Phnom Penh has been a capital city of Cambodia since 1866. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was the capital city of the Khmer empire – one of the major powers in Asia, covering area of today’s Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Nowadays, Phnom Penh is the second most visited city in Cambodia after Siem Reap. And Cambodia itself is becoming more popular with travelers, including career breakers.
The more tourists, the higher prices – that is one of the rules in Cambodia. Therefore, traveling in the area on a budget is getting more and more difficult. However, you can still add Phnom Penh to your career break itinerary and explore the city on the cheap by following some of these tips:
1. Never stay at The Lake area
All backpackers, once they get to the city, head straight to the Lake area in order to find a cheap accommodation. This area is full of cheap hostels; however once you stay anywhere else in Phnom Penh, you can save a lot of money finding much cheaper and nicer places to stay overnight.
2. Use local transport, avoid taxis and tuk-tuks
Phnom Penh is one place in Cambodia where there is a great variety of transport to choose from, so you can easily get around the city anytime you want. Various means of transport require different amount of money, so knowing the prices is one of the most useful thing to know. Especially when you are a budget traveler.
If you want to save some money, take local buses. They are slow, old, smoky and terribly loud, but also the cheapest when it comes to price. They run on long routes as well as short distances and you can catch them from nearly any street. You also do not need to book them in advance as the tickets are always available. Tickets can usually be purchased at points scattered around guesthouses and hostels. Moreover, you can rent a bike for just 1 or 2 dollars per day, which would be worth it in a long run.
Avoid taking motorbikes, taxis and tuk- tuks. Prices for the ride are always different as they must be agreed before you decide to take a ride and you need to bargain a lot. Otherwise, you will get ripped off, just like most tourists. If the driver does not want to give you a reasonable price, then turn around and keep walking till he starts shouting after you. That is the best way of negotiating the price you really want. Most of the prices start from 4000 Riels ($1) no matter how long your ride is.
Shared taxis are a nightmare. These are ordinary cars which can carry up to 8 people (passenger sitting next to the driver pays double). Car rental is horribly expensive. Road conditions also leave much to be desired – but the main routes (kept in good condition) are mostly sandy, rocky and dangerous. The only place you should go by car with a driver is to Phnom Kulen near Siem Reap. Prices are high but as long as you travel with more than 3 people, they are still affordable.
3. Grab local street food, avoid restaurants with foreign food
You are in Cambodia, so use this opportunity and eat as much local food as possible. As you will notice, street food is sold everywhere, nearly 24/7 and there is a great variety, ranging from noodle soup to any rice meals, so there is no way you will not find the food that you like. Are you a big fan of fruits and vegetables? That’s great. You can find vegetable and fruit markets on every corner. Bargain a lot in order to get as low price as possible.
Take some fellow travelers with you so you can order more dishes and pay less and the bill will be shared. Never dine out in restaurants where foreign food is being served. These are the most expensive places where you pay some extra money for the service. Want to have a nice burger or a pack of fries? Wait till you get back home, it will taste much better. Swap your McDonald’s meal for a huge bowl of rice – it’s much healthier and cheaper!
4. Learn some Khmer
Depending on how long you are planning to stay in Phnom Penh (or any place in Cambodia), knowing some basic Khmer words can help you a lot, especially with haggling. As you probably know, going off-the-beaten-path places is much cheaper, but also more difficult when it comes to interactions with local people. Therefore, in order to understand people and be understood, buy a mini dictionary and try to learn some words by heart. Keep practicing every day and you will see how much your language skills will be appreciated by locals. The more words you learn and the more Khmer you can speak, the cheaper prices you can bargain.
5. Pay in local currency
Khmer people can be really tricky. They quote the prices in American dollars, but give you the change in their currency – riel. By doing this, they make you think the prices (in comparison to the prices in your home country) are still very low so you don’t need to bargain.
That is the most common rip-off in Cambodia. Before you purchase anything, check how much money locals pay for it and then you will know how much you should pay for it. You will probably pay more as Cambodians think it is unfair for foreigners to pay the same amount of money as locals, but you can at least know how far you are from the fixed local price.
Cambodia is still inexpensive compared to places in Western Europe, but you can keep your costs down – and immerse yourself more in the local culture – by keeping these tips in mind.
Agness Walewinder is a Polish vagabond who, after graduation, left her comfort zone and set off for a journey of her lifetime to China in 2011. She has been constantly traveling the world since then (slowly, but surely as she says), living like a local for less than $25 a day. She is a passionate photography and adventure blogger sharing her life enthusiasm and travel experience with everyone around. Follow her adventures on etramping.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.