Riel issues: Money matters in Cambodia

Today I’m going to talk about money.

I used a total of $366.85 for 12 days (11 in Cambodia, 1 in Vietnam) all in except for airfare. That means, on average, I spent about $30.57 per day. I got my round trip tickets for 5 nights in Siem Reap for RM150 but realized that I wanted more days, so I booked another flight home from Ho Chi Minh for RM200, bringing my total air tickets expenditure to RM350 more or less. That makes the grand total of my trip to about $454.

My expenditures are all in USD. This is because although Cambodia has it’s currency (riel), USD is the second official currency in Cambodia. The exchange rate as of my visit (Sept 2015) is 1 USD against 4000 Riels. I like to give dollars to vendors, but local vendors will almost always give your change in riels.  

Accommodation
It’s not difficult to get a hostel for less than $5, even with little to no research. Many hostels that are situated at convenient spots around town are offering that price tag or less. Some even offered that price tag for aircond!

For my first week in Cambodia, I stayed at Kochi-Ke Boutique Dormitory for $6 per night. I get a cozy little orange compartment to myself. I wasn’t very sure about the price because it seemed expensive, but after the first night, I’m really glad I had the foresight pay more for an air-con dorm. The Cambodian sun is not a force to be reckoned with. Besides, I love the open common room! I met some of the most interesting people on my trip (maybe even my life) here. It felt like home.

At Phnom Penh, I got a dorm bed in The White Rabbit, which is sort of street-themed hostel. Colorful graffiti adorned the walls of the common room/ reception/ bar. It looks badass! But once I got upstairs where the dorms are, I actually felt a tinge of disappointment. The room is what I’d expect a hostel to be: spartan with white walls and a metal bunk bed. But for $3 a night, I ought to be thankful for the wide, spacious bed with clean sheets. The White Rabbit is really proud of their entertainment system, and rightly so. They have free movies (I’m talking about Hollywood blockbusters, not Cambodian soap), PSP and a laptop ready for you. If you’re a sucker for beer, they serve 75 cents beer every Sunday. Worse case scenario, if you really get drunk, you could just go upstairs and sleep it off. Super convenient if you ask me.

I shared out the cost of a room of a guest house with Rabbit and Chelsy when in Kampot, which totaled to about $5.30 per night. I think I could stay in more promising places for that price tag. There are so many options to choose from even in a small rural town like Kampot. When Rabbit and Chelsy moved to Phnom Penh, I stayed at the mixed dorm in Hour Kheang guesthouse for $3 a night. There’s no hot shower and the toilet is a little dirty, and I’m pretty sure there are bugs on the sheets. But I really prefer this guesthouse over the last as it opened up opportunities for me to talk to other people. 

Most of the hostels offered online are equipped with Wifi, so no worries about staying connected with the modern world. A word of advice, book hostel one day before going to wherever you want to go. Calm down, you frantic planners. Firstly, you might get a discounted price for booking last second. Secondly, it gives you flexibility to plan your travels. You don’t have to feel obligated to move to wherever you want to go just because you booked a room there. I burnt $3 for pre-booking a hostel in Battambang when I decided to stay at Siem Reap for the volunteer program. I wanted to stay at Stacey’s hostel when we reached Phnom Penh, but again, I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the $3 I spent on The White Rabbit.

Transport
Transportation is one of the most expensive part of my trip. Haggle, even if the tuk tuk driver seems really reluctant to decrease the price. Most are willing to go down a dollar or three, or even five. Don’t fear rejection. The competition between tuktuks are quite steep in places like Siem Reap, so someone will always take you. However, always remember that these people need the money more than you, so if you like the person and the price’s reasonable, hire him!

Transports to attractions are always shareable, I cannot stress this enough. If you’re not already travelling with a buddy, find a new travel buddy! I took the short circuit in Angkor Wat for $15 inclusive of free water by myself. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the trip before I got templed out, I kicked myself for spending so much. For example, a tuktuk to Beng Mealea costs $23, including a tip I wanted to give for the driver, but I paid only $13 because I shared it out with Cho.

Intercity buses are quite cheap compared to tuktuks. I took a sleeper bus by Virak Buntham to Phnom Penh for $10. It’s kind of like a futon style bed fitted snugly into a shelf-like compartment that you share with another person. Great if you’re travelling with a buddy, not so much if you have to share the space with a stranger. I’ve read bad things about this company, but that experience didn’t apply to me. The whole journey was smooth, I slept like a dead man on the bus and we reached 2 hours earlier than expected. I travelled by Rith Mony from Phnom Penh to Kampot for $8. My God, it’s hell. I couldn’t fully comprehend why people get annoyed with Cambodian karaoke until this fateful trip. A 3 1/2 hour destination became 5 because the driver kept stopping to do favours or pick up locals. It’s a nice sentiment and almost inspirational. But excuse me for wanting to get to Kampot quickly.

I bought a ticket from Ana, the tuk-tuk driver that brought me to the pepperfarm and Kep to get to Ho Chi Minh ($17). The price varies with different agencies but I think it all originated from Kampot Tours and Travels. Make sure to arrange transport to get to the office though. I almost got a panic attack when no one fetched me from my guesthouse on the designated time. Ana had to come get me in the end. 

Food
Food is actually very affordable. My average dinner is about $3, but I do eat fancier for a maximum of $5. My iron tummy pulled through, but Chelsy got a bad case of diarrhea towards the end of her trip. Fortunately, restaurants and coffee shops aren’t really a rare commodity in Siem Reap. You can get good food for as low as $3! The most expensive meal I ate is at Kep, which costs me $5, which is still cheap considering it’s crab seafood friend rice plus iced tea at a tourist hotspot.

Attractions

Most attractions in Cambodia doesn’t require an entrance ticket. A bulk of my money on entrance tickets is spent on the Angkor Pass, which costs $40 for 3 days. It doesn’t have to be consecutive, but I have 3 days in a week to go to the Parks. If you’re here for a shorter time, go for the 1 day pass for $20. If you’re here to stay, go for the week pass, which costs 60 dollars, but you could choose any 7 days in a month to visit the park. Beng Mealea is not considered as part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, so you’d have to get the ticket for $5.
The history museum in Siem Reap costs $13 for the tickets and $2 for the audio guide, but gives you a $2 discount when you book online. I booked on 12am in the morning when I wanted to go and it worked out just fine. You’d pay at the counter instead of doing an online transaction.

I also paid $12 for the Apsara dance I went to on my first day in Siem Reap. Since it’s $12 inclusive of a buffet and performances, I figured that it’s quite worth it. I find the food so-so only and I didn’t really understand the dance, so it’s kind of a waste of money for me. However, I liked the banquet concept and I made some friends there as well. One of those friends, Hidah, told me that the dances at the cultural village is way better and entertaining for $15! So if you’re big into culture and don’t really care for a buffet, you could check out the cultural village.  

The ticket to Tuol Sleng Genocide museum in Phnom Penh costs $3. The guides speak English and more often than not, they’ll have a personal story to tell you. It’s completely up to you whether you want to pay them or not, but I would strongly recommend at least $5 for their hard work. Try not to go to Tuol Sleng on a Sunday as not many guides are available on a Sunday. You might have to share the guide with a large group of people.

Miscellaneous
To be fair, most of my miscellaneous expenditures aren’t big budgets. Most of the time, it’s just $1 or $2. But once you lose track of it like I did, small dollars mutate and become big bucks!

One of my most unnecessary expenditure is on bottled water. Basically you could get water everywhere from 2000r (that’s 50 cents USD) to $2 for a 500ml bottle. I ended up with so many water bottles that I couldn’t really make use of and I had to throw them away inconspicuously because I felt so self conscious throwing away something completely reusable. Try to get a hostel with a water filter so you could refill your bottle again and again. It’s economical and it’s environmentally friendly as well.

I spent a shit ton on money on useless stuff too. For starters, I indulge myself in massages offered by Cambodian girls. It’s not really good to be honest and I almost regret every one of those massages. Most of those girls doesn’t look willing and/or trained to massage at all. I think I spent about $10 on massages. Then I shopped and got more elephant pants. After that, I got an replacement Cambodian phone card when I’m two days away from leaving Cambodia to console my anxious desire to stay connected to everyone else.

One of my proudest buys is a book from Bou Meng, one of the two that survived Tuol Sleng. It’s an honest account of a man trapped and waiting to die. In many paragraphs, he did not try to make himself seem noble or great. He wants to survive and he will do anything to survive. This is real life. If you have extra cash to spare, considering buying his book and/or Chum Mei’s, which is the other survivor. It’s a history lesson in itself.

To summarize, is Cambodia cheap?
Absolutely doable. I wasn’t stringent with my money and I wasn’t looking where I was spending my money. On 20/20 hindsight, I could probably have cut about 10%-20% from my grand total have I not spent it on indulging my desires. That said, I think that your budget should make you happy. Sure, save a few bucks here and there. But don’t forget to reward yourself too.

As much as I love to believe that travelling could be free, I can’t. Budgeting to travel is a substantial part of travelling. Only through this, I learnt what is important to me. I could pay $10 for a book but I couldn’t find the heart to part with my $2 for an air-con room. That’s what matters to me, to find new things about myself. And I think that that’s a fair price to pay.

Love,
Lynn.

October 16, 2015
January 1, 2016

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