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Commissions: It's no wonder your motodop is so helpful

It seems that hardly a business transaction occurs in Cambodia without somebody getting a commission on the deal. Whether it's a night in a guesthouse or a negotiated bride price, somebody will probably take a cut. Though Cambodia is hardly unique in this practice, this country has refined it to an art form.

I remember the first time I visited Cambodia, I was sitting with a group of mostly twenty-something motodops (motorbike taxi drivers) when I expressed favorable opinion on Khmer women. "You want Cambodia wife?" they all asked. Well, sure, maybe, I don't know. "Hey, no problem," and they began rattling off mini-bios of various cousins, sisters, friends, etc., assuring me in all cases these were clean (read: virgin, and they probably were), respectable young women who would certainly make a good wife for a foreign man. The following day, one even brought me a photo of one girl and introduced me to her on my second trip to Cambodia two weeks later. "Gee," I thought in my naivety, "these guys are so happy to see their women married off to foreigners. Gosh! Imagine that happening in say, Korea or China."

Well, duh me! Marrying a Cambodian girl requires the prospective bridegroom to pay a lump sum of cash to the bride's family. In theory, this money is used exclusively for the wedding. But if you're a foreigner, you're kidding yourself if you think all that money is only going to the wedding. Regardless, the groom pays the cash while the bride's family does all the planning and production.

The price is determined by the relative wealth of the families of the bride and groom. A poor Cambodian man marrying a girl of equal status may pay only $500 to $1000. An upper-class wedding can easily run well over $10,000 with almost no upper limit. With foreigners it's a little different. Although there are certainly exceptions, the standard price for foreign man/Khmer woman marriages is generally around $5,000, which assumes she's a virgin, or at least believed to be so by her family, and she is not from an upper-class family. If you're marrying a taxi girl, well, that shouldn't cost you more than a cheap ring and two bottles of whiskey - for now.

Regrettably, it's not at all unusual to see foreigners, usually Japanese, drop $10,000, even $15,000 on a bride that might have only commanded ten percent of that amount if the groom was Cambodian. This idiotic nonsense not only drives up bride prices for all foreigners, but worse, throwing that kind of cash around a poor village only gives the residents a further corrupted view of foreigners and perpetuates the notion that all foreigners are cash cows to be bled at will. If you want to help the girl's family, fine, help them, but throwing out enormous sums of cash as bride price is not the way to do it.

Anyway, I'm getting off track, here. I'm supposed to be talking about commissions. Well, whether you're spending the still fairly high sum of $5K or you happen to be a complete moron throwing $15K at a peasant girl, this is serious money.

Serious money, indeed. So, you're heading to the altar with your oun (Khmer for 'sweetheart')? Remember the motodop who made the introduction for you way back when? Well, right now he's reminding the bride's family - who just relieved you of a few grand - that he made the introduction and you can be certain he's going to get a few hundred bucks for having done it.

While weddings are an extreme case, commissions are routinely paid for a variety of simple transactions. Virtually all hotels and guesthouses in Cambodia will pay a couple of dollars to the motodop that brings in the guest. Likewise, restaurants, souvenir shops, shooting ranges, brothels, you name it, they'll pay. If you're a tourist making a purchase - any purchase - you can be sure your motodop is taking a cut. In most instances I suggest you don't waste your time worrying about it. Let him get his cash, it will probably make no difference on the price you pay, anyway. However, given the prevalence of commissions, if you plan to do any serious money spending in Cambodia you might want to use a motodop you actually like.

Be fair. If a motodop really does assist you, i.e. takes you to the shooting range, or somewhere you had little or no knowledge of, I'd say he probably should get a cut. On the other hand, if you're already doing business with a shop or were already aware of a particular business and only needed a ride there, it might be to your advantage to inform the shop-owner that the person accompanying you had nothing to do with bringing you here except as your transport. This also holds true for hotels you had a prior reservation for.

You usually won't be aware of the commissions, either the motodop will return later or they may talk about it in front of you. You don't speak Khmer, now do you? But any exchange of cash will be done out of your view.

The rush for these commissions gets ridiculous at times. When I rented a house in Siem Reap, a motodop 'friend' of mine decided that he had something to do with my renting the house (he knew the landlord). Actually, he had nothing to do with it at all, I knew the landlord already and it was an expat friend who told me of the availability of the place. But that didn't stop my 'friend' from showing up and asking for, are you ready for this, a commission of one month's rent!!!! He tried to get $133 (I was paying $400 every three months) telling this b.s. story that it was he who told me about the house for rent.

On larger transactions, the commission deals become more complicated and can have a greater effect on the prices you'll pay for something.

I do a lot of photographic framing in Phnom Penh, which I do at the New Art Gallery. I first did business with them back in July 2001 and my initial order was for over forty frames. The cost for this would be considerable, not as much as a wife, mind you, but there was the potential for a serious commission that could affect my final price by as much as forty or fifty dollars.

I had never been to the New Art Gallery and not having my own transport in Phnom Penh, I needed to rely on a motodop. I'm quite friendly with a number of the guys that hang around the Capitol and regularly use the services of a couple of them. While they still take commissions, due to my knowledge of the process and familiarity with the drivers it's usually a very transparent deal. Me, the driver, and shop owner will be upfront about the whole thing. However, on the day I was to head off to the New Art Gallery to get a price quote, none of my regular guys was around so I had to rely on a driver I didn't know. But other than obtaining some information, no actual business was concluded so I didn't think too much about commissions at the time.

Three weeks later I'm back in Phnom Penh to actually get the frames. I stop by the Capitol and the same guy that took me before sees me. First thing he wants to know is if I was doing business with the gallery, how many frames was I doing, and could he take me there? And he was quite anxious about the whole thing. Duh, I had completely ignored the commission issue and as the quantity of business I was doing was considerable, so too, would be the kickback. I found out from a Khmer friend who had once been a motodop that commissions at this store are usually two dollars a frame (which explains why he wanted to know how many I was doing)- and I was doing 44 frames. I ignored the motodop I had used three weeks prior and discreetly got one of my Khmer friends to run me over there.

After sorting out my framing requirements, I had a talk with the shop owner about the commission nonsense, telling her that she could probably expect the other guy to show up later asking for money. I told her that he did not introduce me to this shop, only brought me to it. I further added that I expected my price to be reduced. If she wanted to pay a small commission, that was fine with me, but there was no way I would contribute to an $88 pay-off.  She agreed to knock down my price, leaving a commission of about $30 which I then tried to funnel towards my friend. Sure enough, five minutes after we left the other guy shows up hoping for a big chunk of cash. She called us on the phone and we returned and I let the three of them argue over who got what.

The lesson here is two-fold. First, you really can't eliminate commissions. Certainly, any future business I do with New Art will be commission-free, but it probably won't change my costs per frame. Secondly, if you know you're going to do a big chunk of business with someone and the possibility for a commission exists, really try to include only locals you know and like. And don't be shy to talk about commissions up front with both the shop owner and any local that stands to get a kickback. If they know that you know, it's been my experience that the whole thing can be done quite transparently.




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