Should Tourists Pay More for the Same Services?

October 10, 2016

I’m leaving Phnom Penh by bus. There are several different ways to travel to Siem Reap: budget airline, private car, bus, even by boat through one of the largest lakes in Asia, Tonle Sap. As you’d expect in Southeast Asia, the prices for such transport are pretty wide ranging: $5-6 by local bus, making frequent stops; $13 by Mekong Express, $16 by Giant Ibis, even more by boat or plane.

I think I can safely say I’m no longer a true budget traveler when I don’t try to scrimp and save at every corner. For me, it comes down to comfort and convenience. Sometimes, I’m willing to sacrifice those if the price is a significant burden, but in this part of the world, we’re talking about a few dollars; I can save, but why should I stress if the difference is less than a price of a soda in a 7-11?

While I was in Phnom Penh, I probably spent less than $100 in four days for food, lodging, recreation, and transportation. Even before I left the airport, I knew I could have caught a bus for less than 50 cents to the Riverside area, then taken a tuk tuk or motorbike to my accommodation for $2-3. Yet I chose a safe, reliable taxi for $12. When I was hungry in the morning, I didn’t feel like examining every street stall for a $1 meal (which are available): I found a clean cafe with wifi and paid $4 for breakfast.

Now, I understand if someone is on a budget and needs to make money last for several months or years. I’m not bashing travelers who have very little savings or income and for them, watching every penny is the only way to make their travels last. But for me, it’s about comfort and convenience.

Consider my thought process on getting a massage in Phnom Penh. For locals, I believe an hour’s service costs 10000 Cambodian riel, or $2.50. I did see signs advertising these places, but many were in dingy sketchy shops on the outskirts of town. Perhaps some were legitimate, but why place myself in a situation in which I might need to turn down a happy ending? The next ones up the line looked similar to ones in tourist areas of Thailand: several women in scrubs waiting on the stoop for foreigners: $4 for an hour. Even further up were the luxury parlors, with services detailed in English starting at $8. I chose the last one.


I could spout a sense of obligation about supporting business in tourist areas, on how by virtue of being born in a rich country I should pay a little more and contribute to the local economy. In truth, there was some budget involved. The luxury parlor accepted credit cards. By using my card now, I ensured I wouldn’t have to withdraw more cash while still in the country, something that could cost between $10-20 with ATM fees. By going to a respectable establishment, I was certain I wouldn’t be subject to any unwanted touching, creating an awkward situation for both of us. But again, it comes back to comfort and convenience: the luxury place was the first one I saw after walking around for an hour, so why should I make myself more tired and frustrated when paying a few dollars more will save me time?

Many travelers won’t agree with this approach, and I understand that. One piece of advice I would offer is to ensure that whomever you travel with, make sure they have the same approach to money as you do. I met up with a few Couchsurfers in Cambodia’s capital city and we decided to get a tuk tuk from the night market back to our host’s apartment. It was raining, we were cold and wet, and everyone expressed an interested in dessert. I knew several places that offered pastries, cookies, and ice cream for $2-3, but they were having none of it; they wanted street food snacks for $1 or less. We must have walked 20-30 minutes from cafe to cafe, street stall to street stall, before they finally gave up and decided to call it a night.

If I had been with someone who shared my approach to money, we could have simply walked into a cafe in under two minutes, split a $2.50 cake, and gotten a hot beverage to escape the rain. Instead, I grew increasingly amazed and frustrated that a few Europeans weren’t willing to spend $1-2 extra for what they wanted. Time is quite literally money, and they wasted a lot of it without any results.

What would you have done?

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One Response to Should Tourists Pay More for the Same Services?

  1. […] don’t consider myself a cheapskate but I will never be happy about vendors offering variable prices in Southeast Asia. If the price is 20,000 Rupiah, then everyone should pay 20,000 Rupiah, from the five-star resort […]

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