By: Gabi Yetter
In this article Gabrielle Yetter gives us insight into living costs in Cambodia. What does a meal at a restaurant costs? And a night in a Phnom Penh guesthouse? And a chocolate milkshake?
In the restaurant down the road from my office, the menu offers Bacardi for $2.50. A chocolate milkshake costs $3.00.
Our local vegetarian restaurant has menu items for $1 and $2 and, last night, five of us dined on enormous plates of fresh steamed dumplings, eggplant tossed in garlic, sautéed kale and crisp scallion pancakes (with several bottles of beer) for less than $5 per person (with tip).
Dining in Cambodia is cheap. You can get by on approximately $6 for three good meals if you eat local. But that’s not all that comes with a low price-tag in this country.
Almost everything is more economical than anywhere we’ve ever lived or visited. And, the funny thing is, our quality of life is the same (or better) than we had back home in the U.S. or Europe.
Here’s an overview of some of the costs of living in Phnom Penh:
Transportation – Taking a tuktuk anywhere around town costs $2 for the ride. Motos are cheaper at $1. A bus to Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam costs $12; to Kampot or Kep (3 1/2 hours drive on the south coast) is $4 and the bus to Koh Kong (near the Thai border) is $10 (for a five hour ride). Buses are air-conditioned with bathrooms (if they work) and TV screens showing movies and Cambodian karaoke.
Groceries – Many things cost about the same as back home if you shop in the large supermarkets such as Lucky or Pencil, where you can get anything you want…Marmite, Nutella, Pringles chips, yogurt, cereal, packaged pancake mixes, biscuits, cheese and so on.
However, if you shop in local, open-air markets, you’ll get much better deals, along with fresh produce, interesting sights and smells and lots of smiles. Orussey Market is a gargantuan covered market in the heart of town and offers everything you want (and don’t want) – from a packet of nails to a plastic bowl to Chinese sculptures, cheap clothes, electric fans, freshly cooked Cambodian food, blankets, towels, a new TV or DVD player – all under one roof. Bargaining is common and, depending on the vendor, you may save a few dollars by playing the game or walking away and waiting for the inevitable drop in price.
Clothes – You can get cheap stuff in the markets (I bought two tops for $5 in the Russian Market) or higher-end stuff in the fancier shops. You can also get clothing made at one of the hundreds of tailors around town. I was quoted $19 to have a dress copied (fabric is an additional $5 – $9 depending on the selection) and had leather shoes custom-made at Beautiful Shoes on Street 143 for less than $20.
Internet – There are internet cafes everywhere which cost around 50 cents for an hour (and a couple of coffee shops with free computer usage). To install wireless at home, our internet provider cost $55 to set up and an additional $25/month for unlimited access.
Pampering – In this part of the world, one of the true perks is access to cheap massages which usually cost $7 – $10 for a one-hour foot massage or full-body massage. I’ve seen them advertised for as low as $2 and there are “luxury” places where you can spend $30 or more for a more upscale experience. Despite the low prices, many of them are elegant and charming (one place has a floating bowl of lilies under the massage table and presents you with fruit and tea while waiting for your bill).
If you want a haircut, you’ll see places on the street charging a dollar (not my salon of choice) or you can pay “upscale” prices, which range from $5 to $35 depending where you go. One of my favorite places is De Gran Salon which makes you feel like royalty – $20 for a haircut with a professional Japanese stylist while everyone bows, pampers you with kindness and, for an additional $5, gives the best shampoo/head massage imaginable.
Exercise – There are a number of health clubs in town ranging from the very basic (no air-conditioning) to the ultra exclusive (at $150 per month). We go to Muscle Fitness which charges $20 for a book of 10 passes and has basic air-conditioning. There are also a couple of yoga studios which charge between $5 and $9 for drop-in classes.
Accommodation – You’ll find many cheap and decent places around town that provide simple, clean lodging. The Spring guesthouse where we stayed for almost four weeks charges $10 per night for a room with air-conditioning and a bathroom with a shower and was perfectly satisfactory.
In Kampot, we splurged on a lovely room in a beautiful guesthouse on the river which cost $35 for the room (including a sumptuous breakfast). And in Siem Reap, the Tanei guesthouse is a delightful spot with free breakfast, swimming pool and transportation from the bus station costing less than $25 for the night.
When it comes to long-term lodging, rental costs vary according to the neighborhood, with the riverside and BKK1 (the expat area) generally charging higher prices. Apartments often come furnished and include things like cable TV, internet, air con and utilities (electricity is usually extra). You can find a decent place for as little as $200 or $300 per month or a fancier serviced apartment at more than $1,000 per month (with amenities such as swimming pool, 24-hour security and fitness center).
Entertainment – Meta House, the art-house run by the Goethe Institute, shows movies five nights a week on their rooftop theater. The cost? Nothing. They like you to buy a drink while you watch the show but, at $2 – $3 per drink, it’s the best deal around. And The Flicks is a delightful movie-house where, for $3.50, you can curl up on a padded futon in an air-conditioned room with a pizza, popcorn and a beer (priced accordingly) and watch a recent release of an English-language film (you can also request meal service and they’ll send out for dinner for you).
For more unusual entertainment, there’s Formula One go-carting at Kambol F1, the Phnom Penh Shooting Range and the Phnom Penh Bowling Alley. Or you can spend the weekend bar-hopping, cycling on the other side of the Tonle Sap or sitting by a pool in one of the nice hotels.
While Phnom Penh may not have the sophistication or activities of Singapore, Paris or Sydney, I’d be willing to bet there aren’t many places where, for less than $20, you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner out, go to a movie then pamper yourself with a foot massage and a tall glass of fresh mango juice.