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Gold rush at Angkor


An anonymous Cambodian tour guide reveals the scams of his trade

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I became a tour guide in 2005 and deeply regret that I did not start that business earlier. I had no idea how much money a German, French, Spanish, Italian or Russian-speaking tour guide can make in Cambodia. 

I learned German in the late 1980s, when I was an exchange worker in the German Democratic Republic. I completed an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer and earned good money afterwards. Later I took English lessons, and when I returned to Cambodia I became a tour guide.

When I lead German-speaking groups, the agencies pay me $40 to $70 dollars per day. That’s what a good waitress or factory worker makes in a month. I also receive tips and commissions, of course.

US tourists are the most popular, because they spend a lot of money on their holidays. Although Americans have less money than Germans, they give better tips. Australians are also very popular, and even Englishmen too. Among all Europeans, Spanish tourists give the least. And Israelis are unpopular, because they are very demanding and give very little in the way of tips.

It is not hard to get an official license as a tour guide, but it is expensive. Quite often you must bribe an officer from the Ministry of Tourism up to $1,000.

Of course you have to pass an exam, but that’s a joke. They check your language and historical knowledge in a mock exam, but in order to get the title as a tour guide you have to pay. I would not pay in the beginning and failed twice. The officer did not even look at my test sheet. After paying $1,000, I passed the test. Many of my colleagues had the same experience.

We must buy the official logo of the Ministry of Tourism for $2-$3. Then we buy the shirts and sew the logo onto them.

Travel agencies know the good and the bad tour guides. They hand out questionnaires to their clients, and if you receive too many bad reviews, they will not book you again. All agencies have their favourite guides and want to book them, but if they are unavailable, the agencies must decide for their second, third or, in the peak season, their 100th choice.

Agencies always choose the best guides for large groups. Many tourists assume that by booking a more expensive private tour, they will automatically have a great tour guide. This is wrong. If a couple on a private tour is dissatisfied with their guide, only two people complain about him. If a whole group is angry, the agency has to deal with 20 or even 30 complaints.

Angkor Wat is the most important cash cow in Cambodia. The temples make us rich. When tourism returned to Cambodia more than a decade ago, we had our little tricks to make a fortune, in particular by keeping money from the tickets for ourselves.

The three-day ticket is $40, but now, as well as in those days, the one-day ticket is $20. The agencies gave us $40, but we paid only $20 at the box office. We knew the police officers and security guards, and they did not care about the invalid one-day tickets on day two and three because we had a 50-50 deal: $10 for them, $10 for us. That means I made an additional profit of $300 with a busload of 30 tourists. At that time we bought new motorcycles, cars, houses, and had a great life filled with women, alcohol and cigarettes.

But since Apsara sold the concessions to the Sokha company, tour guides cannot make extra money with the tickets any more. All profits go to other people now, mainly in the government.

German customers, travelling with Studiosus or DerTour, often give tips of up to $5, and clients of Meiers give about $2 per day. I had only two clients who did not give a tip at all. One of them said, “I have money, but I want you to be my friend while travelling together.”

I make good money from commissions paid by restaurants and souvenir shops. I take my tourists to a restaurant opposite Angkor Wat, and for each client who orders a meal, I get $2. Foreigners pay much higher prices than locals. I get my food there for free, even if my clients do not want to eat anything. That is fine for the restaurant, since I will return with a larger group next time.

Souvenir shops pay me $1 per visitor, whether the clients buy anything or not. I remain outside the shop. When a girl comes to serve me coffee, she brings my commission. Sometimes I get the commission a few days later.

Sometimes I honestly tell my tourists a shop is expensive, they had better look only at the stuff and buy the same items cheaper on the market tomorrow. Then I suggest spending my commission on bottles of beer for everybody in the evening, but in most cases the clients refrain from it because they are so pleased about my honesty.

If I convince my clients to have dinner at a buffet restaurant with traditional dance performances, I make really good money. Tickets cost around $12, and when I bring my clients, I receive $6 per person.

The restaurant still makes a good profit since a buffet is much cheaper than an individual dinner, and all clients have to pay rather high prices for their drinks on top.

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