The Bamboo Train in Battambang: The Good and the Ugly

by Audrey on April 18, 2013 · 50 comments

Riding the bamboo train (nori) in Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang isn’t the most popular destination for travellers passing through Cambodia, but those who do make it to the northwestern part of the country know about the notorious bamboo train.

Located in the outskirts of town, the bamboo train, or nori, is essentially a bamboo flatbed on wheels, which is powered by a small motorcycle or tractor engine.

The rail line stretches all the way down to the capital of Phnom Penh, but the tracks lie in complete abandon and disrepair, meaning the bamboo ride only runs 7 kilometers in length to a nearby village and back.

White knuckles and smiles

The bamboo train was the first stop along our tuk-tuk tour of the Cambodian countryside. As we reached the start of the line our tuk-tuk driver Mr. Bay snapped a photo for us saying, “the train won’t be around much longer.” I smiled because I had read the same thing in my guidebook…which is three years out of date.

The government has plans to rebuild the rail lines all the way to the Thai border in the northeastern part of the country, and all the way south to the beach town of Sihanoukville. That being said, this project was aimed to be completed several years ago, and that is still in the works, so maybe there is no rush after all…

We we paid our $10, hopped on the makeshift train, and waved Mr. Bay goodbye as we pulled away.

Sitting on straw mats than has been laid over the bamboo platform, I held onto whatever I could and the contraption quickly began to pick up speed. (This thing can go up to 40 kilometers an hour!) I peeked down through the cracks at the rail tracks below, but it was all a blur of colour and sound. I had to yell to be heard, but even then the wind carried half of my words away.

Bamboo-Train-Battambang-Cambodia

With the wind blowing in my hair, and the speed plastering a smile on my face, we chugged past fields, across rickety bridges, and through stretches of bush. Locals walked on the tracks and only hopped off when the train was almost upon them.

When we finished the first stretch of the journey and reached the village, I couldn’t wait to do it all over again!

Lifting the bamboo train off the tracks so others can pass

But at the end of the line things turned sour…

When we reached the village that lies at the end of the tracks, the atmosphere changed. Our driver quickly disappeared before we even had a chance to look over our shoulders.

Village at the end of the bamboo train line, Battambang

A girl approached us and told us that the train would be making a mandatory 10 minute stop here. That’s fine, we thought. Maybe our driver wanted to grab a quick breakfast or have a restroom break…

We decided to have a wander through town, but that’s when the hassling started.

“You have to sit here. Wait here, buy drink. Drink is one dollar. You buy drink.”

Seeing as we had just eaten breakfast and were carrying around a 2L bottle of water with us, we didn’t feel the need to buy a warm can of coke or beer, but the pleading continued. I thought of maybe purchasing a souvenir so that I could contribute something, but the only thing that caught my eye were scarves, and I’ve already accumulated seven of those travelling through Cambodia. I came to the conclusion that certainly a $10 fee for a ride that lasts 15 minutes each way was a fair price and a good enough contribution to the local economy. (That’s way more than what it costs to travel from Battambang to Phnom Penh and that trip lasts 6-7 hours!)

After a brief stroll along the tracks, we returned back to our bamboo train to continue waiting for our driver who still hadn’t returned.

Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes…

No other trains had arrived yet, and we were the only ones there. I felt like we were being kept here until we purchased something, and I didn’t like the pressure they were putting on us as visitors.

Just as we were debating going in search of our driver, he reappeared.

Engine on a bamboo train in Battambang, Cambodia

He started turning the bamboo train around, and while he was doing so, another woman approached us. “Where are you from?” she asked, and as soon as we had replied, her next words were “you have to tip your driver.”

Our driver, who had already been paid $10. Our driver, who had not smiled at us or been friendly in any way. Our driver, who had wandered off for 20 minutes without explanation only to return with a sour look on his face.

We explained to her that we had already paid our driver at the start of the line, but the woman insisted that we needed to tip our driver and she would not go away. The demands were getting outright bold, and frustration was mounting on our side.

Why were we being made to feel guilty?

We hopped back on the bamboo train, and as elated as I had been on the way over, I couldn’t enjoy the ride back. All I could think of was the confrontation that might take place once we reached the other side.

When we finally arrived at start of the line, we hopped off the train, saw our tuk-tuk driver Mr. Bay, and went straight towards him.

Bamboo train tracks in Battambang, Cambodia

We didn’t look back.

I know how horrible that sounds. It’s not how I wanted to end things, and I hate that our bamboo train driver probably has the impression that we are spoiled foreigners who refused to tip him, but at the same time I don’t think it’s right to guilt visitors into giving you money, especially after you’ve been treated so poorly.

A tip is meant to be a reward for good services, and in this case it would have been rewarding bad behaviour.

Can I recommend the bamboo train?

Hopefully this story will help you decide.

Have you been on the bamboo train?

What would you have done in this situation?


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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam April 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I had the same thoughts about the bamboo train and wasn’t much of a fan of the experience. I also thought it was over-hyped in the guidebooks. Interesting to read about your more recent experience, though!
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Audrey April 22, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I hadn’t heard too much about the trains, so I didn’t have that many expectations going there. I did enjoy blasting through the fields, but the end of the line kind of spoiled it for me.

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Vanessa April 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm

What a bummer! I was getting so hyped at the beginning–wild, rickety bamboo ride… then BAM totally taken advantage of. What a shame to spoil the experience for you and a shame for Cambodian tourism, really. I’ve read a couple blog posts about others going on this train, but not heard anything negative… maybe they weren’t the kind to reveal everything though.
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Marilynn April 18, 2013 at 7:09 pm

Yeap, been in your situation before. i was in Cambodia late October last year by myself – a girl from Brunei. the ride was fascinating though but at the other end of the line was not. i was immediately asked to sit down by an elderly man. he asked me where i was from because you dont see asian girls travel – especially not alone. he was a little surprised that i’m from Brunei. his son flew there once as a pilot. he showed me a photo that has been framed. true enough, the royal Brunei was in the background. i thought “wouldnt his son help his own family get out of poverty?” i did ask him where he is now – he didnt give me a straight answer but i know he hasnt been home for 7 years. his wife? i think that was his wife kept asking me to buy those t-shirts and scarves. 10 mins later my bamboo driver came back. the elderly man sternly told me to tip the driver because the boss only pays him $1 for every bamboo ride. i’m not sure if that is true or not. anyways, it was a little sour experience for me.

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Audrey April 23, 2013 at 12:07 am

I’m sorry it wasn’t a great experience for you either. Like you said, sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe. The driver may well get a good chunk of the $10, or they may only get $1…

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Jennifer April 18, 2013 at 9:00 pm

Ive not been on the bamboo train, but looks like I sound avoid it in the future! I hate being put in situations like that when you feel so pressurised – your right, a tip sh0uld be for good service, not bad, and no amount of pressurising should make you tip. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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Micamyx|Senyorita April 19, 2013 at 3:08 am

I haven’t tried the bamboo train yet, but i believe we have those here in the Philippines too.
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Rika | Cubicle Throwdown April 19, 2013 at 8:29 am

What a shame…sounds like such a cool experience, but that’s too bad it’s being wrecked like that. I would have done the same thing you did. Good job for not giving in, hopefully enough people will do what you did.
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Sherry April 19, 2013 at 8:59 am

Okay, that sounded like a horrible experience in what could’ve been a very romantic ride in the country. I think, however, it’s very typical in Asian countries (at least in my experience) to squeeze as much out of the tourist as possible. And it’s such a shame. I may skip this if I ever go to Cambodia.
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Meredith@GreenGlobalTravel April 19, 2013 at 9:30 am

Wow! Sounds like the worst case of tourist exploitation I’ve ever heard of. Sorry it didn’t turn out to be a very positive experience.
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Angela April 19, 2013 at 11:06 am

I’ve been on the bamboo train as well and didn’t tip. I don’t like people asking me for money. I’ll tip if I think you deserved it.
The ladies at the drink stall were kind of pushy and we just ignored them. But I guess it’s just their way of making a living. I’m still not sure how I feel about what happened at the end of the bamboo train but the overall experience for me was awesome.
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Agness April 19, 2013 at 11:31 am

How come we didn’t do it? Ach!! What a pitty. The bamboo train experience seems to be so cool. When I’m back in Cambodia, I definitely wanna do it. Remember guys – Khmer people take things so slow and easy :) there is no rush for them :P
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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) April 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I have heard other mixed reviews about the bamboo train in Battambang, but none of them really mentioned the browbeating that occurs at the end of the line. I understand a little bit of what that is like as we have had similar experiences in Vietnam. As you know, tipping is not really very common in Asia, however, we try to be good travelers and give tips when we take tours or take part in activities where we have a guide. When we did a day trip from Hanoi, part of the day involved being paddled down a river by local people, and our tour guide warned us they would ask for tips at the end. He said that $1USD per person would be more than enough, and truly, to a local, that is a good deal of money if you are rowing a boat with 6 people in it. However, when we got out of the boat and offered our $2US, the woman scowled at us and demanded more! I was half tempted at that point to just walk off and give her nothing, because my feeling is that if you are going to be ungrateful about a tip when I have already purchased a ticket for your service, then you get nothing. I don’t want to reward bad behavior, as you say, and I was honestly quite disgusted with that kind of behavior. It’s crazy because in some places here, people demand tips that are equal to the price of the attraction in the first place.

All to say, I know how frustrating/gross/uncomfortable these situations can be, and I can definitely understand how it would have tainted your experiences on the train. It’s only a matter of time before these kind of actions cause tourists to stop visiting these attractions and all the money dries up.
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Audrey April 24, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Wow, that sounds like a sticky situation you guys experienced in Hanoi. It’s been strange for me going from living in Korea, where no one ever tips, to travelling around SE Asia, where it seems that people are demanding tips more and more. I’m in Vietnam now and I have also found that people are pushing for tips after I’ve already paid the ticket price. It just takes some getting used to…but I’m loving Vietname regardless!

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Mary April 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm

I went with my family on the bamboo train and had a very different experience. I think perhaps it was because we took the ride with out tuk tuk driver and he was an excellent guide. We did see the ladies trying to sell and we were thirsty so buying a drink was no big deal. We walked over to the brick factory and got a great tour for free, it was fabulous and we chatted with many locals there. They even showed the kids how to make the bricks and let them try.

I can understand the feeling of being pressured and how frustrating that is but at the same time I try to keep my thoughts on compassion, knowing how much less they have. It is no excuse really to treat people badly or expect things from others but it helps me at least not feel so frustrated. Good luck with the rest of Cambodia. We stayed 2 months and by the end it was just soo bleak that we couldn’t wait to leave, although it remains one of our favorite countries!
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Audrey April 24, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I’m glad to hear that you guys had a better experience on the bamboo train and at the village. I honestly didn’t get to walk very far when we reached the end of the tracks – I didn’t even realize there was a brick factory to visit. Overall, I really did enjoy my time in Cambodia. :) A month there just flew by!.

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Tamsin April 19, 2013 at 4:54 pm

What a shame the experience was ruined! I think you handled it well, and I’d have done the same given the situation I think. I had an equally sour experience with a cyclo driver in Ho Chi Minh City.
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Nisha April 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Oh I missed it! :( Just could not make it.

Looks like you guys had loads of fun. :)

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Sofie April 19, 2013 at 9:36 pm

“A tip is meant to be a reward for good services, and in this case it would have been rewarding bad behaviour.”

I totally agree with you. I understand you feel guilty because you know it wouldn’t have hurt you to buy something for $2, but you also know they’ve already asked way too high a price for the train ride. If the drive had been friendly and the people not so pushy, I might have bought something, but being pressured like that…
I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ride back either.

Did you say something about it to your tuk-tuk driver?
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flashpackatforty - Craig April 20, 2013 at 1:26 am

Oh that brought back so many memories of that bumpy ride, the most fun I have had on four wheels. Except, as you point out the tippy tippy tippy demands, downright annoying.
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Dean April 20, 2013 at 12:31 pm

It is annoying when that happens. The problem is that a lot of people are too easily pressured into giving up that tip and buying that drink even if they don’t want to. It works for them so they keep doing it.
The ride sounds like a unique experience at least!
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Jackie D April 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I had that same feeling of being pressured/feeling guilty in a few places in Central America — I wanted to help people out and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but I knew that if I kept buying things from every single person who asked me, I would very quickly have nothing left to give.
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Audrey April 24, 2013 at 9:51 pm

I completely agree with you. It can be really overwhelming to have so many people asking for help wherever you go. I’ve kind of struggled with that in Asia. We try to tip and give a little bit of money when we see people in need, but at the same time where do you draw the line before you’re also left with an empty wallet?

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Maria April 21, 2013 at 1:41 am

Wow! On one hand they are poor and trying to make a buck but on the other hand, you get more from a bee with honey – had they been sweet and/or engaging you may have bought that extra bottle of water and tips… don’t get me started. I walked into a convenience store in the US the other day and there was tip jar on the counter! For what? Ringing me up? I get that you were conflicted but tips are extra, for having provided service above the basic/standard. Ugh!
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A Cook Not Mad ( Nat & Tim) April 21, 2013 at 2:51 am

I hate it when you’re excited about something and it turns out like that. I’m sure you’ll laugh about it some day…”remember the time we were on the bamboo train…”
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Jim April 21, 2013 at 6:28 am

I took the bamboo train and have to agree… it just felt like a tourist trap… too bad.

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Sam April 21, 2013 at 10:41 am

That sounds unpleasant. It’s a tricky situation, and I can understand both points of view here. Sad face.
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flip April 22, 2013 at 12:46 am

Terrible for hassling you to shell out money.
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Dani April 22, 2013 at 6:41 am

I remember that Jess and I felt the same about it when we were in Battambang last year. The guidebook had made it seem as if it was possible to just hop on with local workers who take the train, which might have been true a few years back, but when we got there, it was definitely just for tourists. We enjoyed the ride (even though it was kinda terrifying!!) but we hated the whole tipping guilt trip at the end – $10 for the ride was already A LOT of money by Cambodian standards.

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Audrey April 23, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Yeah, there was no hopping on with locals when I was there either. It sounds like we had really similar experiences there.

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Jade Johnston - OurOyster.com April 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

You know, I have heard alot of people reccomending the bamboo train but this is the first time I heard a bad story about it. To be honest though, even the good stories didn’t really peak my interest, so I think after your story I would give it a miss. I hate situations like that where you feel utterly trapped by demands for money. I am glad you didn’t give in.
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Dariece - Goats On The Road April 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Thanks for this honest post Audrey :)
We’ve never been on that train, but have definitely felt like we were being pushed into tipping – for poor service. A tip (like you said) is meant to be for service with a smile, good service, or if someone goes above and beyond…I hate when it feels mandatory and especially when the person you are supposed to be tipping hasn’t done the best of jobs.

I would have done exactly what you guys did – not tipped, and not looked back.

Cheers & safe travels to you :)
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Shane April 26, 2013 at 3:31 pm

When people come up to me and say ‘money ‘ in a demanding or unpleasant manner, I usually respond by saying ‘no thanks, I have some.’ They tend to look momentarily confused before going away.
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Natalia | Always Trekking April 26, 2013 at 11:09 pm

40kph on makeshift stilts! That’s kind of insane. 10 bucks for 15 minutes of work seems like a pretty good deal. Oh well, what can you do? Just try to forget the negative experience.
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Suzy April 29, 2013 at 10:55 am

There is nothing I hate more than just being looked at as a dollar sign. Sounds like that how you two were treated.
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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) May 2, 2013 at 4:06 am

I had a friend that did this and had read about this behaviour. So she nipped it in the bud. She told the driver straight up “I will NOT tip you if I don’t get excellent service… understood?”. Surprise surprise … it was a fantastic experience and she tipped him because he even told the pushy vendors to back off. :) If we go – I think we will try that approach!
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TammyOnTheMove May 9, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I am surprised about the tipping thing. Usually Cambodians are very honest and when you agree a price that is usually the price you have to pay at the end. I would have expected that in Vietnam (where I got ripped off 3 times in one day by moto and taxi drivers) but not in Cambodia. A real shame. I hope it is not getting like that in the rest of the country too.
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abbot jackson May 13, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I read your blog which has the most important information about train.this is a fantastic train.

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Emma May 13, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Hey Audrey, my boyfriend and I are about to go to Battambang in a couple of days and I’m struggling to make my mind up whether to give the Bamboo Train experience a shot or not, on the one hand it sounds like great fun, on the other the whole being trapped at the other end and hassled for money does not! Out of interest was it $5 per person or $10 per person as it seems to vary depending on who you get? (I read somewhere else a review by someone recently who was told it was $10 unless they wanted to wait over an hour for a train!)

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Ceri May 14, 2013 at 4:55 am

I still get so awkward about tipping because (as your probably know) it’s not a common thing here in the UK. I had to really get used to doing it a lot when I started travelling and if I’d have been in our position, I’d have probably felt awkward and guilty and ended up tipping reluctantly again.

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Nicole @ Green Global Travel June 17, 2013 at 10:13 pm

When you meet someone who says they have done it all, you will always be able to say you have been on a bamboo train ;)
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melissa August 20, 2013 at 1:37 pm

The fee for the train goes to the owner of the train. The driver is not the owner. I know it stinks to feel pressured to tip, but Cambodia is an extremely poor country and that’s why sellers are very aggressive.

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Cheryl October 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm

No, I disagree. Sellers are aggressive because they see how foreigners waste money and gladly hand it over without questioning how much something is, or permit themselves to be taken advantage of on a price because, for example, they can’t bother to bargain. The reason tips are expected isn’t because the locals tip themselves and thus expect outsiders to. It’s because outsiders are stupid and assume that the rest of the world conducts itself as they do in their own country. Thus, they leave tips after eating, getting a haircut, getting a taxi/moto ride, etc. and it becomes a belief in the poor countries that everyone is going to leave a tip and when you don’t, they’ll hound you. Of course, they don’t see it as being rude – It’s not even their own tradition! Quite frankly, if visitors and expats could bother to learn a dozen words in the country they’re visiting or living in, the harrassment wouldn’t occur. It doesn’t with me because I tell them ‘no’ in their language and they know I mean it.

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Charis September 10, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I have visited Cambodia and also I have heard about Bamboo Train but I don’t have any kind of experience.

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Greg Goodman October 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Well I’ll be honest, this is exactly what I would expect from the experience based on my time in Angkor.

However, now that I have the heads up, I think it will help me from getting too frustrated when I’m there next month. The killer part is when you go into something with one expectation, enjoy a beautiful start and then get the hard sell when you are most relaxed and unprepared. Guess now I have to love the ride and mentally prepare myself for the rest.

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Mike McRory-Wilson November 2, 2013 at 9:35 pm

I was on this amazing Railway late in 2010 (and toured the brickworks).

All I can say is that I had the most delightful ride both ways, had a marvelous afternoon and completely missed out on any problems. The people were delightful, the brickworks a vision of exhausting hard work in the most primitive of conditions and the ride an experience not to be missed while it is still there!

Incidentally, when you meet a train coming the other way some sort of negotiation takes place between the drivers and one train, whichever one loses out I suppose, is dismantled and removed from the track. The other one then pulls through and continues on its journey after which the first train is reassembled to continue on its merry way. The patient stoicism of the crews really is a joy to behold. After an experience like that I tipped anyway – at the end of the two-way journey.

For the sheer exhileration and joy of the experience a tip is surely a minimum must.

Anyway, do not be put off by what you have read. Go, try to remain philosophical about any cash transactions, and then just grin your way through a truly and utterly uniqe and joyful experience!

Mike

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Billy March 21, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Thanks Mike, heading to B-bang on Monday and will certainly do the train and brickworks!

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Linda May 24, 2014 at 4:18 pm

It’s a fun thing to do. Did the fact that it was ten dollars not tip you off that it was a tourist trap? If you didn’t want to buy anything you could have wandered off to the old brick works to have a look around. No biggie. I didn’t buy anything when I was there. After touring the brick works I had plenty of time to sit down and drink some of the water I’d brought and visit with the locals. I told them I was poor like them and that I didn’t have any money. They didn’t care. The drivers don’t have very good social skills, that much is true. And I don’t usually tip in Cambodia anyway. But, lighten up. It’s just for fun.

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Kim November 19, 2014 at 2:35 am

I don’t think many affluent travelers (yes, you are one) appreciate how hard people are working in places like Cambodia to feed their families. When I say “feed their families,” I don’t mean buy another iphone or motorbike — I mean rice. I am guilty too. It’s hard for people like us to imagine such desperation and if you were that poor, you would do the same thing for your children. I don’t want this posted — just sharing my thoughts.

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