Last updated on September 29th, 2017
Negotiating in Khmer
It helps to know a few basic Khmer expressions and words. Expensive (“Thlay”) should be part of your vocabulary, as well as all its variations (too expensive, very expensive, super expensive etc).
Most vendors at Cambodian markets know some basic Cantonese and Mandarin, and a few will know basic English. All souvenir sellers can offer their wares in English, sometimes in French, Japanese or Korean. But at wet, food and other traditional markets, a few words in broken Khmer will be helpful.
Always start the conversation with a non committal “Sok Sabay”, Peace and Happiness, our traditional greeting.
Sok Sabay – Peace and Happiness (Hello, how are your?)
Thlay – Expensive
Thlay pecht – Too expensive
Thlay maintain – Very expensive
Thay sambaom – Superlatively expensive
Banh te? – Can? (you sell it at this price)
Ort banh te – Cannot? (you may not have it at this price)
Khyom som – I request (followed by the price you want)
Som choh thlay – I request that you decrease the price
Or Konn – Grateful happiness (Thank you)
Counting your dollars and riels in Khmer
You’ll need to invest a little time learning Khmer numbers if you are to get good prices and bargains. From 0 to 10, English is probably OK. But you’ll soon need to know thousands and hundreds if you are dealing in riel (our local currency).
In our post on Khmer numbers, we teach you to count to 1000 by memorising just 16 Khmer words. The trick? Khmer numerals use a bi-quinary counting system (base 5 and 10).
Keep you cash handy, NOBODY uses credit cards
Cambodians use dollars for nearly all transactions. It will be useful to have smaller bills, as vendors may not be able to break notes above $50. Euros and Thai Baht are occasionally accepted, but you won’t get a very advantageous exchange rate.
For prices below $5-10, riels can be used. But the exchange rate to the dollar (about 4000 riels) is not very convenient for larger amounts. Civil servants do get paid in riel and literally carry bags of bills on their pay day.
Except for international hotels, hardly anybody accepts credit or debit cards.
Negotiating prices down at Cambodian markets
Once I saw a vegetable stall, at Kandal market in Phnom Penh, with prices clearly labelled as in Europe. And still, the prices were slightly negotiable. I suppose it was helpful as it provided a basis for haggling.
Most Cambodians who shop regularly at markets know the baseline price for the items they are interested in. There usually isn’t much room for negotiations over vegetables, meats and other food items. You need to haggle over non food such as clothes, shoes, kitchenware, hardware etc.
If you don’t know the usual price for an item you are interested in. I suggest you check prices at three different stalls to have a feel for the prevailing market conditions!
With the exception of a few scoundrels, Cambodian vendors don’t usually ask for crazy mark-ups. Sure, they see that you are a foreigner, but they generally wouldn’t ask $10 for a $5 shirt. Maybe $6-7. So you would be paying slightly more than we do (because you are far wealthier than us).
So if a seller asks for $7, the going price is likely $5. You’ll be disappointed if you think you can get the article for $2. My limited experience is that sellers in neighbouring countries are far more aggressive in asking crazy prices than Cambodians usually are.
When you’re satisfied with the price of the item, conclude the purchase and take a note of the stall number. Cambodians always come back to their favourite trustworthy vendors. And vendors always treat their loyal customers well.
When not to bargain
I’ve witnessed people quibble over 1000 riels or even less than that. A thousand riels is about 25 cents. A bit pathetic, but sometimes you just get caught up in the negotiation and you lose track of value.
It is good etiquette to know the approximate asking price for an item you want. People will think you’re a little strange if you are willing to pay only $2 for a pair of running shoes or 2000 riel for a long sleeve shirt.
Sometimes you just have to understand it’s time to walk away. Never, ever raise your voice or threaten people. You must walk away if you don’t think a deal can be brokered quickly. Don’t forget that we’re Khmer… If the seller has stopped smiling, then you’ve overstayed your welcome…