Monday, May 23, 2005

The Right Price

May 10
The problem with staying at the best hotel in Cambodia is all the moto drivers outside the gates know you’re staying at the best hotel in Cambodia. So when Jason and I walked out and asked for a lift to the Killing Fields they initially demanded $15. This price was too ridiculously excessive to merit negotiation. This called for a walk away.

Jason and I started walking west and the gaggle of drivers followed as I knew they would. They shouted out competing, decreasing prices as we walked but were still in the $8-10 range. I knew we could get a better price in the backpacker area across the main road and I knew the drivers knew that too. So we paused at the edge of the on-rushing traffic not only because crossing 12 “lanes” of motorbikes calls for a moment of quiet reflection but also to allow the drivers who had followed us down the street from the fancy hotel to give us the right price.

“Okay, five dollars,” an autorickshaw driver offered.

Jason, to whom the difference between $15 and $5 matters little, was impressed (or at least pretended to be impressed). “You definitely know how to work the system,” he said. It was the greatest gift of Jason’s visit to have a fresh set of eyes on an experience that’s no longer fresh.

So when we made friends with the girls at the café, or loaded wood into the van, or ran into the same girls from New York at dinner that we had met at Angkor Wat earlier that day it all felt fresher. It wasn’t just that I could see Jason discovering the fundamental though indefinable elements of backpacking, it was that I was somehow able to re-discover them myself.

Once we escaped the gravitational pull of the Hotel Royale it was indeed a backpacking week. Jason, who as a Wall Street trader makes a career of finding the right price spent his time in Cambodia making a game of finding the right price. I couldn’t completely believe him when he conveyed shock or disgust at a $4 entrée or a $2 taxi but his performance was still convincing and welcomed.

As it turned out the economizing was necessary because Cambodia is a country without a single ATM machine. I know there are blocks in Manhattan that don’t have ATMs (I’ve never seen one but they must exist). This is an entire country—and not some Vatican -sized thing—that doesn’t have one cash machine. I’ve been carrying an emergency stash to $200US and it came quite in handy, especially since US dollars are the unofficial currency of Cambodia. Jason had brought along $300 and this small bankroll got us through our trip. On our last night we gathered our remaining funds--$11—and wondered how we would afford 1) my bus ticket to Vietnam, 2) dinner and beers to celebrate Jason’s birthday, and 3) everything else. The answer came in the form of a Western Union, which was kind enough to hand over some Benjamins in exchange for an imprint of Jason’s Visa. We were flush and Jason was headed home and there was no more pretending about $2 taxis.


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