Alongside the local currency, the riel, Cambodia has assimilated the US dollar into its economy, a situation that began with UNTAC in the early 1990s, when high-earning troops stationed in the country began spending their dollar salaries. Today you can use the dollar and riel interchangeably in all but a few cases.
Riel notes (there are no riel coins, nor is US coinage used in Cambodia) are available in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000. New notes were introduced in 2002, and now circulate alongside older notes and can be used interchangeably; you may also be passed an old 200 riel note, which is valid although no new notes of this denomination are being issued. The exchange rate is stable at around 4000 riel to the dollar; the best rates can be had in Phnom Penh, usually around Psar Thmei.
You can pay for most things solely in dollars, or solely in riel, or with a mixture of the two currencies; the larger the amount the more likely it is that the price will be quoted in dollars – note that the exchange rate when paying for dollar services in riel is inferior to the rate at the money changer by a few percent. Generally, you’ll be charged in dollars for accommodation, when shopping in supermarkets and malls or eating in Western restaurants, and when paying for air tickets and boat fares. In markets, at noodle shops and food stalls, and when using local transport (such as motos, tuk-tuks, buses and pick-ups) prices are generally in riel (unless you wish to hire transport for the day, in which case you’re likely to be quoted a dollar price). Things get a bit more confused near the Thai border, where people prefer to deal in Thai baht, or at Bavet, the Vietnamese border crossing where you may be quoted in dong. If you don’t have baht you can generally pay in US dollars or riel, though you might end up paying fractionally more – you can change riel and dollars into baht at banks and local money changers.
When paying in dollars, change will usually be given back in dollars for larger amounts, while for small sums and fractions of dollars you’ll be given riel.
Prices at deluxe hotels, shops, and all food stalls, noodle shops and restaurants are fixed, as are fares for flights, bus journeys and boat trips. However, when shopping in markets, taking motos, tuk-tuks or cyclos and hiring a car, bargaining is pretty much expected. Mid-range hotel prices can often be negotiated, although at the budget end, guesthouse owners will seldom budge on price, preferring to leave the room empty.
Carrying your money
Old fashioned as it is, the safest way to carry your money is still as US-dollar travellers’ cheques; with those from American Express the best known.
The usual fee for travellers’-cheque sales is one or two percent, though this may be waived if you buy the cheques through a bank where you have an account. It pays to get a selection of denominations. Make sure to keep the purchase agreement and a record of cheque serial numbers safe and separate from the cheques themselves. In the event that cheques are lost or stolen, the issuing company will expect you to report the loss forthwith, though none of the issuing companies is represented in Cambodia.
Instead of using a bank debit card you could consider a pre-paid travel money card from one of many providers, which can be loaded with an amount of money in a currency of your choice ($US), and then used in ATMs or to pay for services the same way as a credit or debit card; these have the security of not being associated with your bank account. Cards are usually issued free and are valid for a number of years (depending on the provider); many can be topped up by phone or internet while you are away. However, you will incur transaction charges when you use them, so check this with the issuer.
Arriving in Cambodia there are ATMs at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap inter-national airports and in the border areas at Poipet, Bavet and Koh Kong, so you can get $US cash as soon as you arrive. To change travellers’ cheques, however, you’ll need to get to a bank. Note also that unless you have obtained a Cambodian visa in advance, you’ll need $20 in cash to buy one on arrival.
Credit cards, banks and ATMs
An increasing number of places accept credit cards, typically mid- and upper-range hotels and Western-oriented restaurants and shops in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. While the use of credit cards is increasing it is not as prevalent as in the West; payment by card may attract a four-percent surcharge.
You can get a cash advance on Visa or MasterCard at banks and exchange bureaus in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, and at branches of the Canadia and ANZ Royal banks in most major towns. Acleda Bank (pronounced A-See-Lay-Dah) has branches all over the country but only accepts Visa. There are now ATMs in most major towns; note, though, that your money will be dispensed in US dollars. It’s worth remembering that all cash advances are treated as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal; there may be a transaction fee (or two) on top of this.
Banking hours throughout Cambodia are generally Monday to Friday 8.30am to 3.30pm (often also Sat 8.30–11.30am).
You can change dollars to riel at many banks, but it’s generally more convenient to go to a money changer; they will usually also exchange Thai baht, pounds sterling and euros (it’s difficult to exchange other currencies, although you’ll possibly be able to do so at Psar Thmei in Phnom Penh and around the market in Siem Reap). Money changers are plentiful in all towns and are always found around markets, typically within goldsmiths’ or jewellers’ kiosks – look for the cabinets stacked with notes. When changing money, the dealer will do the sums on a calculator for you to agree, before counting out the notes in front of you; it is accepted practice that you then recount the money, as any discrepancy will not be considered once you’ve left the desk. Feel free to reject any notes in particularly dire condition. While riel are accepted regardless of condition, a dollar bill with even a minuscule blemish will be returned as unacceptable.
When changing money, it’s better to opt for mid-value notes – 5000 or 10,000 riel for instance – which can be changed everywhere. Outside of market hours, you can still change dollars at shops, especially those selling phone cards; you’ll need to ask around, and the rates will be worse to the tune of a few riel per dollar. You can change riel back into dollars at most money changers when leaving Cambodia, or into baht at money changers in Poipet. It’s impossible to exchange riel once you’ve left the country.
Cashing travellers’ cheques
Major banks will cash dollar travellers’ cheques (into dollars only) for a two-percent commission; travellers’ cheques in other currencies are sometimes viewed with suspicion and may be rejected. Don’t rely on using travellers’ cheques as payment for services or on cashing them other than at the banks, as they are accepted at few outlets.
Having money wired from home is fairly convenient these days with both the Acleda Bank and the Cambodia Asia Bank handling Western Union (http://www.westernunion.com) transfers, while the Canadia Bank is the agent for Moneygram (http://www.moneygram.com). Fees vary however, and may be quite steep if you have to make an additional currency exchange, say from UK pounds to $US. It is also possible to have money wired directly from a bank in your home country to a bank account in Cambodia. If you choose this route, your home bank will need the name and address of the Cambodian bank, their bank code and the account name and number; money wired this way normally takes three to five working days to arrive and costs around £25/$35 per transaction (you’ll also have to pay a handling fee in Cambodia).