Cambodia is cheap, but you still need to budget if you want to see the dreaming spires of Angkor Wat and explore the country’s amazing countryside. Don Morgan breaks down the day to day costs of backpacking in Cambodia
There’s something about Cambodia. Of the ‘big four’ mainland south-east Asia counties (the other three being Thailand, Laos and Vietnam), Cambodia has some of the biggest drawbacks: it’s one of the poorest, the most dangerous, subject to the most corruption, and has the worst infrastructure. And yet, the experienced travelers I meet, time and again, tell me that Cambodia is their favourite of the four. It’s not just the allure of Angkor Wat. The people here just seem more genuine, their complicated history is still palpable and fascinating, even today, and Phnom Penh is a better place to party and meet other travelers than Bangkok.
In my experience, I spend about as much per day in Cambodia as in the other countries. Cambodia’s currency is the riel and it’s pegged at about 4,000 to the USD (currently 3,936.25, but it fluctuates a bit). If you’re dealing in another currency, try thinking in dollars, or check out Travelhappy’s currency converter for the current rate.
Cambodian Money – Riel and US Dollars
The riel is a closed currency, so you won’t be able to get a hold of any before arrival, unless you meet a fellow traveler that still has a pocketful. Crossing most borders, you’ll be approached by ‘exchange ladies’ with think stacks of riel looking to trade them for your baht, dong or US dollars—they may even know the value of your Aussie dollars, Canadian dollars, or pounds sterling better than you do! They will try hard to make numbers dance around in your head until you have no idea that you just got ripped off. Don’t hand over the currency you are exchanging until you’ve counted out the riel they plan to give you, and don’t let them rush you. Just exchange enough to get you to the next stop on your trip. If you have US dollars or Thai Baht, these are as good as cash to most vendors and service providers. Same for Vietnamese Dong in Phnom Penh. Currency exchange is a fine art in Kampuchea, mostly due to the fact that almost any other currency is more desirable than the riel. Many travelers are shocked to find that even the ATMs here dispense US dollars! But, if you look at the poor state of the riel (bills physically falling apart) it’s easy to see that they would just jam up the machines.
The unpopularity of the riel is due, in part, to it’s relative newness on the world scene. It’s interesting to note that between 1975 and 1980, the Khmer Rogue abolished money. When the new regime finally issued notes in 1980, they had to give them to people in order to encourage their use. A quarter of a century later, confidence in the riel has not increased dramatically, and the wise Cambodian keeps a sock full of baht and dollars tucked under the mattress, just in case.
Big cities have myriad exchange booths, and you’ll find even in remote places, many locals know what dong, dollars and baht are worth, so don’t hesitate to travel around with some of those in your pocket. I found the exchange rates in Phnom Penh to be quite fair—they post the rates and update them daily at most exchange shops.
Coins exist but are not frequently used. Bills start at 50 riel, or 0.012 USD. I always think of them as a fat penny. Notes go up from there: 100 riel (half a nickel), 500 riel (a ‘bit’) 1000 riel (a quarter), 2000 riel (a half-dollar), 5000 riel (a fat dollar bill worth 1.2 USD) 10,000 (a 2.5-dollar bill!) 20,000 (a 5 dollar bill) and 50,000 (a fat ten-spot worth 12 USD). That’s the largest bill in circulation, so if you cash 1000 USD at the bank, be prepared to receive a stack of at least 80 notes!
Buses, Trains And Motorbikes In Cambodia
Traveling from city to city, chances are, you’ll be taking the bus. There’s one train a week, on Sundays, last I heard, from Phnom Penh to Battambang for 22,00 riel, and maybe another one to Sihanoukville. Buses are usually air-con, with no toilets, though they stop for breaks. You’ll pay just under a dollar for every scheduled hour on the road, and you probably won’t be on an inter-city bus for more than 7 or 8 hours max. Boat trips run about the same, with the exception of the popular six-hour trip between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh—currently about 22 USD. In most smaller cities, you’ll get around by moto-dop (motorcycle taxi) and short trips should only cost a couple thousand riel. I hired a driver on a daily basis while I was reviewing Phnom Penh for 10 USD per day, but 6 USD is also possible. Remorques are a distinctive Cambodia phenomenon in the big cities—basically a carriage with a motorcycle instead of a horse. These start at about 1 USD for a short trip, but seat up to four comfortably.
Flights To Cambodia
Thae main air routes into Cambodia are the pretty expensive Bangkok to Siem Reap route with Bangkok Airways (see Skyscanner for current prices) or the much cheaper Bangkok to Phnom Penh route with AirAsia. See Angkor Wat from Bangkok for more info.
Rooms in Cambodia start at 2 USD (or less) but expect something really, really awful for this price. I don’t mind a charmingly squalid room now and again, but even I avoided these ones. Look for reasonable cheapies in the 4 to 5 dollar range, with a fan and maybe your own commode and cold-water shower. Ten dollars can get you a fine room, if somewhat cramped, with hot-water bathroom, a bathtub, and satellite TV – maybe even something of a view. Mid-range travelers won’t need to go over 20 USD a night for a more spacious offering with better service and attention to detail. Luxury rooms are available here as elsewhere, for the 100 USD a night and up crowd.
Cambodian food has its fans and detractors – I certainly had some tasty meals, but also some of the most inedible food I’ve had in the region. You can get one of Cambodia’s signature dishes, lok lak, which is basically saute’ed beef with French fries and veggies, for two or three dollars on the street, more in a restaurant. You can also get an all-you-can-eat Thali-feast at an Indian restaurant on Boengkak Lake for two bucks. I found pizzas starting at 4 USD (good ones, too) and, of course, you can go for a splurge at 50 USD a head and get a meal you’d pay twice that much for back home.
Beer And Cigarettes In Cambodia
The wages of sin in Cambodia are pretty low (or high, depending on how you look at it). Cheapo, local ciggies start at 1 to 1,500 reil, and even a pack of Marlboro Lights will go for 3,000. A bottled beer, even in a relatively posh place like the FCC in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh (you’ll figure out what it is when you get there) goes for only 4,000 reil–same for a cool mug of Angkor Draft at your favorite outdoor cafe-restaurant. And a can of local brew, like Crown Beer, is 2,000 reil at a shop, fresh from a big plastic cooler.
Cambodia Internet Cafes
Internet is widely available in tourist centres—not as ubiquitous as Vietnam and Thailand, but a lot better than Laos. Rates start at 2,000 riel per hour (50 cents). In more remote areas it may be harder to find and rates can jump up to 12,000 riel per hour.
Day To Day Budget In Cambodia
Provided you always find yourself a 5-dollar room, eat 2-dollar meals, spend 2-dollars on local transport, and take a six-dollar bus trip every two or three days, I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to do Cambodia (and enjoy it at all) for less than 15 USD a day. Bumping it up to 20 will allow you to eat and drink with more gusto. A midrange couple may want to budget 60 USD a day—20 USD for a room, 25 USD for food and drink, and 15 for getting around by taxi and everything else. But in smaller cities, even if you have the money, you’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than 15 USD. Of course, you’ll have to budget your Angkor Wat entry ticket separately—20 USD for one day, 40 USD for 3 days, and 60 USD for 7 days.
ATMs in Cambodia
The most foreigner-friendly bank in Cambodia is ANZ Royal, and to the extent you see ATMs in Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and at the airports, they are the ones that put them there. There’s one in Sisophon, but I have no confirmation that it takes international cards. I have no word that there are ATMs anywhere else in the country. Credit-card advances are not routine in most banks, so stock up on cash before you hit the far-flung places. Cards on the Plus System, Cirrus, and Maestro seem to work find, among others. Machines dispense US 10s, 20s, and 50s. The only 24-hour ATMs are at ANZ Branches proper, and at Total Service Stations. The others close for the evening. For a good map of ATM locations in Phnom Penh, and further info, check out this link.
Beware Counterfeit Bills
In general, keep an eye out for counterfeit bills and have suspicious notes checked out by a bank. Also, bills that are worn, torn or written on may be rejected. Because ATMs are not to be found everywhere, it’s a good idea to have a hundred or so US dollars in crisp new bills of small denomination hidden in your pouch somewhere for an emergency. American Express Travelers’ checks are also more widely accepted here than in other countries where ATM penetration has made them almost obsolete, so a couple of those in your pouch makes sense, too. Expect a 2% surcharge per note.
Visas And Travelling To Cambodia From Thailand
If you’re arriving from Thailand, one place NOT to cut corners is on a mini-bus trip from Kho San Road to Siem Reap. If the price sounds too-good-to-be-true, it definitely is. Take the train or bus to the Aranyaprathet border, and local transport from Poipet to Siem Reap. The Bangkok/Aranyaprathet train is one of my favorite rides in Thailand—it takes 5 1/2 hours and only costs 48 THB! Then you can pay about 10 USD for the 6-hour bus from the other side to Siem Reap. How much cheaper do you want it to be? Also consider how much more you’d be willing to pay to do it in 45 minutes—Bangkok Airways flies from Suvarnabhumi to Siem Reap for 210 USD.
Getting visa’d up in Cambodia is relatively cheap and quite easy—most international borders offer a 20 USD visa-on-arrival. If you’re not sure about a particular border, get a visa in advance, and guess what? You can now do this on-line!. Go to www.evisa.mfaic.gov.kh and give it a try.
Whatever your budget, be sure to pencil in some ‘mad money.’ Cambodia has a way of seducing travelers into staying longer than they planned and spending more than they have!