en Sophal's antiques stall at Phnom Penh's Russian Market doesn't display his
1993 Khmer Rouge (KR) currency: it is simply too rare and too valuable to be left
out with the other denominations from Cambodia's history.
"By the end of next year there'll be no notes left," he says.
The 1993 notes represent the KR's second attempt at creating a currency. In January
1975, before it came to power, the KR printed a wide range of denominations, but
vacillated on whether to put them into circulation.
Within a day of seizing Phnom Penh in April 1975, the KR declared that money was
to be abolished.The notes that had sustained the economy until that point were suddenly
worthless, and gleeful KR soldiers literally tossed the old currency in the air.
However the dream of a society without money was short-lived. Within three weeks
the new currency began circulating in parts of Cambodia. The notes were printed with
images from the revolution as its architects had dreamed it would be. Scenes depicted
included Angkor Wat, the symbol of the Khmer nation, earnest looking peasants working
together, harvesting side by side with soldiers, and young revolutionary women hoisting
rocket launchers on their shoulders.
Shortly after it had been issued the new money was withdrawn and, while the decision
on releasing it changed several more times, the view that eventually prevailed was
that the new agrarian paradise was to be a cashless society.
Most of the bills never left the safety of the National Bank of Cambodia until Pol
Pot's troops deserted Phnom Penh, blew up the bank and showered the streets with
mint condition bills. The first visitors to the Cambodian capital in 1979 were treated
to the bizarre spectacle of streets empty of people but flooded with cash and the
gutters literally flowing with money. Starving children used the notes to start fires.
The invading Vietnamese troops pocketed large wads of the cash that had been left
in the national bank and took it home at the end of their tour of duty. Sophal says
he used to make regular trips to Vietnam to buy old banknotes but complains that
these days they are hard to find.
Now, while Cambodia's markets are awash with the 1975 notes, there are hardly any
left in Vietnam. According to Sophal they were never worth much anyway. "A complete
set costs between $10 and $12 depending on the condition," he says.
The 1993 currency is a different story. In the early and mid- 1990s the KR banned
the use of the official Cambodian riel in their stronghold areas of Pailin and Anlong
Veng and once more embarked on an attempt at developing a currency of their own.
They produced 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 riel notes in a local Anlong Veng printing press.
The ideological imagery of the 1975 currency was replaced by tourist brochure style
images of Cambodia printed cheaply and slightly off-center on small bills, many carrying
the exactly the same serial number.
The notes carry the obligatory pictures of Angkor Wat as well as images of houses
on the Tonle Sap and a Khmer New Year festival being held in the Pailin forest. They
also bear the hallmarks of an official currency with the signature of Khieu Samphan
in the bottom left hand corner. For their short period of circulation the bills were
simply referred to as "Khieu Samphan currency".
The lack of a government or central bank did not deter the KR from its attempt to
raise their fortunes through the use of the currency. It simply tied the value of
the currency to the value of the Thai baht at a rate of one riel per baht. At a time
when the official riel was in free fall against the US dollar the value of the KR's
own cash was fixed.
In March 1993 the issuing of the guerrilla currency was thought to be a factor in
an 80 per-cent plummet in the value of the official riel. The new riel added to the
uncertainty of the official Cambodian currency and the KR was rumored to be buying
up Cambodian notes then dumping huge numbers of them in Phnom Penh markets to exacerbate
the currency crisis.
Yet it was not only the official currency that was vulnerable. By August the Khmer
Rouge had ordered that the five month old currency be burned to prevent it from falling
into the hands of Cambodian government troops. In an eerie echo of 1979 when government
troops did arrive in Pailin in early 1994 and found the town littered with the strange
bills, the currency had already gone out of circulation.
Sophal says that it was only after the 1996 defection of KR troops that the experimental
currency found its way to Phnom Penh's markets.
Former soldiers sought him out to sell their old notes, which had become worthless.
He in turn discovered that there was a tidy profit in selling the souvenir bills
to the foreigners who frequented his market stall.
But now the supply in Cambodia has almost dried up and competition from the internet
has driven their value well below their premium of only a few years ago.
"Because the people from Germany and New Zealand buy the notes and sell them
on the internet they are not worth so much. Now for every buyer there are three sellers,"
"There are no sellers left in Cambodia. There won't be any more notes at
all after next year."
While Sophal still has about 30 five and ten riel notes he has no intention of
selling his last full set of the colorful bills - not, that is, unless he gets the
right offer. "I'd sell the whole set for $700," he says.
That is above their current catalog price of around $325, according to New Zealand
artifact and currency dealer Geoffrey Oldham.
When Oldham arrived with a catering company during the UNTAC period the notes were
a rare find and he began collecting them.
"It's a pity they went so high. A few years ago [a full set] went for over $1,000,"
he says, adding that it used to be easy to buy notes in markets in Laos and Thailand.
"It got spread around. There's a lot around in Thailand, the US, and for sale
on the internet," he says.
Oldham agrees that the notes are hard to find in Cambodia, but holds out the prospect
that a big cache of notes may yet turn up.
"I think they became an embarrassment and they were told to destroy them, but
I also think that a lot got stashed away," he says.
Sophal, who still stocks Cambodian notes from the period of French Indochina to the
present day, is slowly running out of the old currency. He says that his days of
selling the guerrilla notes, Cambodia's most unusual currency, are almost over.