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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.