Cambodian Dollar (?) Rules!

Cambodia is a place where more than their local currency, it is the US Dollars that rules.
Coming out of the Phnom Penh airport, there are several kiosks, the first one is a Currency Exchange. We wanted to change a USD 100 to Khmer Riel (KHR). To my surprise, the counter girl asked, “Are you sure?”,
I gave her a look on that stupid question and said “Of course”.

But we were utter idiots.
Why? Read on.

While planning a trip abroad, one of the first things most of us do is to arrange for foreign exchange in terms of US dollar (mostly) or EUROS or GBP etc, among others. The idea being USD is more freely convertible in a foreign country.

We did the same. Bought USD. The plan was to convert a small bit to Khmer Riels at Phnom Penh airport so as to survive first couple of days in Phnom Penh and then manage later.

As the case always is, the exchange rate at the Currency Exchange kiosk was very poor. USD 100 = KHR 390,000. Couldn’t do anything about it so focused on what we had.

Happy to have negotiated the first hurdle, we went to the one that said Taxi on one side and Tuk Tuk on the other. The prices were written and no chance for over charging. Then we realized that prices were in USD. No mention of how much it would be in KHR. We made the journey in relative silence. In the end I asked the driver how much in Riels. He said he preferred USD and that I must pay “7 dolah”.

Whoa! A distance of less than 10 KMs was $7 !

Later we went to a super market to pick up some snacks and beverages and offered to pay in dollar. (Not much option as all prices were tagged in USD ONLY). The cash girl returned a few dollars and a few Riels. I asked why and pat, the explanation. Any change under a dollar is dealt with in Riels and that too in whatever exchange rate the supermarket wants (1 USD – 4200 Riels).

Outside generally it is 1 USD to 4000 Riels. E.g. a tuk tuk driver demands “one-haph” meaning one and a half dollar, you can either pay 6000 Riels, or 2 USD for which he will return 2000 Riels.

Anyway, you can’t get much for 500 Riels which is slightly over a dime. Even half litre mineral water will cost you 2000 Riels.

Everywhere in Cambodia USD is freely accepted. I would like to add ‘unofficially’. I don’t know the story behind such behaviour but I am sure there must be a reason for the country to systematically undermine its own currency.

At the moment US Dollar Rules.

Tip 1 – Do not convert your US dollars into local currency at the airport in Cambodia. You can manage with dollars.
Tip 2 – Old US dollar notes are NOT accepted anywhere. On the contrary, even torn Riel can exchange hands.

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14 thoughts on “Cambodian Dollar (?) Rules!

  1. I also add, they had a problem with $20 bills.
    Btw I converted $1 to 4300 Cambodian .. Is cambodian currency doing good against the dollar now?

  2. This corresponds to my own experience from Cambodia, and differs from that of Laos where the local currency is more of a going currency. Cambodia is of course a very poor country in need of “hard” currency to pay for its imports. Who accepts Riels abroad? There may be some inflation as well although the rate you mention does not differ very much from the 4000 I received for a US dollar in 2009.
    Beware though to always agree the price for a taxi before you step into it! Otherwise a ripoff is unadvoidable. Not only in Cambodia.

  3. That’s a useful and important piece of info for anyone who’s visiting Cambodia… And probably that’s because of the Vietnam War why USD is more prominent in Cambodia…

  4. You have echoed what one of my friends said. They have issues with old USD notes, also with Two dollar notes, and sometimes with USD 100 also…

    Well you have all types of countries 🙂

    All the best!

  5. oh my goodness this is not a good practice for their local currency!! Also- this reminds me of a few years ago in Ghana- especially the part about not being able to use old notes. 🙁

  6. @Manu,
    Every country has some buying & selling rates. But here we see many more different rates… rate in shopping mall differs from rate in a grocer shop. 🙂

    @Samaresh,
    Thanks.

  7. @Sandalsand,
    I haven’t been to Laos so can’t say anything about it. But why do local people need Dollars for? They won’t go abroad.

    Taxis and tuk-tuks are ripping me apart everyday. 😛

    @Prashanth,
    Probably. But as of now, I do not see any favourable scene for Riels.

  8. This is what I experienced too while in Cambodia. I guess, everyone to the point of tuktuk drivers uses the powerful USD as opposed to Khmer Riel.

    I told myself that I am predicting that say, in 15-20 years from now, the Khmer Riel will be lost to the US Dollar in Cambodia. Nobody will use its local currency and this is a pity. The Cambodian government must use the Khmer Riel and get dollar reserves instead. What is happening, as I see it in Cambodia is that the US Dollar is the tender of the day, in everyday purchases and the power of the Khmer Riel diminishes. One just perhaps use the Riel when you get a loose change from your US dollar.

    the sad thing was when I was in Saigon en route home to the Philippines, at the airport, I asked that my Khmer Riel be changed back to dollar and nobody accepts it. They just shrugged me off and that made me realize that what is indeed happening is beyond what we, backpackers can only scratch on the top of the surface.

  9. Wendell Glenn,
    I agree with you that the Cambodian govt. should do something for its currency.

    I knew the Khmer Riels won’t get changed into dollars while going out so in the last few days I had started using all the Riels for buying food, water etc.

    I was living there for months as a volunteer. 🙂

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