This is a gues post from Jen Joslin, best known for her blog www.twocantravel.com. She lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with her husband, stand-up comedian Stevo Joslin. They have been living and traveling in Asia together since 2011, and have been living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia since 2015. Jen works as a first grade teacher at a small international school. When he’s not on stage, Stevo dabbles in curriculum consulting, teaches swimming, and does English tutoring. Combined they earn less than $35,000 USD per year, yet this is the happiest they’ve ever been; both pursuing their passions while enjoying the pleasures of daily life in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh is at that sweet spot of development for expat living. An influx of foreign investment in recent years has meant more businesses, amenities and quality international schools geared toward foreigners. While gentrification has it’s positives and negatives, there is much to be said for the comforts and ease of life these businesses provide expats. At the same time, Phnom Penh retains its chaotic pace and Cambodian charm. Its not hard to get away from the foreign influence and experience local living.
All the development means you’ll have the option to shop at organic food stores or pay half the price at local outdoor markets. A typical meal at a Cambodian restaurant costs less than $2, or you can enjoy an upscale dining experience for $100+. A cappuccino at a foreign coffee chain costs $3, while a locally sourced brew at a Cambodian stall costs less than $0.75.
You can rent a luxury, serviced apartment with a pool, gym, 24-hour security guard, and cleaning service for anywhere from $500 to $3000, or live in a comfortable Cambodian style apartment for under $300. Phnom Penh is a city of choice, and whether you are seeking western creature-comforts or want to experience a more local way of life, the city has what you are looking for at prices much less than what you would pay in most developed countries.
Tuk-tuks and motorbikes, called “motos,” are the preferred method of transport for both locals and expats, though more and more luxury SUVs are crowding the roads every day (mainly driven by Cambodian officials).
Phnom Penh’s recently expanded international airport and bus services make it a great base for travel throughout the region. Southeast Asian countries are all a short plane ride away. Comfortable buses are available for travel throughout Cambodia and to bordering countries.
The expat scene in Phnom Penh is a thriving community with interesting people, young and old, from around the world. There are events taking place every day of the week. These can include networking events, restaurant openings, athletic tournaments, street fairs, documentary film showings, art galleries, plays, live music, stand-up comedy and more. Phnom Penh is a popular city for young families as well, with plenty of activities and businesses catering to children.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What does it really cost to live in Phnom Penh?
Stevo and I earn less than $35,000 combined annually. We pay $350 per month in rent plus $75-$100 in utilities for a three bedroom, three bath Cambodian-style apartment on the fringes of the Russian Market, one of the more popular expat areas. We have a housekeeper come twice per week for $40 a month. We eat at mid-range restaurants about twice per week ($15-20 per meal for two), and go to events around the city several nights per week. Stevo belongs to a cross-fit gym. We travel around Cambodia about once per month to Kampot, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, and other provinces. We have taken trips around the region to Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore, and are planning for more international travel. We live better and feel happier than we did back in our hometown in southern California. Our life in Phnom Penh is simple, fulfilling, and never dull.
Money in Cambodia
Cambodia primarily uses US Dollars and Cambodian Riel. The exchange rate is roughly 4000 Riel to 1 USD, so most transactions are made in USD with small change given in Riel. ATMs dispense USD unless otherwise stated, in which case you become an instant thousandaire!
Where to live in Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is divided into districts. A majority of expats live in BKK 1, 2 or 3, Russian Market, or by the Riverside. BKK 1 and 2 tend to be more expensive with restaurants, bars and shops geared toward expats. BKK 3 (near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) and the Russian Market have a good blend of western and local amenities. The Riverside area tends to be crowded with tourists and can feel seedy due to the lady bars and night clubs in the area. However, it is close to many restaurants, shops and attractive tourist sites. Another area of the city growing in popularity with expats is Tuol Kork, located 20-30 minutes from downtown. Phnom Penh is expanding outward, and the further outside the city center you go, the less you can expect to pay in rent.
There are a variety of housing options in Phnom Penh ranging from upscale apartments with 24-hour security guards, pools and gyms, to basic Cambodian-style apartments in local neighborhoods. There are even old French colonial buildings and wooden countryside-style homes still available in parts of the city. Western-style homes in gated communities with tree-lined streets and parks are also available, and many more of these housing developments are popping up on the outskirts of the city and near the airport. Housing costs range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on location, size and style.
Cost of Housing
Typically single expats pay anywhere from $150-500 per month depending if they rent their own place or live in a shared apartment. The Facebook group Phnom Penh Housing is a great resource to find a roommate and see what housing options are available.
Couples and families can expect to pay $250-$1000+ depending on what type of amenities they require.
Some apartments include utilities while others charge an additional fee for water, trash pick-up, cable, and Wi-Fi. One thing to note is that electricity is almost always charged in addition to rent and can be expensive. Landlords charge different rates to unsuspecting tenants, but the standard rate is usually 1000 Riel ($0.25USD)/kilowatt. We use a fan during the day and run our air-conditioner in one room for most of the night. Our electric bill is usually around $65 per month, just to give you an idea.
Finding a Place to Live
There are many real estate agencies in the city to help you secure accommodation. You should not have to pay the real estate agent a fee as the landlord will pay them a commission. We had a good experience working with a local agent we met through an apartment advertisement online. He spoke great English and took us to half a dozen different properties based on our criteria. Once we found a place, he went through the details of our lease together with us and our landlord. We gave a one month security deposit and first month’s rent, signed a six month lease, and were done!
Cambodian people are some of the friendliest people in the world. They are quick to smile and happy to help. Many Cambodians in Phnom Penh speak English, making it easier to make Cambodian friends, and simplifying basic daily tasks like shopping or eating out. Sadly, petty crime has risen in the past decade in Phnom Penh, though not quite to the levels seen in Vietnam or Bangkok. But like in the rest of the world, a vast majority of people in the country are kind, decent, hard-working people who shouldn’t be overlooked.
To understand Cambodia as it is today, it is important to know about it’s recent, tragic past. In the 1940-1960s Cambodia was developing at a similar rate to Thailand and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia’s northeast was heavily bombed, which, along with internal strife in the country, aided in the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power during the 1970s. Cambodia’s people suffered a mass genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, who killed an estimated 1/3 of the total population. People were forced out of Phnom Penh into the countryside and made to work as farmers. Educated people such as teachers, doctors, lawyers and business owners, were killed first. Hundreds of thousands of others, including women and children, died of starvation. Thousands more were put in prison, tortured, and forced into absurd confessions that they were spies of the KGB or had betrayed the Khmer Rouge in some way. They were brutally murdered and put into mass graves.
Today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh are tourist sites aimed to educate visitors about the horrific atrocities committed against the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge retained their seat at the United Nations until the early 1990s. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) located outside Phnom Penh has only started trying Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the deaths of millions, within the last decade. The trials are currently ongoing and can be viewed by the public.
Cambodia is still recovering from the loss of the majority of it’s educated population and the subsequent trauma that has been passed down to the next generations.
Working in Cambodia
Depending on their profession, expats in Phnom Penh live on an estimated $12,000 to $60,000 per year. Phnom Penh is a thriving city of opportunity. Expats work and volunteer in a variety of fields in Phnom Penh, from NGOs, education, hospitality and tourism, the medical field, consulting, technology, and business. Some expats come to the city on expat packages, in which case pay and benefits are usually more attractive. Many other people, including Stevo and I, simply show up and look for work. Integrating into the expat scene and learning about opportunities through word of mouth is a good way to find jobs that may not be posted online.
Cambodia has some of the most lax visa regulations in the world. Getting a ordinary E-class visa is as simple as showing up at an airport or border, ticking a box, and paying a few dollars more than the tourist visa price. You can easily extend an E-visa to a year-long visa for around $300. Technically as of 2014, foreigners working in Cambodia are required to have government issued work books. However, this law is not well regulated and it is up to businesses to provide work books for their employees. This is something to be aware of but not too concerned about. Combined with the inexpensive cost of living, this makes Cambodia a prime place to work, start a business, or simply live a comfortable life of leisure without visa hassles. You can find up to date information about Cambodian visas here and here.
Medical Care in Cambodia
In the past the common medical advice for travelers and expats in Cambodia was “Go to Thailand!” Thankfully medical care facilities have greatly improved, and many ailments can now be treated in Phnom Penh by foreign doctors and foreign-trained Cambodian doctors. Dental care is also professional and affordable.
That said, certain medical procedures or tests may be unavailable or expensive, so it can be necessary to seek medical care out of the country, namely in Thailand, Singapore, or Malaysia. Even traveling out of Cambodia for medical care is generally cheaper than being treated in the USA. Many expectant mothers choose Bangkok for prenatal care and delivery.
During our first few months in Phnom Penh I had a freak accident. A glass door shattered onto my back, cutting me on my upper booty and ankle, but thankfully nowhere major. I took a tuk tuk to a local emergency clinic and was treated immediately by skilled Cambodian staff and doctors who all spoke English. I received stitches and had two follow-up appointments. The total cost was less than $300.
There is a wide variety of choice when shopping at markets in Phnom Penh. There are open-air local markets, big and small, scattered throughout the city. We do all of our produce shopping at these. Local market shopping is always an adventure, and having sellers we regularly go to is a nice way to feel integrated into our neighborhood and practice our Khmer.
A large selection of fruits and vegetables are available at the local markets. Of course produce that is in season is cheaper, but prices are quite reasonable anytime of year. For example, in season mangoes are 4000 Riel ($1)/kilogram and avocados are 8000 Riel ($2)/kilogram. (Yes, they have avocados here! Be still, my Californian heart.) Imported fruits like apples and oranges are available at a price. I was once gifted four apples by a student’s parents that were bought at Aeon Mall, the largest modern mall in Cambodia. They left the price tags on, and each apple had cost $2.90!
We occasionally buy eggs at the outdoor markets too, but are skeptical of the meat that sits outside in the heat for hours on end. Instead we buy meat from air-conditioned markets geared toward foreign customers. There are stores catering to western customers throughout the city, especially in BKK 1 and 2, near the Russian Market and at the Riverside. The French influence in Cambodia lingers in the baguettes, croissants, and other fine baked goods at countless bakeries. Stevo and I find that we never crave anything from back in the States as we can buy just about everything we want here. Fancy meats and cheeses, name brand peanut butter and chocolate, breakfast cereal, good wine, you name it. A nice baguette or chocolate croissant costs $1-2, similar to prices in developed countries.
Drinking in Cambodia
Hard alcohol and spirits are surprisingly cheap in Cambodia. A 750ml bottle of Absolut Vodka goes for $10, Blue Sapphire for $12, and very few bottles cost more than $20. There are a few wine shops in town selling imported wine from around the world as well as craft beers. The wines are about the prices you’d expect to pay at home or a bit higher. Drinking at restaurants is inexpensive. Cocktails, even at nicer restaurants and bars, are $2-8, and are often 1/2 price during happy hour. Local beers range from $0.75-$1.50 at most restaurants. A can of beer from a local shop is $0.50. There are also a couple of local breweries in town, and a rum distillery which is open for tastings once per week.
Getting around Phnom Penh is relatively cheap and easy. The main method of transport for expats and locals are tuk-tuks, carriages pulled by motorbikes. A ride across the city should cost no more than $5, and generally going from A-B within town will cost about $2-3. If you are riding solo, motorbikes are a cheaper option. Unlike in Bangkok, where the motorbike drivers are clearly distinguished by their fluorescent vests, Cambodia’s moto drivers are just regular guys who own motorbikes. They often hang out in groups on corners, or keep their eyes peeled for people who look like they might need a ride, slowing down to check as they ride past. They don’t usually provide helmets for passengers, or even themselves. Yes, it’s dangerous and don’t tell your mom, but man is it fun! Taxis are also available in the city, mainly coming from the airport. You will need to book ahead or else get extremely lucky to flag one down within the city as they are scarce. There are public buses as of 2015, but for now there are few routes, and the schedule is unreliable.
Getting out of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh’s international airport is undergoing major renovations. The country’s first Starbucks just opened inside, which can be seen as a blessing or a curse. The airport’s expansion means more international flights to and from the city. There are non-stop flights to countries throughout Asia. There are about 10 flights to Bangkok,Thailand per day, and five to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for under $100. Air Asia is the largest budget airline in the region, and a flight to their hub in Kuala Lumpur costs about $50.
The buses in Cambodia are much better now than even just a few years ago. Giant Ibis has quality air-conditioned buses and mini-buses going to most parts of the country for under $20. Many bus companies also have air-conditioned buses around Cambodia and to bordering countries. An overnight bus from Phnom Penh to Thailand currently costs about $30. Cars with private drivers are also available to hire anywhere you want to go for a reasonable price.
Phnom Penh is one of the best values for money in Southeast Asia. It is a city primed for opportunity and will best be enjoyed by those with an adventurous spirit and open mind looking to immerse themselves in a new culture, while still enjoying many comforts of the western world.
This is a guest post by Jen Joslin, who also shot the photos. She blogs at TwoCanTravel.com about travel and expat life in Cambodia and around Asia. Follow her and her comedian husband Stevo on Facebook and Youtube.
Tim Leffel is the editor of the Cheapest Destinations Blog, Perceptive Travel, and TravelWriting2.com. He is the founder of Al Centro Media and the author of five books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations.