It’s always a good idea to do some research before moving to an obscure country on another continent where you don’t have any contacts, so we tried to accumulate some practical info in advance. We consulted the Internet and blogs similar to this one, but we certainly didn’t limit ourselves to that: we also asked relevant people questions about their impression of the place, contacted official representatives, mercilessly explored legal documentation, mentally penetrated the culture behind the thinking, etc. After all those nosy inquiries, I can say quite assertively that we miserably failed in our attempt to paint a conclusive picture. The larger part of the information we found was either incomplete or outdated, and as a result, we decided to pay more attention to gut feeling, luck and common sense than to the vague assumptions we could deduce from whatever facts our pitiful investigation yielded.
Thanks to Real Shabanella who previously experienced being thrown into exotic situations on foreign territories many times, the gut feeling wasn’t a complete shot in the dark, and we embarked the Phnom Penh bound airplane in Bangkok knowing that something will have to work out somehow.
a) Country ID Card
Kingdom. Drives on the right. A nation geographically located in Southeast Asia. The language and alphabet are called Khmer. About 15 million inhabitants. Home to the unprecedented and unrivalled Angkor Wat temple complex. Has a short coastline and a year-round tropical climate. Borders Thailand – Laos – Vietnam. Very low GDP, ranked between Côte d’Ivoire and Zambia on IMF’s list. The main religion is Theraveda Buddhism (96%). Patriarchal society with latent matriarchal tendencies. Known for mass killings of its own citizens carried out by the Government in the Seventies. At least one member of said government is still in power today.
The currencies are the Cambodian Riel (KHR) and the U.S. dollar (USD), used interchangeably. Roughly speaking,
1 $ = 4,000 KHR
Cell providers: at least 6, of which I’m familiar with one. A new rule issued in January 2017 insists on handing out personal documents when purchasing a new SIM, however this doesn’t always apply in practice. Wi-Fi Internet: definitely easy to find in all establishments tourists would normally consider going to and in practically all rooms you will rent. Mobile internet: affordable and reliable, but again: Metfone only, no idea how other networks perform. Hotel reservations: agoda has the bargains you want, and often times the prices on their website are lower than on the spot. Hostel and backpacking: there is a fairly developed subculture throughout the country, especially on the coast and on the islands. Spicy Asian food warning: none. Relax, this is not Thailand. Tap water: don’t drink it. Discard ice from your triple Bombay Sapphire tonics and use a straw to sip on your soft drink.
b) Residence Permits & Visas
This was the most confusing part of our research because rules have become more restrictive in November 2016, but the application thereof most probably did not, hence the contradictory explanations people gave on forums. My conclusion was that the only real change in the treatment of foreigners was that the Government wasn’t going to let everyone overstay their visa for as long as they wish without fining them for each day individually. Therefore, in practice, new regulations only mean that the carefree days of perpetual visa overstay are over, and that you need to pay attention to your visa’s validity period like you would in any other country. Cambodia has different categories of visas, but the most commonly used are the T-class (tourist) and E-class (business) visa types. A first-time entry visa will always be valid for 30 days and your attitude towards renewing it will put you in one of the three categories I described below. NB: the terms for those categories (tourist, wannabe, practical) were coined for the sole purpose of making the Cambodian immigration system clearer to readers of this page. “E-class” and “T-class” are actual terms used by the Royal Government of Cambodia.
TOURISTS need to worry about filling in the address of their hotel in the visa application form aboard the plane – and nothing else. The most common point of first entry being Phnom Penh airport, all inbound passengers are guided directly towards a counter inside the airport building, where anyone can get a visa for 30$, payable in United States currency. Change will be handed to you in dollars. If you decide to exit the country while your green sticker visa is still valid, it will be your decision to throw 30$ down the drain: a re-entry will cost you another 30$. Every foreign passport holder is entitled to two subsequent tourist visas. That’s the maximum you can do with your T-class visa. Therefore, you can be a tourist in Cambodia for two months. Why do lawyers make these things so complicated to understand when even I could explain it in a few paragraphs? Anyway.
WANNABE RESIDENTS, or those who are already in Cambodia on a 30-day T-class visa and wish to extend their stay in order to become practical residents, will have to exit the country at the nearest border to ensure their current tourist T-class visa is no longer valid, re-enter the country a minute later, this time requesting a 35$ E-class visa, also good for 30 days. The passport holders will then merrily go back to their crib with nice blue stickers in their travel documents as proof that this amazing kingdom granted them the basis for their permission to stay longer. After the initial month expires, wannabes can become practicals.
PRACTICAL RESIDENTS can renew their 30-day E-class visas for a period of 3, 6 or 12 months. Fees are very reasonable compared to what other countries charge for temporary residency. The process couldn’t be simpler: you show up in a particular travel agency, which differs from town to town, you hand out your passport and the appropriate sum of money necessary for taking care of the formalities, and wait for the phone call from the travel agency – not from the immigration department. You will not even see a government representative at any point during the process of obtaining your long-term business visa on another nice blue sticker. Your passport will make its way to Phnom Penh and back, even if you are elsewhere.
2. Health & Climate
a) Tropical diseases
Mosquito-borne malaria and dengue fever exist in rural areas of the country, but so do many other dangerous, even life-threatening illnesses you probably didn’t know existed. However, this doesn’t mean you should jump in a space suit and eat from tubes attached to it. Do consult a doctor and don’t rely on the Internet for matters which concern your own life. Be wary, but don’t be paranoid. Maintain the balance, like you do with other things.
b) Issues with hygiene
I can’t stress this enough: there is no access to running water in many Cambodian households and the culture doesn’t necessarily involve what you might consider basic, so do take extra precaution here and behave as if you grew up in Buckingham Palace, washing your hands regularly and cleaning everything you touch five times before using it. Do not leave food lying around and do not eat in bed. I wrote about logistics in this country before, so use that as a guide too.
At the moment (June 2017), all weather reports talk about tropical temperatures in the Northern hemisphere (40°C). First, in order to protect yourself from occurrences your body isn’t used to, you need to understand what tropical means in terms of temperature fluctuation. Being in the tropics is all about the rotation of two main, equally warm elements – dryness/rains; night/day; clouds/sun. Your days will have similar lengths all year round; your winters and your summers will resemble one another and your air temperature will not vary more than a few degrees at any given time. What I’m saying is that the only shock you’ll endure will be the initial contact with this geographical area, and after you get accustomed to the climate, you’ll see why being in Cambodia is not the same like being in e.g. Hungary, where you’ll have air temperature variations from -15°C in January to +33°C in July. My point about the weather reports is that tropical doesn’t mean 45°C, especially not if your bones are still shivering from a winter they recently suffered. Tropical means between 27°C and 39°C all the bloody time. In the tropics, you’ll bundle up at 26°C like I am doing right the hell now.
Naturally, you should avoid direct exposure to the sun between 10h30 and 14h00, but this is common sense. I didn’t start writing about Cambodia to tell you what others already did.
We heard warnings about bag snatchers, and witnessed one or two bold probes of that sort, but I have to say I feel safe and even protected when among Cambodians. Violent crime is virtually non-existent. And you know what, I frankly can’t compare the timid thug behaviour I saw here to the savage outbursts that happen daily in immense cities. Having your bag taken by a running thief is much different than being held at gunpoint because of your smartphone. Take that, Jozi.
a) Getting around
The famous Southeast Asian tuk-tuk is a romantic means of wheel transportation, but it’s expensive if used in the long run. A single tuk-tuk ride might cost you as much as a motorbike rental for the whole day, so the choice there is clear, unless you think that riding a scooter is unsafe. If you do happen to rent a tuk-tuk, try negociating the price down. Be nice, but firm. From town to town, take buses.
For walking, you need to remember to bring drinking water, something to protect your head from the sun, amphibious shoes you won’t mind wearing in the street mud and adjacent side canals, and cottonwear to absorb sweat (tennis wristbands are not a stupid idea).
I don’t know if you can count on younger people speaking fair levels of English because of gaming, or older people speaking decent levels of French because of the country’s colonial past. You’ll have to try your luck, and you probably won’t be successful at first. Cambodians are poor so the majority of kids don’t have games and are required to help in the family business too, whereas the French got expelled in 1953 and there is very little to remind us of their presence in this area. It’s not like in their former colonies in Africa, where the language is still taught in schools and indeed fluently spoken, e.g. Morocco.
When in Cambodia, try finding the individuals who communicate well and keep in touch with them throughout your journey. We made contact with a really cool tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh and we know we can always call him when we need advice or a service.
Nevertheless, no matter how skillful your contact might be with foreign languages, you might still get confused with the pronunciation. Forget all you know about Engrish: Cambodians do not pronounce the last sound in a word, even if the word is like two syllables long. “Rice” sounds like rye, “five” sounds like fye, “like” sounds like lie, “this” sounds like thie.
c) Food and drinks
You’ll have vegetarian, fish, seafood, chicken, pork, beef and sometimes crocodile options for every Khmer dish in almost every restaurant, and a really nice variety to choose from. Go with the fish amok, for example, it’s local and it’s finger-licking. If you happen to be vegan for non-religious reasons, I strongly urge you to investigate the state of your mental health. Some of you don’t like to experiment with what you eat – you’re missing out when in Asia, but all right: western type slow food is much more accessible in Cambodia than in neighbouring Thailand; you’ll see the French influence yet again and thank them for finding steak & chips on the menu like you did for being able to buy yoghurt and chocolate in corner stores.
All shops/ corner stores will have cold soft drinks, but also beer and other alcoholic beverages at all times of day (if open, obviously). There’s Coke and Bebsi, Fanta and Schweppes – but not everywhere, so if you don’t find your refreshing drink in one shop, do continue down the road. An interesting phenomenon is the solid presence of yummy Bordeaux wines in a lot of stores, and at hilarious prices. For more specific info on all these items, please consult the Random Price List (RPL2) at the bottom of this page.
Shopping – The green market is generous in terms of value for money, that’s why I choose it over other places. Please remember where you are and know that your shopping adventure won’t even come close to a neon mall experience. The arbitrary way in which everything is done here is especially easy to spot when strolling through the market, where all merchandise is crammed, either on the naked floor or hung on hooks above your head. But don’t let that discourage you, dig through the piles, I mean what else can you do. Achtung: price tags with barcodes – or without them – don’t exist, even in supermarkets. Negociate. Don’t let them convince you that something costs 5$ when you know it’s probably only 1$. Brands like Zasra, Aike, Adidaas*, M&H, Abibas, Nikf and others make their products here or in Vietnam and it’s possible to find great deals. At the marketplace, you can even buy your own material and have your clothes sewn on a Singer machine ousside. Howbow dah?
Power supply – Cambodia was colonised by a different set of assholes than Thailand, so we use continental power plugs here. Often times, US-fitting electrical receptacles are found on extension cords you can get on the spot, in shops that sell electrical stuff.
Power outages – This is a weekly occurrence, but if rains hit particularly hard during the monsoon season, then it happens daily. Phnom Penh is mostly safe.
4. Saving Private Dollar
When you make purchases, practically nobody will try to insult your intelligence, but if they do, it’s very easy to appeal to their dignity and they will stop fooling around. In more extreme cases, being stubborn can help you too.
Golden rule no. 1: Bargain until you’re ashamed of yourself. The price you will be given is definitely set too high, and there’s a philosophy behind it. I know this because I also used to sell stuff for a living and I can recognise the patterns in eye-to-eye communication.
Golden rule no. 2: Avoid neon lights like the plague. Neon lights are a sign of a foreign investment or the reflection of a local capitalist mind and indicate higher prices. Go to the green market instead, you’ll find yummy bites to chew on and you’ll have a more personal experience.
Golden rule no. 3: Get two more quotes on your non-trivial purchases.
For my readers’ amusement and information, I collected prices on random items and listed them in four different currencies. The first random price list (RPL1) is a totally random choice of various grocery items:
Please note that these prices vary from place to place. Some of the items from the list can only be found in supermarkets, whereas some of the prices can only be found at the green market. However, the list is a fairly good guide to what you can expect in terms of grocery shopping outside of Phnom Penh.
The second list is an excerpt from my latest novel “How I found impossible booze prices on Cambodian shelves”:
There’s an everything pile, too:
The clothes section is still being updated, so please be patient.