Budget your trip: Cambodia

Is Cambodia expensive?

Cambodia, despite the fact it’s a very poor country is actually one of the most expensive countries to visit as a tourist/traveler in the whole South East Asia. There are a couple of reasons for that. It is partially due to the lack of  public infrastructure. With no bus stations as such, all transport is in hands of the agencies which use different prices for the tourists and for the locals. You would encounter different sets of prices in many shops and markets in the touristic areas. Perhaps most importantly, prices of all the tourist attractions ridiculously high, much higher than in any of the neighbouring countries, including Thailand.

Walking under the roots of a giant tree which grew into the walls of temple in Angkor Wat complex

Our backpacking route

We travelled around Cambodia for one month in June/July 2018. To be more precise, we spent the first two weeks in Siem Reap and used the remaining fortnight to travel on a route: Siem Reap- Kampong Cham- Kratie- Phnom Penh- Kampot- Sihanoukville-Kep. Due to the time restrictions and weather, we skipped remote east and south west of the country (Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces) known for pristine rain forests.

A driver tanking petrol to a new bus and female street hawkers with their merchandise on the head

Eating out

Exactly opposite to Thailand, there are very few cheap dining options and they are not good value for money. The local restaurants somehow remained inaccessible for us- we felt very unwelcome every time we tried to enter one. This forced us to eat at the backpacker-geared restaurants where the simplest meal cost $2. If the town is big enough to have a market, it’s a great place to have a morning meal. In Phnom Penh you can have breakfast and lunch at a day market and a dinner at a night market.

Grilled snacks and noodle soup spread on a straw mat at the market in Phnom Penh

Water

The affordable water is not a problem in Cambodia. Most of the hostels and backpacker-oriented restaurants have water refills, either free or for a nominal price.

Transportation

Public transportation

For a long-distance travel, the only option are buses or minivans booked via agent/ guesthouse. The only existing train line stretches between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. The train is cheap and empty but very, very cold.

Vehicle rental

For getting around, renting a bicycle or (outside Siem Reap area) a scooter is the best option, cheaper than relying on tuk-tuks. Bear in mind the roads are in terrible condition, often without tarmac, so you have to be a confident driver.

Taxis

If you need to use a tuk-tuk, make sure that you do it via PassApp (application similar to Uber) to avoid overpricing. There are two kinds of tuk-tuks plying Cambodian roads: most commonly, a normal motorcycle pulling a remorque and sometimes imported Indian auto-rickshaws (small and compact three-wheelers). There is no difference in the price between the two.

Getting on a bike on a grassy tip of an island on the Mekong in Kratie

Accommodation

One thing that is certainly cheap in Cambodia is accommodation. In some places, you can get a hammock on a roofed terrace for $2 a night and a shared bathroom hut for $4. A nice en-suite room would cost you around $8.

Wooden sunbeds on the beach and a row of bamboo huts in Otres

Over-pricing

Charging excessively is ubiquitous at the most popular tourist destinations: Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Places like Kratie or Kampot are much better in this respect. Paying more than the locals is also unavoidable with bus/shared taxi travel.

Currency

Two currencies in use in Cambodia are Cambodian riel (of a very low value, hence multiple zeros on the notes) and US dollars.

The universally agreed exchange rate on the streets is $1 to 4000 Riel. Contrary to what I heard from some visitors to Cambodia, simply asking for the price to be given in riel is not going to change anything: it would be converted to equivalent in riels.

Note that dollars circulate only in Siem Reap, Batambong, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh and within the tourism industry. In Cambodian countryside, people use only the local currency so it’s good to have a large stock of riels.

No cent coins are used in Cambodia so the change will be given always in Cambodian riels. Keep in mind that old and torn US dollar notes are not accepted in Cambodia.

Overall cost of backpacking in Cambodia

Flights

The flights to Cambodia, whether to Siem Reap or to capital Phnom Penh, are likely to be expensive so if you don’t mind inconvenience and you’re not in a terrible rush, buy a ticket to Bangkok and cross the border by land or by air.

It might be cheaper to break your air journey and get a budget airline ticket from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Be aware that the domestic flights use different airport so it’d only work if you don’t need the visa for Thailand (most of the Western and South American countries don’t).

Visa

Visa to Cambodia is quite affordable and completely hassle-free. A one month visa on arrival cost just $30. No flight tickets or accommodation bookings are needed. You just need to pay and hand one photo.

Expenses per day

Without counting getting to and from Cambodia or the cost of the visa, we spent as a couple £11 per person per day. It’s a lot, considering that we didn’t pay for the accommodation for the first two weeks of our stay, we didn’t travel from place to place that much and we avoided costly activities.

Low/high season

We visited Cambodia in June/July which is the beginning of the wet season. However, so long as we kept to the interior, we couldn’t feel the monsoon at all. Not a drop of rain fell until we reach the coast.

The author looking at the Mekong river from a boat in Kratie

Unfortunately, visiting the Cambodian coast in July was suicidal. I read on the weather for travellers website later that July is the peak of precipitation for this region of the country. It was very rainy indeed and quite chilly for most of our stay there. Much depends on the luck, though as our few days long stay in Kampot was mostly sunny.

The author makes a sad face when she covers her head with a hood of a waterproof jacket next to a half-submerged pier at the seaside in Kep

Expenses by destination

SIEM REAP AND AROUND

Siem Reap itself wasn’t an expensive place to stay or eat. Getting around was easy as could be done either on foot or by bicycle (which was really cheap to rent). However, there wasn’t much to do in Siem Reap- all the attractions: Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, Phnom Kulen National Park and Tonle Sap lake lie outside. And all of those attractions were horrendously expensive.

A characteristic statue of a lion and some stupas at the temple in Siem Reap

Sample prices in Siem Reap:

$2.50 cheapest vegetarian meal in a backpackers restaurant
$1-1.50 small portion of vegetarian noodles from the street stall
$0.75 fresh coconut from a local shop
$0.80 a packet of local cigarettes
$0.50 sticky rice with banana (street snack)
$7 bus to Kampong Cham
$5 tuk-tuk ( via PassApp) from Siem Reap centre to the gate of Angkor Wat
$2 one day bike rental
$12 entrance to Angkor National Museum
$14 cheapest apsara show with a buffet meal
$1 T-shirt from the street stall

ALONG THE MEKONG

Kampong Cham isn’t particularly pretty so apart from the Mekong and the nearby Khmer ruins there is nothing that would keep you longer here. The tourist infrastructure is minimal, limited to the river-front hostels, hotels and local and tourist-oriented restaurants. The prices at the market are fair and it’s easy to rent a bicycle from a hostel.

A lion statue overlooking Mekong in Kampong Cham

Sample prices in Kampong Cham:

$9 en-suite, A/C room in a riverfront hostel
$2.50 cheapest meal at the hostel’s restaurant
$1.25 one pomelo
$0.10 a street snack
$5 shared cab to Kratie
$1.50 bicycle rental
$1 entrance fee to the pre-angkorian ruins of Nokor Bachey

Kratie is a lovely, chilled-out town at the Mekong, perfect to hang around for a couple of days. The prices at the local market are affordable, the accommodation is very cheap and good value for money as well. The most affordable way to explore surroundings is by bicycle, followed by a scooter. The river dolphin trip is surprisingly and unusually affordable. All the restaurants and hostels offer cheap water-bottle refills.

Wide Mekong river in Kratie

Sample prices in Kratie:

$6 a large double room with fan and shared bathroom with a Mekong view
$2.50 cheapest meal at a backpacker restaurant
$0.60 coffee
$7 bus to Phnom Penh
$2 bicycle hire
$0.75 ferry to and from Koh Trong island
$9 river dolphin boat tour

THE CAPITAL

Phnom Penh doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sightseeing apart from pretty gruesome but in my opinion must see sights related to the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s a cheap city to stay, with A/C public buses and lots of food markets.

Multiheaded snakes decorate the balustrades of the tall staircase leading to the main temple in Phnom Penh

Sample prices in Phnom Penh:

$1.50 vegetable noodles from the night market
$0.50 steamed peanuts
$0.60 pineapple (ready to eat)
$8 tuk tuk (Pass App) from city centre to Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and back
$7 bus to Kratie
$7 train to Kampot
$6.50 entrance to the genocide museum
$1 laundry

THE COAST

Bear in mind that those are prices in July, during the worst of the rainy season.

Kampot is another pleasant and chilled out Cambodian town. It is located at the riverbank between the coast and the mountains. The accommodation prices hit the rock bottom in Kampot and the local market is a great place to get affordable food. The best way to move around is renting a scooter since distances to many attractions are too large to manage on a bicycle.

A dirt road leading through a pepper plantation near Kampot

Sample prices in Kampot:     

                                                                                                                       $4.5 a night in a simple hut with a shared bathroom
$2 cheapest meal at the backpacker eatery on the other side of the river         
$3 cheapest meal at the restaurant in old Kampot                                   $0.50-$1 coffee
$5 scooter rental for a day
$2-3 petrol for the day of driving the scooter

Nearby Kep located directly on the coast is much smaller which makes finding cheap food more tricky. The accommodation prices are as low as in Kampot. The Kep National Park can be explored by foot and the seasonal (dry season) salt fields or the famous crab market by bicycle but you’d need a scooter to get to the pepper plantations.

Woman in a hat picking up crabs from a cage submerged in the sea right next to the crab market in Kep

Sample prices in Kep:

$4 a simple room with shared bathroom (fan)
$3 cheapest meal at the guesthouse restaurant
$1 squid skewers at the Kep market
$1 one avocado
$8 van to Sihanoukville                                                                                  $7 van to Ha Tien (Vietnam)
$2 laundry

Sihanoukville proper is a huge (and ever-expanding) seaside resort with lots of large hotels. It’s not only ugly, it’s also very pricey, even in the wet season. Backpackers (us including) all head to Otres beach located a few kilometres outside Sihanoukville. It is much nicer and cheaper but be warned: huge development projects are on the way. You’ll see lots of cranes and high buildings rising in the distance. Peaceful time on the beach will be often interrupted by hawkers walking up and down the beach for the whole day long. With the lack of public transport, you’d have to rely on tuk-tuks (or have a long walk along the beach) to get from Otres to Sihanoukville.

A small tree grows on the empty, sandy beach in Otres

Sample prices in Sihanoukville:

$8 a simple hut with shared bathroom directly on Otres beach
$3 meal with a drink in Otres village
$0.50-0.75 coffee in Otres village
$6 van to Kampot
$2.50 tuk-tuk (PassApp) from Sihanoukville centre to Otres beach
$5 legs threading from a beach hawker

GENERAL EXPENSES:
$6 SIM card with calling credit and data for two weeks

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