are you here? To all the service men and women who are posted abroad without choice, please excuse this question.

    I now have a loving Khmer wife and 2 beautiful Khmer daughters. My mother-in-law lives with us too. It is a complete family. I am very lucky.
    Yes it is true that sometimes I pay more. Sometimes my wife and her friends laugh at me because I get better prices at the local shops and markets than they can. I speak quite a lot of Khmer but am not 100% fluent. I get some discounts because I have a Khmer family and sometimes my Khmer daughters get in free and I have to pay. Most importantly, I find gentle, wise respect gets me the best price, and it feels the nicest for me and others too.
    3 people go to a movie. 1 loves it, 1 doesn’t really care and 1 hates it. Same movie, only the minds are different. Suffering and happiness comes from the mind. If you don’t like something try changing your mind.
    I suggest that when you are troubled with the local ways that you go and enjoy an ice cold 50c beer, a $2 meal, or go for a free meditation at your local wat.
    Love, light and peace to all beings.

      Jamie says:

      You list the bad things that other countries do as if this means that we should not complain about the bad things that Cambodia does. This is a total fallacy. Of course we should complain about the bad things that Cambodia does just as we should complain about the bad things that other countries do. I am perfectly capable of seeing more than one issue at a time.
      The dual pricing does seriously effect the economy and is bad for the country in many ways. Apart from the effect it has on tourism, people do not like it and therefore, a percentage, do not come back. It also increases the racism as when locals are expected to pay more because the price goes up as toutists pay more, the locals hate the tourists and put their prices up for other locals and tourists. I remmember on one occasion when a tuk-tuk stopped for me and threw out the locals in the back because he knew he could get more money from me. Nothing I did, including not taking the ride, could remove the look of hatred. Yes, I can afford to pay more, but I also resent being robbed by a racist.

    Susan says:

    Don’t forget that many expats will one day return home to countries with functioning health, education and social support systems like pensions, superannuation, labour laws, child support, sickness benefits.

    Many of these don’t exist in Cambodia. Expats have the freedom to choose when to return to their wealthy countries. Cambodians don’t.

    Do expats give cash to Cambodian friends and family so they can afford basic medical care or education? This is a common practice amongst Cambodian families.

    I agree with Chris, dual pricing is not the cause.

    And whinging about paying more for flights, private hospitals and yoga classes in a country where the majority of the population have inadequate access to quality education, nutrition, health care and sanitation? Come on.

      Lina says:

      Discounted flights, private hospitals, and yoga classes don’t benefit the rural poor. Expats paying more for them don’t subsidize lower prices for the poor. The number of expats compared to the number of tourists who visit the country is minuscule, and pricing based on residency rather than ethnic background would have no effect on the poor. So what’s your objection to pricing based on residency?

      The country has a long history of defining “otherness” as being non-ethnically Khmer, and it has had terrible repercussions for the Vietnamese and Cham populations that live here. I see no value in perpetuating this idea of otherness; it is the same reason that Westerners in Cambodia get paid more to do the same jobs as Cambodians (which I also object to). I find it astounding that people who would not support a system of pricing based on ethnic background in their home countries would defend it here. Do I think this is the biggest problem facing Cambodia? Of course not. But I don’t think that just because there are bigger problems out there that this one shouldn’t be discussed.

    Amirkhan says:

    Cambodia is not the only country in ASEAN that practices this dual pricing. Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Myanmar as I recall practice the same way. The official explanation has never been been made (I stand corrected. As an expat living in Cambodia, who has lived in Laos and Thailand, I am quite used to this. We pay more for airline tickets, Angkor Wat etc. I do not have a problem of paying more to some of the national institutions or monuments like the Angkor Wat as I know a portion of the fees go for the upkeep of these national monuments as they are considered as heritage of mankind which should be preserved of all of us to enjoy. I do however have issues if private enterprises impose such dual pricing. Fortunately with the advent of disruptive technologies like online hotel booking (agoda etc) such dual pricing is no longer practised in the hospitality industries.

      John Cody says:

      @Amirkhan, you are correct that Cambodia is not the only culprit when it comes to dual pricing. However, it is one of the more prolific countries that does it. In Laos, it is actually relatively rare and the price differences between locals and foreigners (where they exist) are rather minor. For example, locals pay 10,000 Kip while foreigners pay 20,000 or 2,000 vs. 5,000. And even then, Lao citizens will be asked for the higher fee unless they state they are Lao or show ID. That’s because a lot of Thais and Vietnamese visit Laos so if they didn’t do that it would appear that everyone would get the local price except non-Asians, which would not only be racist and insulting, but they would lose a lot of income since most tourists to Laos come from neighboring Asian countries.

      By comparison, the Angkor Wat tickets are rather expensive (US$20 a day and $40 for 3 days), while Khmers pay nothing. It doesn’t surprise me that they don’t even ask Khmers for ID and so anyone that has an Asian face and dark skin could get in for free. Well, last year I too could enter for free, because I was part of a conference group tour and just tagged along for the half-day Angkor Wat tour. We did not get a badge and were permitted free entry by the park officials. Anyway, once you’ve seen the temples once (or twice as I have) you’ve seen them all.

      However, tourist attractions are one thing, which can be avoided. I strongly disagree with dual pricing at hospitals and the like though – that’s just insulting. The good news of course is that most foreigners have insurance and so in the end, that higher cost is absorbed by the insurance companies even if a foreigner pays first then claims later.

      Don R says:

      I never encountered dual pricing in Thailand. In contrast, in Siem Reap there’s almost nothing that a Westerner won’t end up paying extra for sooner or later.
      The outrageous fees you pay to visit Khmer ruins almost never go towards restoration or preservation of the site. Almost all of it was paid for by foreign governments. If the guy selling your ticket doesn’t pocket they money, then it will likely go into the pocket of a wealthy Cambodian who drives a brand new Lexus. It most certainly is not being used to improve the sites.
      Don’t be naive.

    John Steel says:

    “The entire economy of cambodia is structured to only benefit the richest of the khmers, and this bleeds into social behavior too.”

    This could be changed to “The entire economy of THE WORLD is structured to only benefit the richest of the CAPITALISTS, and this bleeds into social behavior too.”

    That’s called capitalism.

      chris says:

      You are correct. I originally added a paragraph about how capialism functions this way everywhere, and it was designed to. But cut ut out to be brief.

      My main point was how much rich khmers can get away with and how subservient the social guidelines force khmers to be

    chris says:

    The entire economy of cambodia is structured to only benefit the richest of the khmers, and this bleeds into social behavior too.

    I have been to a lot of countries and while rich people are assholes everywhere, people generally don’t revere them as the best thing since sliced bread.

    As an expat there are tons of things I like about cambodia, but society as whole’s view of rich Khmer people is so infuriating.

    They are literally aloud to do whatever they want, people stand for them when they enter rooms, they give themselves fictitious titles such as “His Excellency”. They shut down the fucking road when they want to park at a restaurant or pick up their rich spoiled brat children from school. Driving their suvs blackout drunk into a tuk tuk full of children and “settling” the manner with 100 dollars.

    Never in my life have I been in a place where people are forced to tiptoe and bow (figuratively and literally) to the degree the average khmer does to a rich khmer.

    It’s really appalling.

    Marco says:

    Nice anti racist post. I think it would make sense to get rid of the (racist) term expat as westerners are immigrants like everyone else.

      Lina says:

      Immigrant means permanent resident of another country and most foreigners here do not consider themselves permanent residents, so expat is a more appropriate term, in my opinion.

        John Cody says:

        I agree with both of you. I personally don’t like the overuse of the term “expat” particularly when it is liberally applied only to westerners but not Asian labourers. The latter are actually more likely to only be temporary guest workers and therefore should be referred to as such as few countries in the region offer a pathway towards permanent residency or citizenship for low skilled foreigners.

        Thailand for instance allows westerners to gain citizenship after meeting certain conditions, but no way a Cambodian or Burmese labourer would ever be afforded the same privileges. Yet why then are westerners in this scenario often still referred to as expats while the Cambo labourers are “migrant labourers”? They aren’t migrants, they are guests. In the past, Turkish workers who came to Germany were rightfully referred to as guest workers. Cambodians and Burmese in Thailand for instance, are also guest workers and I will refer to them as such.

    Chris says:

    There are some flawed premises in your debunking here – and I’m a long(ish)-term expat in Cambodia, so I get slugged the extra money.

    Principally, your idea that poor Cambodians never benefit from the lower rate hasn’t been true in my experience. We have taken poor Khmer friends of ours (living on $150-250 per month) to places that are important in their culture – places like the Royal Palace, Angkor Wat, etc – and they have been able to afford to get in because of dual pricing. Moreover, we have still been able to afford to get in, even in the face of dual pricing. I also have my worries that lowering the price for foreign visitors would make these attractions financially untenable, since, as you pointed out, the vast majority of visitors are the rich ones who cover the cost of keeping things open and maintained.

    I don’t deny that the two-speed economy in Cambodia is a big problem. The pay disparity between Khmers and foreigners is problematic But dual pricing is an adaptive move in the face of that economic reality, not its root cause. Removing dual pricing would primarily benefit the comparatively wealthy foreigners. It would mildly inconvenience the elite 1% of Khmers (who aren’t a large enough proportion of the population to have a great deal of impact in this particular area, in terms of drawing their cash back into the economy) and it would only negatively impact poorer Khmers – increasing traffic to important cultural landmarks, probably pushing the net price up beyond what they can afford.

    And the argument that dual pricing means that poor Khmers are priced out of the market (because why sell to a poor Khmer when you can wait and sell to a rich foreigner) is pretty spurious too, since it ignores the reality that the poor Khmers outnumber the rich foreigners by a wide margin. It’s not a viable business practice for anyone but those who are already catering to the wealthy, and you already pointed out that it’s only the wealthy Khmers using those services anyway. So, no, they won’t be priced out of the market.

    Is dual pricing racist? Well, in a way, yes. But is it defensible? Extremely. Removing or illegalising it would benefit only the wealthy foreigners, and would penalise poor Cambodians. Is Cambodian culture racist? Yes, often. But, changing culture is bigger than just removing dual pricing, and pretending that’s somehow a move in favour of the downtrodden.

      Lina says:

      Sorry, this comment somehow got marked as spam! I agree that locals should be able to afford to visits things like the National Museum or the Angkor Archaeological Park. My feeling is that have a residents price (for locals AND expats) would be much more fair than basing price on race alone, as it is now done. The number of expats compared to tourists is so small that it wouldn’t affect the bottom line of any of these attractions. I don’t think there would be any noticeable economic difference if two-tiered pricing differentiated long-term residents from tourists, much the way the NHS or institutions elsewhere in the world do.

        John Cody says:

        Well I can see why his comment was marked as spam, some of his points really are ridiculous. Like the one about how poor Khmers greatly outnumber rich foreigners. If that is so, then the argument for dual pricing becomes even weaker. It simply becomes nothing more than greed to charge 1-2 foreigners a little more, compared to the 500 Cambodians you are serving a day when overall, that tiny extra amount will make no difference to your bottom line.

        In that case, just charge everyone the same and don’t alienate the foreigner (who could very well be an expat not a tourist). It’s not the foreigners fault that Cambodia is a poor country and him paying extra is not going to make it any richer. On the contrary, it’s likely to have the opposite effect as said foreigner will tell his friends not to visit Cambodia and if he is a resident will no longer purchase any goods or services from the business that tries to rip him off.

      John Steel says:

      The Royal Palace isn’t “culturally important.” It was created by the French and is every bit as related to Khmer culture as the Disney Castle is to American culture.

    Dee says:

    That does it. I will not be visiting racist Cambodia.

    Lotta Cooties says:

    It’s hard to avoid places that use the dual pricing, because EVERYONE does it. I don’t even mind that much, but I’m for more transparency. Post signs that indicate the local price and the foreigners price, so that no arbitrary prices can be charged.

      John Cody says:

      In the case of street vendors, tuk-tuks etc. there are no fixed prices. You have to negotiate the best price possible. What you do in that case is to bargain the price down to the lowest reasonably possible price – if you don’t know what it should be, ask a local, preferably someone from your hotel.

      It’s different at tourist attractions where there are fixed prices for locals and foreigners (or no entry fee for locals but foreigners pay something). In such cases, although there is no ambiguity, it still sucks because you are being taken advantage of.

      I should note it is quite easy to avoid paying some dual pricing such as at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh. I recently went there and although I paid the US$1 along with the 4 other people in my group (including 3 Thais), it would have been very easy to avoid it as no one checks your ticket afterwards. Also, as it’s only US$1 it wasn’t a big deal. You just walk around the base of the temple then walk up the stairs to the temple(best done from the other side away from the ticket office) and you’ll be right.

      Wat Phnom is nothing significant, but last time I walked around the base and halfway up without paying and next time I’ll be doing the same.

      It may be more difficult to avoid buying a ticket at other places like Angkor Wat though, unless you get free entry as part of a special exemption like I did. Similarly at the National Museum. Not sure if Khmers have to pay there or not. However, it’s S$5, which is already quite a lot for a museum where you officially can’t take pictures of anything inside.

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