by Andrew Crawford, Doctoral Researcher (GIGA, Universität Hamburg) and IMTFI Fellow
It’s embarrassing to admit as a finance academic but I’m bad with money. Not bad like I’d lose it all on a blackjack table, or have no money to buy lunch, but bad with payments. I have bank accounts in different countries, multiple Paypal accounts, a cryptocurrency hardware wallet and various ATM cards that lurk around my bedroom. I have only a vague awareness of how much money is in each and mostly go with the flow when I pay for things. Needless to say, I am being shafted by a bunch of payment providers in terms of fees, but I neglect to resolve the issue. Usually, apart from wasting money, this constant state of organised chaos never causes problems. But sometimes things go wrong, and my fragile payment ecosystem spirals out of control. This happened during my recent trip to Cambodia.
I’m in Cambodia for 4 months working on a research project to measure the effect of COVID-19 on the microfinance sector. Two months in, I realised that it was time to pay my semester fees at the German university where I am doing my PhD. Thanks to the inexpensive nature of German universities this only amounts to 360 euro. I logged into my German online banking to do the bank transfer (the only means of payment accepted). The bank requires two-step authorisation so I brought with me an old Samsung phone with my German simcard set to roaming. I submitted the bank transfer and stared at my old phone, but then nothing. There was cell signal and the phone seemed to work fine. I asked online banking to resend the code then to my delight an SMS came through. I entered the code and it was rejected. Oh, maybe I made a typo. I entered it again. Still wrong. How could I type this wrong twice? I very thoroughly entered it one more time. Wrong. Then my phone beeped again. A second message had come through with a new code. The first message was the first code so it was no longer valid after I asked for a second code! I quickly went to enter the second code but my German account was now blocked due to three wrong codes. Crap. To reactivate the account I would need to take ID to my local branch in Hamburg. Sigh. As an alternative I transferred money from my Australian account (that I’ve had since I was 12 years old). This turned out to be 10% more expensive but at least the semester fees would be paid!
The next day the Cambodian government suddenly announced that due to the spike in COVID cases a hard lockdown and curfew would operate from 8pm that day. It was sudden so I rushed to supermarket. Chaos. Like most countries panic buying was in full force so I decided I would go to my local convenience store instead.
Before I left, I took a video of all the panic buying because ‘hey it feels dramatic and I need to video it’. At this point you need to know that I keep all my ATM cards in a ‘card sock’ in the back of my phone. This is because I’ve been pickpocketed before and thought why do I need a wallet? I’m always conscious of my phone and never lose phones. If I never lose phones and my cards are attached, I will never lose my cards. Smart. While I was recording the panic buying I dropped my phone. Not so smart. It crashed onto the pavement and the screen cracked. I was so annoyed with myself I picked up the phone and quickly left while looking at the damage. I arrived home at 7.50pm and went to watch a movie, specifically Hunger Games, since the three-finger salute used in the Myanmar protests had reminded me of the film. I went to rent it from Amazon using my Australian ATM card and realised it was gone from my phone’s ‘card sock’. Damn. It must have fallen out when I dropped the phone. There was only 10 minutes left until curfew so I couldn’t leave, lest I be beaten with sticks by the Cambodian police which is their punishment for breaking curfew
. Since my German account was also blocked all I had left was PayPal. Of course, Jeff Bezos doesn’t like PayPal so to rent the movie I bought an Amazon gift card from an online gift card website with PayPal. They charged $23 for a $20 gift card which was another hit to my hip pocket.
I cancelled my Australian ATM card and had a new one ordered which would go to my mother’s house in Australia and she would express post it to me in Cambodia. But for now, I had no ATM card. What would I do? You need cash in Cambodia! Apple Pay is here but it’s not so common yet. Thankfully, I still had a Cambodian bank account that I’ve had for years due to being paid consultant fees in Cambodia. I knew there were a few hundred dollars left. But I didn’t have the ATM card for this account (I assume it’s lurking in my room in Germany) but I did have the good ole passbook. All the local branches were closed during lockdown so I ventured to the head office to withdraw the money. This meant crossing 4 roadblocks and trying to explain to police my predicament. After finally making it to the head office I had my hands disinfected, temperature checked and wore my face mask to head inside the deserted bank and withdraw my money at the friendly teller. Relief. I had cash again. I was safe.
My brief experience not having cash made me concerned about some others in Phnom Penh that could no longer work. Specifically, I was worried about my friend and regular Tuk Tuk driver Ara who was completely dependent on his Tuk Tuk income. I called him and offered him some money but he lived in a part of the city that was too difficult to visit. Thankfully, Cambodia has an extensive mobile money network, named Wing, so I went to the Wing office on my street, opened an account, deposited some cash then transferred him some money that he very much appreciated. I didn’t realise at the time but using Wing would be my saviour in the end.
A few days later I had a Zoom presentation of Loy Loy: The Financial Literacy Board Game
that I co- created at IMTFI. The presentation was to the Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and I was nervous. We expected at least 60 people to attend, possibly, some very important folks. Plus, it was midnight in Cambodia time and so I was worried about staying alert. I sat at the laptop and joined the zoom call. Internet can be patchy in Cambodia and as more and more people joined the meeting I could see my home connection become more and more unstable. I had planned for this and my phone was ready to hotspot with its faster cell network connection. I switched to the hotspot and felt safe just asthe meeting was to start. Then I received a message, “your data for the month is about to be consumed”. CRAP. In Cambodia you usually buy cellphone credit from shops through the little scratch cards where you scratch off the number and enter the code. But it was midnight, shops were closed, and police with sticks were patrolling the streets. What could I do? I opened the Cellcard app and saw a small Wing logo. Ah perhaps I could connect the accounts. I hurriedly went through all the pins, SMS confirmations and fingerprint scans to connect the two, topped up and renewed the data plan, just as they were calling my name to present. Phew!
So, what have I learned from this whole experience? Well, firstly, be patient with two-step authorisations when you’re overseas, don’t film panic buyers because that’s mean, ‘card socks’ are not foolproof, mobile money accounts are useful during a pandemic, and it’s even handier to have lots of cash when all else fails. I mean with cash I bet I could have paid the policeman to not beat me with a stick and instead lend me his phone for a hotspot.
Panic buying in Cambodia mainly involves eggs, rice and canned fish. Toilet paper is not essential thanks to ubiquitous bidet bum guns
 Cambodia runs on both US dollars and the local currency – the Riel. This is due to the central bank being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, with all currency then eliminated and a lack of faith in the reintroduced local currency ever since.