Our second day in Phnom Penh we made a hotel change. The two blocks between our new and old accommodation would normally be a no brainer walk. But with all of our bags, the lack of sidewalks, and the roads being as crazy as they are, we decided to take a tuk tuk. It was easy enough to find a driver that was ready to take our money. In fact the hotel we were staying at (leaving) had three of them vulturing at the base of the stairs in the lobby.
Mr. Shady: “You want tuk tuk”
Me: “Oh, we’re only going two blocks. Don’t think you want to drive just two blocks?”
Mr. Shady: “No, no, it’s fine.”
Me: “It’s only two blocks. It is literally right around the corner.”
Mr. Shady: “It’s ok, it’s ok!”
Me: “Alright, I will give you sixteen hundred.” (almost 50 cents)
Mr. Shady: “Yes, yes, that’s fine.”
We drive the two minutes in traffic to our new hotel. We thanked the driver for the ridiculously short trip and gave him his money. He counted it and stated we didn’t give him enough cash.
Mr. Shady: “We agreed on six thousand” ($1.50)
I explained to him there is no fucking way I would agree to pay him six thousand. I told him we took a tuk tuk from the bus station to the very hotel we just left for two dollars. That trip took 15+ minutes. Why would I give him a dollar fifty for a two block trip? “It’s the principal Smokey!” Anger built up in his voice as he contested my logic with the simplistic counter argument of “You said six thousand”. The receptionist at our new hotel came out to mitigate. Suddenly the tuk tuk driver didn’t understand anything I was saying and required the receptionist to translate. I explained to the receptionist how the entire situation transpired and included my logic behind his clear overcharging (bus trip anecdote). After we had already agreed on a price. The receptionist agreed with me that it should not cost $1.50 and translated this to the tuk tuk driver.
Mr. Shady: “Ok, you give me a dollar and we will call it good.”
I was amused that he once again understood English but told him he can take the money we agreed upon or nothing at all. Again his English went into remission and he turned to the receptionist with a confused look on his face. The back and forth continued a short while longer until the tuk tuk driver hopped on his tuk tuk in a temper-tantrum and attempted to drive off. Before he pulled away he shouted some things at the receptionist who beckoned him to wait as he went into the hotel and got Mr. Shady his fucking dollar.
What the fuck is that? How do these guys get away with this shit? Every-fucking-time they try something to rip you off. It was the proverbial straw that broke my back. They say to keep your enemies closer and that’s what I intended to do. I decided to research, interview, and better understand how the tuk tuk drivers had tourist transportation by the balls.
With a crisp twenty-dollar bill and a belly full of alcohol, I left Sally at the hotel and ventured out to find a tuk tuk driver willing to give me some insight. To my surprise there was a strong resistance to giving an interview about the underbelly of the industry, even with twenty American dollars up for grabs.
Several failed attempts later and I found my ‘motivation’ depleted enough that I needed to refuel at a local pub.
Two hours later I found myself no longer possessing the necessary funds to grease the wheels of information (Having spent my $20 on booze). A discouraged look must have come across my face because the owner of the bar slide over and struck up conversation. It didn’t take me long to divulge the reason behind my despair. After a solid ten minutes of expressing my frustration with the tuk tuk industry and asking the one question everyone who has ever utilized this mode of transportation wants answered, (It’s a simple chicken or egg scenario. Which came first? The shady personality or the tuk tuk profession?)
“Does this job just attract scum? Or do people simply become opportunistic once they realize how easy it is to take tourists money?”
The owner eyed me up for several seconds. Clearly debating whether I was worthy of both the information and his time. He slid a little closer and lowered his voice.
Bar Owner: “There is a book. An underground scripture for tuk tuk drivers if you will. No one knows the original source and very few people have an actual copy. It’s mostly passed down by word of mouth these days. Some have taken the time to write down the teachings, but these are mostly incomplete and few and far between. I have a version I got from my girlfriends father. I will give you 20 minutes to look it over and that’s it.”
He disappeared through the back door of the bar and returned five minutes later. He slid a stack of ten hand written tattered papers across the bar discreetly. They were half composed in Khmer and half in English. I flipped through the stack and stopped on the fourth page. The heading was written in Khmer but the bar owner told me it roughly translated to ‘The Tuk Tuk Ten Commandments’. Each of these commandments were scribbled in both languages. The alcohol had settled in nicely and the night was getting late. For this reason I can’t recall verbatim what these commandments stated, but this is what I can remember.
1) Economics is for tourists. There is no such thing as too much supply. If there is a known pick up/drop off location for tourists park and attempt to get business. It doesn’t matter if there are 20 other drivers there.
2) He who is the most aggressive wins. If there is a door to a business, bus, or hotel it is your job to crowd around it and be in the face of the tourists. If necessary grab their bags before they even step onto the street.
3) ‘No’ only means ‘no’ if it is said to you. The tourist just said ‘no’ to three tuk tuk drivers before you? Ask again, then again, if they still say no ask them if they have seen the sights: x? y? z? If they still say no you are entitled to make a sarcastic comment or mock them.
4) Always try to get the tourist into your tuk tuk without first determining a price for the journey. If they are dumb enough not to ask, then you can charge anything you want.
5) If the tourist wants to know how much before they get in, start at 400% over what the rate should be. That way when the tourist talks you down to half (thinking they’re smart) you still make twice as much as the trip should cost.
6) While driving the tourist inquire about where they are staying. Regardless of their reservation, inform them that you know a better place. Then proceed to take them to a location where you get kick backs.
7) Also while driving, offer tours of all the local attractions. If they do not want to commit to an attraction offer them bar girls or drugs. (all of these should be offered at the standard 400% mark up)
8) Once you arrive at the destination inform them of how much they owe you. This amount should be at least double of what the original agreed upon price was.
9) If the tourist objects to the fee, get angry. Tourists are scared of making people upset. They also don’t want to cause a scene and will decide the extra couple dollars isn’t worth the hassle.
10) If the tourist doesn’t seem to know the area or exactly where they are going, take them somewhere closer and charge them the same price (i.e. they want to go to x market, but y market is half the distance. Save yourself the drive and just take them to y market). Then drive off before they realize they are in the incorrect location.
Just as I lifted my blurry eyes to look around the bar, the owner snagged the stack of papers away from me.
Bar owner: “Time’s up”
I thanked and sat there for a moment, trying to digest what I had just read. I had my suspicions that there was a conspiracy against tourists but this really blew my fucking mind! This is why their behaviors are so consistent and wide-spread. Before I left I asked him why he didn’t share this with others? With everybody!?
Me: “I’ve pretty much figured most of this shit out on my own. But it has taken me some painful learning experiences and some serious time on the road. I would have liked to have known this shit before the fact, could have saved me some serious headaches.”
Bar owner: “Who am I going to share this shit with? You think Lonely Planet is going to put it in their book?
Me: “What about the net?”
Bar owner: “What, that Wiki Dick?” Maybe you don’t have a problem with that Wiki-rape turd who is using extradition to avoid getting pounded in the ass in a Swedish prison. But me, I wouldn’t even share who really killed JFK (if I had it) with that communist bastard.”
Me: “Mmmm. Good point I guess. . .”
Bar owner: “Plus man. . . . . there is a fine line between fiction and non-fiction. . . . . and I snorted that up in the 80’s! Ha-ha-ha!!!!”