If you’re tired of spending everything you earn on the monthly bills, you could chop them by a huge percentage if you switch to Cambodia living costs instead.
How do these expenses for the cost of living in Cambodia compare to yours?
A two-bedroom apartment with a pool for $400 per month, a $5 massage for an hour whenever you want, a full-time nanny or housekeeper for $120 a month, meals out for $2, taxis for a dollar or two…
I recently updated my book on cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. (Get it here!) In the course of that, I interviewed loads of expatriates living in different countries. If you asked me which country was the absolute cheapest place to live in Southeast Asia, Cambodia would be the answer. It’s one of the cheapest places to live in the world really, edged out by just a few.
If you’re earning a couple grand a month in passive income, this could be your spot for a four hour work week—or the place to start a budding new business that’s going to take a while to generate serious cash.
This is a country of minimal regulations, low taxes, and a (usually) welcome climate for foreigners. Infrastructure spending has gone into overdrive this century and this is clearly an economy on the rise. Many young people speak English well and the U.S. dollar is the de facto currency for most transactions. The only time you even see the local currency in the main population centers is in the fruit and vegetable market.
About the only things that are going to seem expensive here are imported items, and even among those there are some happy surprises. Sin taxes are very low, so if you’re a smoker or a drinker you won’t pay a premium. Many Chinese items–like cheap cell phones–come in without extra duty. It’s just when you’re buying items the locals don’t use or can’t afford that you’ll really see sticker shock.
In terms of where to live, this is not a huge country and the foreign population drops off rapidly after the first few choices. Phnom Penh is the most popular choice for its wide range of apartments, nightlife, and restaurants. Siem Reap is a tourist town because of Angkor Wat, but it’s also home to a fair number of expatriates, many of them lured by the boomtown atmosphere and the chance to build a business in a hurry. Cambodia’s third-largest city, Battambang, has a fair number of expatriates amongst its population of 165,000, especially French ones.
The rest of the foreign population is mainly near the beaches. There’s a coast to the south of the country, anchored by Sihanoukville, with multiple beach towns down the coast from there, with national parks and uninhabited islands breaking them up. This area has been through massive changes in the past decade though, probably more than any other city I wrote about in the book. So see articles and photos from the past couple years to get an accurate picture of the scene there.
Richard Sterling is a professor and author who has lived quite a while in Southeast Asia. “Rapid, uncontrolled development drove me out of Phnom Penh just as it had in Saigon. In 2017 I fled to the provincial town of Battambang in the far west of Cambodia, near the Thai border. Here it’s like Lake Woebegone, Minnesota. A quiet little town where nothing ever happens. And nothing should happen. All is well as it is. I went to work at the local campus of Pannasastra U and here I still am.”
“If I don’t get crazy, my total cost of living is about $1,000 a month,” Richard says. “I do have a friend, though, an American woman, whose regular monthly budget is $500 per month. She does live skinny, but she wants for nothing necessary, and she does put away a little something every month.”
Cheap Living, Somewhat Easy Visa
When I first started writing about living in Cambodia, this was one of the easiest countries in the world to stay in for a year just by paying for a business visa. The government eventually closed that loophole though in 2018. Foreigners who want to stay in the country long term will now need a work permit to extend their visas for 6 or 12 months. There are ways around it, but you can’t just show up and get a one-year visa anymore just by paying a couple hundred bucks.
It is still easier to live in Cambodia on a tourist visa than it is in Thailand, with less frequent border runs, but assume you will only be able to stay six months at most after arrival, with extensions, less after you have been here a while. Here’s how local resident Jen Joslin explained it in her guest post on the cost of living in Phnom Penh, the capital.
Currently, getting an Ordinary (E) visa is as simple as showing up at an airport or land border, ticking a box, and paying a few dollars more than the Tourist visa price. You need an Ordinary (E) visa if you want to extend your stay in Cambodia for more than one month. You can extend that visa to a three-month E visa one time without leaving the country. If it is your first time in Cambodia, then you can extend your Ordinary (E) visa for a six month (E) visa one time. Otherwise, to get an (E) visa for 6 months or one year you now need to have a government-issued work permit.
As usual though, there are shades of gray in there if you get a local agent to help, including for online business owners. If you do qualify, your business visa is good for one year.
Matt Gibson, who runs the digital marketing agency Upthink, got a six-month visa and says that allows you to work if you want. He just has to leave the country and return every six months to renew it. “I think I paid around $250 all-in for it including agent fees,” he says.
With a business visa, you don’t have to worry about sneaking around if you want to tend bar or take scuba divers out for PADI certifications either. “This is one of the few countries in the world where you can just roll up and work,” says one of the expats I interviewed for the first edition of the book. “It’s not like Thailand.”
“From my arrival in Cambodia till earlier this year I was on a work/business visa,” says Richard. I spent $305 per year plus a work permit at $100 per year. Just before COVID-19 struck I had decided to take some time off. I switched to a retirement visa (very easy to do) at the same price, but with no need for the $100 work permit.”
You can buy your way in to get residency too, by investing enough money in the country that you’re granted citizenship. It requires big bucks though, so for most people, it doesn’t make sense.
Apartment and House Deals in Cambodia
In Phnom Penh, the most expensive places are right by the river and you can pay as much as you do now if you want. That’s where a lot of the corporate expatriates and local business tycoons live. Prices go down quickly as you count the blocks back from there.
It is common to spend $250-$400 for a modern one-bedroom condo in an elevator building and $400-$750 for one that has several bedrooms and lots of facilities like a gym and pool. You can spend far more in a luxury building and far less if you’re willing to live in a “Khmer style” local place on the outskirts with a very basic kitchen and no air conditioning. Doubling or tripling up with others will get you more value for your money since you can get more space and split the costs.
For those willing to spend time pounding the pavement though, there are plenty of deals. Surf the local message boards and you can find people living in three- or four-bedroom houses in the capital for $400 or less, one-bedroom places under $200. “We only pay $400 per month in rent (including most utilities) plus $50-$80/month for electricity,” says Jen, half of the couple behind the TwoCanTravel.com blog. “Our rent includes housekeepers who come twice a week. Previously we lived in a 3-bedroom Cambodian-style apartment for $350 per month on the west side of the Russian Market. There we paid $75-100 for utilities (trash collection, internet, water, electricity) and $40 a month for a housekeeper who came twice per week.”
In Siem Reap, prices are far lower. If you spend $600 there, you’re likely going to have a swanky villa with a pool, all utilities included. When I interviewed a hotel general manager living there when working on the first edition, he said he didn’t know a single expat paying more than $500. Past that level, you’re looking at a luxury multi-bedroom apartment or a whole house for rent. Many people work with a local real estate agent to save time and get around the language barrier. The owner pays their commission, not the renter.
Matt says $300 to $400 will get you a nice furnished expat one-bedroom place in a complex with a pool in Siem Reap. “If it doesn’t have to be so fancy, you’re looking at $150 to $200.” If you spend $30 per night on a hotel room while you’re looking it’ll come with air-con, maid service, a great breakfast, TV, fridge, and maybe even a pool.
Go to a smaller town with fewer tourists and it drops again from there. “I’ve had a few residences in Cambodia. The cheapest was a studio apartment here in Battambang at $100 per month,” says Richard. “The most expensive was a 4-bedroom, 5-bath house in a gated community with 24-hour security in Phnom Penh. That was $500 per month. Currently, in my 1-bedroom, fully furnished apartment, my rent is $140 per month and utilities run $10 – $30 depending on how much I use the AC.
Unfurnished places are generally less if you’re coming for the long haul and will buy furniture. (You can get handcrafted wood items for very reasonable prices).
In some of the beach areas, prices are still very reasonable for those who want to be near the water. Online you can find 1BR furnished apartments with A/C units and Wi-Fi included for as little as $200 per month, or large two- to four-bedroom houses for $400-$700. The most expensive long-term rental I could find online outside of the capital city was $1,500 a month. That was for a 7-bedroom/7-bath furnished mansion with a 2-car garage.
Buying in Cambodia is a bit tricky. Per the letter of the law, you can’t buy land without partnering up with a local. There are a few ways around this though, like by establishing a local corporation with a Cambodian. This way when you “buy” a piece of property you really get a 99-year lease for the land it sits on via the partner. Since most people aren’t going to live that long, it can work for a lifetime and you can still sell it or pass it on. But this requires a good bit of faith and a good attorney.
You can marry a local and then you can buy what you want as long as he/she is on the title with you. If you end up splitting up and leaving the country though, your spouse gets the house.
In general, you’re better off buying a condo above the ground floor. That’s straightforward and easy. Transaction costs are relatively low: negligible as a buyer, 7-8 percent as a seller, including the real estate agent’s commission.
Purchase prices are all over the map so it’s hard to generalize about what it’s going to cost you just by looking at what’s listed online. Since you should rent for a good while before buying anyway, take your time to find the right place in the right neighborhood.
In the capital, prices are very dependent on location. A condo in a prime spot with a river view in Phnom Penh could cost you more than $200,000. If you poke around is less prestigious neighborhoods though, you’ll find nice modern condos under $100,000 and ones that can be renovated to suit for under $50,000. It’s relatively easy to find a one-bedroom or studio in better shape for that price.
Get out of the main population centers though and prices take a nosedive. Beach property here is still a relative bargain in some areas compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, though again you can’t buy it outright as a foreigner. You need a corporation or a partner for a land lease arrangement.
Cambodian Food, Drink, and Transportation Costs
Matt moved to Siem Reap from Thailand and says one of the best upsides has been how good the food is in the former French colony. “There’s surprisingly good food for surprisingly good prices. Even at the nicest places, you’re looking at a max of $10 for a main dish. The place I recommend the most does French Creole cuisine and they make their own rum, which you can get a sampling flight of before dinner for five bucks. That’s the high end.”
Ironically enough, most of the people frequenting the most expensive restaurants in the capital city are staffers at charity organizations or other NGOs. If you splurge where they dine all the time, a meal for two will be $35 – $60 going all out with a bottle of wine.
“Here in Battambang, dining out can cost as little as $1 if I eat on the street,” says Richard. “At the swankiest joint in town, having New Zealand Lamb or Australian beefsteak, about $25, depending on the wine I choose. On average, I pay about $5 for a dinner (without drinks).”
As long as you eat what’s grown in the region and don’t need a daily fix of imported items, this is a place where you could potentially eat out three meals a day and spend less than $6 if you go where the locals go. Step up to a nicer restaurant with waiters and you can still get a meal for a few bucks. If you spend $5-$8 on a meal it’ll be in a nice restaurant frequented by foreigners and probably include a beer or fresh fruit juice.
A can of beer in the store will be 50 to 75 cents. A draft beer will run 50 cents to $1.50 depending on whether it’s happy hour (which in some places is 24 hours). A soda or good coffee runs 50 cents to $1.50 in a restaurant or nice cafe. A fruit shake will be about the same. Cocktails here are some of the cheapest in the world, even with name brand vodka or bourbon, at $1-$4.
If you buy regional food ingredients in the market, you can stock your kitchen well for $20. For that amount, you could get a week’s worth of rice, vegetables, fruit, baguettes, and some meat or fish. “The local markets around probably about 60% of what the supermarkets cost you,” says Matt. Market prices are super cheap, with $1 easily getting you a kilo on standard items like fruit, vegetables, and rice.
If you don’t plan on having a car, transportation is not going to be a big part of your Cambodia living costs budget. Tuk-tuk prices in Siem Reap are actually lower now than they were 10 years ago, and you can rent one for the entire day for $10 – $15. “I feel kind of guilty about how cheap it is actually,” says Matt. “I always give them extra because if I use the Grab app or Passapp it will usually be around 75 cents for a ride into the center of town in a tuk-tuk, sometimes 50. There’s a major oversupply of drivers.”
In Phnom Penh, a taxi ride will run $1 to $4. If there’s a meter, $1 per 2 kms, but often you have to negotiate. Ride sharing apps are less hassle sometimes.
Bus prices can vary a good bit on popular routes and you generally get what you pay for in terms of room, comfort, and the company’s safety record. Here are some sample prices for getting around:
Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by bus: $8 – $17 (working A/C and Wi-Fi).
Bus from Phnom Penh to the beaches: $6 – $15
Taxi from Phnom Penh to the beaches: $40 – $60 (up to 4 people)
Bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon, Vietnam: $7 – $14
Bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok: $22 to $30
Bus to Thai border from Siem Reap: $9 ($10 – $17 from the capital)
Foreigners technically aren’t supposed to be able to drive a motorbike in Siem Reap, so if you rent one ($6-$8 a day) you might have to pay a “fine” of a dollar or two if you get pulled over. You can rent a bicycle for a couple dollars though. In the rest of Cambodia, you’re fine on your own motorbike and can buy one for under $1,000 or rent from someone by the month.
You’ll pay more to get to and from airports of course. You could end up paying $20 from the airport to your hotel, though getting back will cost half that.
Several budget airlines serve the county, so you can usually save some time and fly to other cities in the region for $50 to $200 one-way.
What Are the Downsides of Cambodia Living?
Cambodia is not for everyone, of course. This is a tropical country, with all the creepy crawlies that implies. The less urban your location, the more you can expect to see mosquitoes, spiders, and other insects. Large rats and snakes aren’t uncommon either.
Also, the hospitals are not great if you get sick. Every expat I’ve ever interviewed about living in Cambodia suggests that money in the pocket for a flight to Bangkok or Singapore is the best healthcare plan.
While there are some good hospitals in the capital city, the care is rudimentary in most of the other locations. In theory, there’s a public healthcare system, but you generally want to avoid the public facilities for anything beyond a minor injury.
Cambodia is very poor, more than a little corrupt, and doesn’t have a ton of money to spend on infrastructure. Some people are drawn to this lack of regulation and (almost) anything goes approach to building codes, driving, and starting a business. For others though, the lack of basic services and the deplorable condition of some roads is too much to deal with after a while. It has gotten a lot better though as tourism has increased and the government has gotten more stable, so if the trend continues, infrastructure should keep improving year by year.
You can’t drink the tap water, food-handling methods may not be up to your satisfaction, and customer service may not be super-quick or efficient. The power grid is overtaxed in parts of the country, so there can be outages that last for hours or a day. Most people have backup generators.
There are serious problems with environmental degradation, human trafficking, corrupt NGOs who use children as donation pawns, and other frequently encountered third-world problems. There’s a fair bit of crime in the capital, including bag-snatching. How well you can deal with all this without screaming will determine how happy you’ll be living in this libertarian paradise.
Also, you don’t move to Cambodia without being ready to roast sometimes. “Honestly, the only drawback I really complain about is the heat,” says Matt, who grew up in Canada. “It’s extremely hot here for about half the year, then just tolerably hot the rest of the year. I have a nice bike I like to take out for a ride, but if I’m not back by 8:00 a.m. it’s just unbearable.”
Do your homework and give the place a trial run before making a move just because the cost of living Cambodia is low. If your funds are limited and you can handle the downsides, however, this is probably the cheapest place to live in Asia outside the Indian subcontinent.
Portions of this Cambodia living costs post were excerpted from the second edition of A Better Life for Half the Price — the best investment you can make to start living well for less instead of dreaming about it. Want to hear about the best opportunities for cutting your expenses and having a better life on an ongoing basis? Subscribe to the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter!