In the midst of this hermity existence, I have been involved in incidents that have left me bemused and muttering "Only in Cambodia can...". One such act in the drama or rather the chorus in this comedic opera is the process of exchanging traveller's cheques.
In my defence I have to point out that I was hot-footing it to this part of the world for a considerable period of time. A little over 4 months of living (and more importantly, dining) must and does call for a considerable outlay of doubloons. Thankfully, the issue I was facing on the 1st of May (a portent, perhaps ?) involved the transfer of required moolah rather than it's procurement. I did not fancy the prospect of making the journey with thick wads of dollar notes stuffed in my pockets. Apart from the fact that I'd probably look like I was afflicted with some horrible medical condition, this sort of appearance practically begs to be waylaid and robbed. Judicious placement of the money among assorted clothes and paraphernalia in the suitcases was out of the question because of the distinct possibility that I'd land in Phnom Penh while some lucky sod would be going through my luggage in Timbuktu. The only option left was Traveller's cheques.
Now, as far as I know, TCs are prefectly safe and convenient as long as you are headed to a place where they are accepted. Looking it up on the internet, I verified that they were not treated like pariahs in Cambodia. Problem solved then, right ? Right.
I got the first inkling of the Govinda film-style hoopla that was about to ensue when I visited the local branch of Acleda Bank, located at the intersection of Monivong & Mao Tse Tung Boulevards. I was dressed respectably enough that morning but got the distinct impression that I was being given the old microscopic treatment... you know, the ones exclusively reserved for the more dubious specimen of West Nile virus. After a while, one of the cashiers reluctantly asked me what I wanted. When I mentioned tc's, she smiled in the way that was probably Dracula's wont. Or the lions, the day Daniel came calling. I was directed to one of the numbered booths where another employee proceeded to display the pearly-whites and asked me for the cheques.
I was then treated to an exhibition of paper-molestation. There really is no other adequate phrase to describe how each of the cheques was touched, rubbed, peered at, smelled (I kid you not!!) and generally roughed up. The Gestapo could have taken some pointers that day. After the above ritual, they were handed back to me for my signature after which I handed them back for further scrutiny. Apparently they were under the impression that I could very well have pulled some unsavoury stunt while signing them. After doing practically all that was doable to a 3x6 bit of paper, I was asked to provide some other information while the money was being counted. And recounted. And counted again. And again. They counted that money 6 times and each time, the amount obstinately remained the same.
I'd handed over 5 cheques for $100 each. The dollar bills I was about to be given certainly did not seem to add up to $500. I noticed a 10, a 5 and even a few 1's and wondered what was going on and was to find out presently. Ahem... apparently, the local practice in Cambodia (about which the blasted websites conveniently remained reticent) is to charge 2% on such transactions. Even with my admittedly poor math skills, I calculated that there would be $10 missing from the pile that I was being handed over. The cashier also helpfully reminded me that this would happen every time I wanted to exchange tc's and was a common practice carried out by every bank in the city. I expect that molesting the cheques required time, effort and extensive training and therfore carried a service charge.
Even though they recognise me by now, I go through the same 45 minute ritual every time I want to exchange tc's & am faithfully and efficiently short-changed for committing that heinous sin.
Like I said, only in Cambodia...
Song for the moment: Money for nothing - Dire Straits