“That is the fakest 100 dollar bill I have ever seen.”
The young man looks up at me expectantly. Behind the innocence in his eyes is a mischievous sparkle. He’s handsome, in a boyish way, and he wears the uniform of a front desk clerk. I was just sitting, eating my breakfast baguette in the lobby of the King Guest House when he sat down across from me. He seems totally friendly- except for the fact that he’s clearly trying to rip me off.
“You got change?” He asked, casually brandishing a $100 bill. Or at least, what a $100 bill would look like if you photocopied it, then cut around the edges slightly haphazardly. I wouldn’t have had the change even for a real bill, but this isn’t even a remotely good fake.
“That’s fake.” I said, with a smile on my face. I’d only gotten to Phnom Penh yesterday but I was already learning the rules of the game. Maybe he was trying to rip me off, but there was no way I was falling for it.
“Okay, then, $20?”
“I’m not giving you any money, that bill is fake- it’s too small!”
“$10 then,” he said undeterred. Were we bargaining?
“Look buddy, I’m American. I know what a $100 bill looks like.”
He stated at me expectantly and when he realizes I’m not budging suddenly his whole demeanor changes. “I’m just joking!” He announces to the room. We are friends now.
His expression turns serious as he starts into what I’ve come to think of as the “Cambodian interview:”
Where are you from?
How old are you?
Where is your husband?
He seems to find my answers completely unsatisfactory but charges on.
Do you know Tiger Woods?
Eventually his friend sits down at the table as well. He’s thumbing through a stack of fake-o hundreds. I ask to see them- they look even worse up close.
“They are too small you see, they need to be bigger,” I take out a $1 bill for comparison. Why am I giving this guy forgery tips?
“If I make them bigger you will be able to see they are fakes!” he laughs. Can’t really argue with that.
The friend wanders off and before I know it my desk clerk is telling me about his village three hours away. How he’s only been in Phnom Penh 4 months. He hates it, it’s too busy, but he likes the money. He thinks maybe he will go to Siem Reap and work there instead, there are lots of guest houses.
He tells me about India and how he’s always wanted to go. He’s never been outside of Cambodia of course, not even to Laos although he tells me it’s “nice.” India is his dream, there’s a particular Buddhist temple far up in the mountains that he longs to visit. He needs to go before he’s too old to hike it himself. The people are poor in India, he says, but tourism helps them.
“I GUESS,” he says, looking uncomfortable. Cambodia may be the poorest country I’ve ever visited but it’s not INDIA poor. Geez.
I have to marvel a bit. One minute this guy is trying to hustle me, the next he’s spilling out his life dreams. I’ve done nothing to deserve such openess besides being willing to listen. Cambodia seems to be the one place in the world where greed and friendship are can completely coincide.
I feel bad that I have to cut our conversation short, but I only have one full day in the city and I need to get a move on. When we stand up he is all business again, eye back on the dollar as he asks me:
“You want tuk tuk?”