7 Things I’ve Learned About Cambodia

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7 things I've learned in Cambodia

I have to admit the I really didn’t make the time to study up on Cambodia before visiting. The majority of my ‘trip planning’ occurred on the bus ride to the border. Some of these may be common knowledge to some of you, but they surprised me.

1. Money is crazy here. I knew that the US dollar was legal tender but I didn’t realize how prevalent it was. Draw money out of an ATM and you’ll receive crisp $20 and $50 bills. Pay for a meal in US dollars and the change will often be returned to you as Cambodian riel. The current exchange rate is 4200 riel to the dollar but most Cambodians round it off at 4000 to make things easier, bless their hearts.

To make things even more confusing, about half of the country accepts Thai baht as well. Your wallet will soon be filled with a mishmash of greenbacks, baht, and riel notes that feel just like monopoly money. Expect to waste many hours wondering whether or not you just overpaid that driver by $10.

2. In Phnom Penh, no one walks on the grass. I find this very charming. In this city of concrete and dust, large parks are surrounded by equally large sidewalks where people picnic, chat, and play badminton without setting foot on the greenery. Whatever you do, do not stray from the sidewalk — everyone will glare at you as if you’d just stomped on a puppy.

3. Traffic here is total chaos but it somehow works. People drive on all sides of the road or sidewalk in any and all directions, while traffic lights are ignored at all but the largest intersections. Drivers yield only slightly, so the preferred method of merging is to charge in without slowing down and see who gives first.

People drive on all sides of the road or sidewalk in any and all directions, while traffic lights are ignored at all but the largest intersections.

I experienced this on my first tuk tuk ride in Phnom Penh, when the driver drove full-speed into a cross-street full of fast-moving traffic. Somehow we emerged on the other side unscathed, but then had to do it again so I could return to the hotel and change my shorts.

4. It really is the Wild West
. As I was checking into my hotel on my first day in Siem Reap, the clerk asked me if I wanted to buy pot. Most restaurants in Siem Reap offer “happy” versions of everything on their menu where –instead of a plastic prize– you get a crazy pot buzz instead. The local gas station even has Viagra for sale at the counter, right next to the condoms and chewing gum.

5. Traveling in the off-season will not save you money. Because of the summer heat, a room with a fan (which goes for $5-6) seems extremely unappealing. After 40 years of strife and civil war, the Cambodian infrastructure is completely shot and all of the power plants are powered by diesel fuel. As a result, Cambodians pay nine times the average American cost per kilowatt. AC rooms cost roughly double what a fan-cooled room will run you.

6. The border crossing en route to Siem Reap isn’t that bad
. I’d heard horror stories of rip-offs and hassles, but found that it was fairly easy to navigate. As you walk to the border, you’ll encounter several touts who try to steer you into a bogus visa office, where you’ll pay 1,200 baht ($37 US) for a visa instead of the flat $20 US you’ll pay at the official visa office. When they approach you about a visa, simply ask “$20 visa?” and they’ll scowl dramatically, then leave you alone.

7. English is everywhere. It seems to be the unofficial second language and young Khmers are scrambling to master it. I’ve had fewer language hassles here than Thailand, by far. Older Khmers and people out in the rural areas will, however, just stare at you if you say anything more complicated than “hello”. If you need a translator, find a 5-year old.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam April 28, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Haha, very good. I had some of these same thoughts when traveling through Cambodia. The money is quite funny. I was definitely not expecting to get US dollars out of an ATM. Also, one thing I found interesting, particularly in Phnom Penh, was the prevalence of really nice, big, fancy cars, especially SUV’s. It’s really the only place in our travels through S. America, New Zealand, SE Asia, and India where we saw that. They seemed to be everywhere. Then you would turn the corner to complete and total squalor and filth. An interesting city and country to say the least.
.-= Adam´s last blog ..New News =-.

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wes April 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

yeah, there is obviously an extremely wealthy elite class in Cambodia and everyone gets out of their way when they roll through. My favorite SUV is the Lexus model — it has “LEXUS” written across the side of the car in huge letters, just so can’t confuse it with a cheaper brand ;)

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Peter J April 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Great read!! I can’t wait to goto Cambodia.

You mentioned the exchange rate is 4000 Riel for every US dollar. How much are common travel expenses (hotels, taxi fares, food) in Riel??

The fact that nobody steps foot on grass is certainly interesting, as well as the special Pot offer upon checking in.

Thanks for the tips!

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wes April 29, 2010 at 10:39 am

Cambodia is pretty cheap but it’s hard to give a single number for most things, as the prices in Phnom Penh are so much higher than the rest of the country. So far I’ve been spending about $12 US (50,000 riel) on an AC room, meals cost about $3 a plate (at a sit down restaurant), draft beer is $.75 if you search a bit, tuk tuks are a $2 minimum in PP, but less elsewhere. A large bottle of water costs $1 in the cities, but only half that in the boonies.

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Michael April 29, 2010 at 12:31 am

enjoy Kampot, great riverside vibe thereabouts, hit the Rusty Keyhole for a hearty serving of melt-in-yr-mouth BBQ pork ribs.
been out to Koh Tonsay yet?

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wes April 29, 2010 at 6:20 am

had the ribs last night and they’re amazing. it was too dark to get a photo or I would have done a blog post on them. Haven’t been to Rabbit Island yet — been on 2 wheels the last couple of days. Debating whether to check it out or head on to Sihanoukville next…

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Adam @Duty Free Living April 29, 2010 at 8:20 am

Agree with Michael’s comment regarding the ribs at the Rusty Keyhole. They are the best ribs I have ever had and the sunsets over the river in Kampot are phenomenal. Sunsets in Kep were also amazing.
.-= Adam @Duty Free Living´s last blog ..Financial Freedom for the timid Lifestyle Designer =-.

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wes April 29, 2010 at 10:34 am

yeah, the Rusty Keyhole is my new favorite dinner spot. Great sunsets and those ribs… I’m going back tonite to see if I can get a decent photo of the ribs. I seriously think they’re worthy of their own blog post…

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Dan - Voyagner May 19, 2010 at 10:09 am

Oh, yes those ribs. Even if I hated Kampot I’d go back just for those ribs.

At night there is a food van called La Lune outside HoD, they make an amazing bacon and egg burger too.
.-= Dan – Voyagner´s last blog ..Movie Review: The Art of Travel =-.

Nomadic Chick April 29, 2010 at 5:00 am

Great summary! It’s clear how much young Khmer’s are changing. When I was there in 2003, English was still Ferengi tinged weirdness.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Is The Nomadic Lifestyle Really Available To Everyone? =-.

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Gail April 29, 2010 at 8:06 am

The trick we learned to crossing the streets (because no, there do not appear to be traffic laws of any kind) is to watch for a monk and cross with them (nobody would hit a monk, right?)

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wes April 29, 2010 at 10:35 am

Nice! I did a similar thing in Italy years ago — drafted behind a little old lady everytime I crossed the street.

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Jaffee Yee April 29, 2010 at 9:31 am

Hello Johnny and all:
My first visit to Cambodia was in 1993 before the election when UN blue berets were everywhere. I checked in the old rat-hole Royal for a few bucks (today The Raffles for a few hundreds bucks) and decided to eat something in front of the hotel. As I was sitting there, I saw other guests all coming in with big plastic bags and finally only realized that they were riels for the meals. The next day, I went to Diethelm Tours to arrange an overnight trip to Siem Reap. I was jokingly telling the manager that I had no cash. She responded by saying, “do you want to be the first man to ever use a credit card in Cambodia?”. I was absolutely flabbergasted and said “YES, why not” as I even thought she was joking too. But, no there were a couple of AMEX representatives sitting there waiting for their first customer! And little did I realize that I had make history in Cambodia’s tourism.
Jaffee Yee

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wes April 29, 2010 at 10:33 am

Wow, great story!

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Candice April 29, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Damn, that’s a pretty crazy statistic about the power plants. And I’m a total ditz when it comes to handling money, my head would probably explode.
.-= Candice´s last blog ..Finally, the Passion Board Unveiled =-.

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Andi April 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

These are such helpful tips!!! I can’t wait to visit Cambodia one day. :)
.-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

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Sokunthea Waring May 11, 2010 at 5:47 am

Everything that you describe sound funny to me even though i know it’s true.I am Cambodian and i am so exited to know that there are a lots of foreigners who were interested in visiting Cambodia .
Follow his experience and you should be fine !
Sokunthea,

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wes May 11, 2010 at 8:00 am

Thanks! I really enjoyed my time in Cambodia and am looking forward to heading back in a week.

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Sokunthea Waring July 19, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Have fun over there. You should try going snuggling on the island In Sihanouk Ville. The boat will bring you to 4 different island,They’re so coooool. They also serve you lunch too. I think it cost like $12 for the whole trip !

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deputu May 31, 2010 at 10:15 pm

It’s not so different with my lovely country Indonesia.

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axel g June 1, 2010 at 1:35 am

I was in Cambodia briefly in 2005.

To me, Laos and Cambodia are quite similar both when it comes to infrastructure and culture.

It’s a nice part of the world +_+

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Ben July 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Having crossed the border to Cambodia en route to Siem Reap within the past 15 months, I thought I would add that the experience can be a little more difficult. I was taken to purchase a bogus visa for 1200 baht, and, knowing this was bogus, I huffed and puffed about $20. The tout proceeded to take us next door to the Cambodian consulate where we were still charged 1200 baht. At that point I knew I had been had, but it was a consulate so how can you argue? (While there is a chance it was an elaborate scheme, at a certain point it becomes to hard to continue to argue.) We were soon after taken to the border where I found that the $20 visa was not in fact a myth…

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wes July 11, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Yeah, those guys can be persistent. Every time I was approached by one, I’d just ask “$20 visa?” and they scowl and walk away…

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Luis Claudio July 19, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I love it in Cambodia.. ive been there about 6 times and will be going there again next year. I grew up with Cambodians so i have a special place in my heart for Cambodia =)

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wes July 20, 2010 at 8:23 am

I can’t wait to go back. Beautiful place and people.

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Jeremy January 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

Agree totally, particularly about the money! However, if you think the traffic here is bad, try India!

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wes January 22, 2012 at 11:52 am

India is pretty rough. I think it’s a tie between India and Vietnam so far for the worst traffic…

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