From sleepy beach town to booming gambling mecca to bust, the transformation in Sihanoukville seems to be complete. With the governmental decree that all online gambling operations cease by January 1st in the Kingdom of Wonder, Sihanoukville is now a complete ghost town. So the question remains, was happens now? The expats that once inhabited this peaceful town are now all nearly gone, the Cambodian locals have all been priced out of their own city and now the Chinese that caused all this in the first place are gone as well. What now remains is a broken town with the remaining few left to pick up the pieces in the hopes of a better future that may never come.
First a little background is required. The big misnomer about Sihanoukville, and any casino town in Cambodia really, is that most of the gambling revenue is generated on the casino floor. This could not be further from the truth as what is made on table games is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the real money maker for these casinos, online gambling. When entering a casino in Sihanoukville one will notice that much of the gambling floor is dedicated to rows and rows of empty tables with absolutely no players. The table is only populated by a single dealer, always a young and pretty Khmer girl, with a video camera pointed at her. What is going on here is that she is dealing hands of baccarat that is being broadcast back in China where gamblers can get their fix in a land where such activities are illegal. Certain studies have shown that nearly 85% of the casinos revenue is generated from these virtual games. So when the government decreed all such activity illegal starting in 2020, it was no big surprise that the Chinese that once flooded into Sihanoukville left in droves.
So why the ban? To answer this question I think it is really important to note that the Chinese get a really bad rap in all of this. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot, namely "Chinese" and it is always in a negative connotation. Let us really think about what has happened in Sihanoukville over the past few years. You take a sleepy little town with just under 100,000 inhabitants and then suddenly introduce an additional 300,000 people from a foreign land. And of course these people came because gambling licenses, both live and online, were issued out as easily as the Sunday paper. With no real regulatory body nor a commission to overlook the casinos in any meaningful way, the newly licensed entities then set up operations to serve a clientele that lived in a land where the service being provided was completely illegal. And as there were no rules governing how these licenses were used they were then leased out, sub-leased and sub-sub-leased to groups who had no business running any sort of operation let alone one that involved gambling. Given all this, who did we think was going to show up to take advantage exactly? Every society has both members that impact society in a positive and negative way. I think it is safe to say that Sihanoukville got much of the latter when it came to this recent boom.
What is left now in the city are a plethora of Chinese businesses with no clientele to service. I read a story today that stated 56 of 75 licensed casinos in Sihanoukville have already closed their doors. With massive unemployment and no other industry ready to replace the Chinese ones that are quickly dying, it is near impossible to predict what might happen next. It is possible that both expats and locals may return and reopen businesses that once were successful. But this scenario seems unlikely given that most would probably fear that the same thing would just happen all over again. Let's not forget that this online ban was at the behest of the Chinese government and they have pledged billions of dollars in exchange for Cambodia's cooperation. Thus the likelihood that the Chinese are done in the Kingdom of Wonder is unlikely, especially since so many of them already inhabit other cities such as Phnom Penh. But we here in the capital city have experienced very little of what Sihanoukville has seen in terms of crime with the arrival of the Chinese. That can be attributed to the fact that the Chinese in Phnom Penh are not here for any reasons associated with gambling and that their interests are more mainstream and legitimate. I do believe that once Sihanoukville is built back up they should experience much of the same in terms of their relations with the Chinese.
So what in the meantime? I believe that the next 1-2 years is very crucial for the future of both Sihanoukville and the country at large. It is very possible that if the correct steps are not taken that the exact same thing or something close to it can happen all over again. So I propose something radical and look to one of our neighboring countries in Southeast Asia for a possible solution. I have always wanted to travel to the island of Boracay in the Philippines but when planning a trip in 2018 was dismayed to learn that the entire island was closed to tourists. This was done after President Duerte had declared the island a "cesspool" in light of all the pollution that had desecrated the region. I find many parallels with what has happened in Sihanoukville and so perhaps the best solution is to just close the city for one year. This would allow the city to fix its horrendous sewage system, clean up much of the pollution that has been caused by the many building projects and clean up the beaches that were once a tourist destination. Many of the projects in the city have already been stopped anyway and the money that the Chinese government has pledged to Cambodia can be used towards the many necessary fixes and to subsidize the people and businesses that will remain during such a closure. This would also give the government time to set up a proper governing body or commission to overlook activities such as gambling so that the same mistakes do not occur again.
There are those that say that you can never go home again. I think this is the case in Sihanoukville as those hoping for a return for what the city was a few years back will probably never come back. There is just simply too much money invested already and more to come for that to ever happen. What the town will eventually become depends heavily on what decisions are made and what occurs in the next 1-2 years. This whole thing started with an under-reaction, letting just about anyone come in to set up businesses that were ripe for ill repute if not done correctly. And now we are at the result of a complete over reaction in which nearly everyone has departed and left in the remains a broken city. While it may never be what it once was, Sihanoukville can be a great city in the future that is welcoming to all groups. Here is to hoping that the right steps are taken in this not so distant future in order to ensure a happier ending than the one we have now.
Whenever planning a move to another country, a question of paramount importance is just how much everything costs. There are a lot of trade offs when coming to a third world country, but the main thing that makes it all worth it is the relatively cheap cost of living. Cambodia is usually in these sorts of discussions but it is often difficult to pin down exact numbers as to how much everything costs. As the country continues to develop and progress, prices are often in flux and also everyone lives a different lifestyle so what may be reasonable for one may not be for another. I obviously cannot speak for everyone either, so I will not attempt and try to give an exact number for every item and service. Instead I will discuss what key elements of life have cost me here over the years, breaking everything down to a few key elements:
• Apartment/Home Rent
• Visa extensions
In the five plus years I have lived in Cambodia I have occupied ten different apartments/homes in three different cities. The easiest thing to do would be to list them all by chronological order:
• 1 bedroom market in Russian Market (Phnom Penh) - $350/month (2015)
• 1 bedroom in Sihanoukville - $150/month (2016)
• Studio in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $150/month (2016)
• 2 bedroom in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $350/month (2017)
• 1 bedroom in Sihanoukville - $380/month (2017)
• 1 bedroom in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $250/month (2018)
• Studio in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $150/month (2018)
• Studion in Kampot - $150/month (2018)
• 2 bedroom house in Kombol (Phnom Penh) - $270/month (2019)
• 1 bedroom in Russian Market (Phnom Penh) - $220/month (2020)
A few trends are instantly noticeable; one is that I really like to live in Daun Penh, prices in Phnom Penh have remained relatively stable while they have gone up in Sihanoukville. I have lived in two areas basically whenever I have stayed in Phnom Penh. The Russian Market area, where I currently live, is named after the local market once patronized by a large local Russian contingent. It is about 10-15 minutes outside of the town center and so prices are relatively low for apartment rentals. Many expats live there so the infrastructure is good and one can expect to find many expat oriented businesses, shops and restaurants. The other is Duan Penh which is near the Pontoon Night Club. The area is fairly centrally located to just about everything in town and provides a good variety of Khmer and foreign businesses. There certainly have been many developments over the years and for newer condos one can expect to pay much more. But there are still many rentals available for a low price and rental rates have remained very stable over the five years I have lived here. Sihanoukville is a very different story as when I first lived there three years ago I had a huge 1 bedroom apartment for only $150 per month. Fast forward 1.5 years and the one bedroom unit I occupied was $380 per month and also very much smaller. That unit was actually a bargain and a favor done by a friend of mine who owned the building. The last time I was in the beach city to play poker, studio units 35 minutes outside of town were going for $600 per month. I have been told as of late that prices have come down due to many Chinese leaving after the ban on online gambling. But even so I doubt they have come down to the rates I first encountered three years ago.
Visa extensions used to be very simple and affordable. They have been complicated as of late due to the requirement of needing either a work permit or an employment letter from an official business. Six moths extensions were previously available for a little over $150 and one year extensions for about $300. Those prices have gone up as services will now offer to push through extensions without any documentation. For six months one can now expect to pay around $250 and for one year extensions up to $400. These prices are still lower than a country like Thailand and certainly much easier, but the process is a bit more complicated than it once was. Still this is a very attractive feature of coming to Cambodia as it is both possible and affordable to stay here continuously without having to leave or make border runs.
One negative aspect of living in Cambodia is the price of electricity as the prices here are some of the most expensive in the world. What exacerbates this issue is that landlords who rent apartments to foreigners will often charge even higher than the government rate in order to make a profit. In reality electricity in Cambodia is about 720 riel/kwh, or less than $0.10 USD. I know this as this is the price listed on the government site and also once I had my wife rent a house for us in her name and this is what we were charged. We were also given the bill directly so that we could see each month what we were being charged. But when a foreigner rents a unit they will almost never be able to see their own bill. Instead the landlord will simply tell them the amount that is due and ask for it along with the rent. The rate they use for this charge is 1,000 riel/kwh, or about $0.25 USD/kwh. This practice is not illegal and is the case nearly 100% of the time when renting apartment in Phnom Penh. For a studio apartment I would pay roughly $125 per month when blasting the air conditioner every day. In a one bedroom I paid about $140 per month and about $175 in a two bedroom apartment in which I would sometimes turn on the unit in the second bedroom. But in the house that my wife was able to rent out, we lived in a three story building with 2 bedrooms and a unit in each room. In that residence we blasted both units all day and night and still paid only $150 per month.
Unlike utilities phone service and internet are both very affordable in Cambodia. There are three major companies when it comes to phone service; Smart, Cellcard and Metfone. Of the three the first two are the most popular and probably the most reliable. One can purchase monthly plans on both services for $8 that will come with 80 GB of data per month, unlimited calls and texts within the network and all with 4G or 4G+ speeds. Smart possibly has the wider coverage and will work in most cities throughout the country. Cellcard has less coverage but in the areas it does service the speeds are often faster as they offer 4G+. In Phnom Penh this is hardly an issue though as they both work fine within the city. There are several home internet companies but Opennet is probably the most known and used service. The last time I used their services I paid $110 in advance for 16 months of service with speeds up to 10 Mbps. The phone companies also offer home internet services and this is what I use currently with Smart. I paid for six months in advance for only $44 total, received a free modem and get unlimited data speeds up to 10 Mbps. It has gone out on me a couple of times in the three months I have used it, but nothing worth complaining about and for those playing poker online this option is more than fine. Once the six months I have already paid for runs out, I can pay monthly at a rate of $8 per month.
The next two categories of groceries and restaurants can often be treated as one category as there are those who almost always eat out and never cook, while other do just the opposite. And when eating out one's expenses can differ based on whether they eat local food or foreign food. I do a combination of all three; I buy some groceries to cook at home, will eat out at local establishments at times and also go out for Western food. In all I spend about $350 per month on food for myself living in this manner. But one can easily decrease or increase this amount depending on how they live. If one can survive on local food alone, breakfast can often cost as low as $1 and the other meals anywhere from $2.00 to $2.50 per plate. All local meals will come with rice and also free unlimited ice tea. Eating only local food one can easily spend less than $200 per month on food without ever having to cook at home. In fact Khmers do this as it's often more cost effective to eat meals individually from small restaurants and stalls rather than shopping and cooking them at home. For expats as well it can often cost more to grocery shop and cook at home. Western expats often want Western products but these can be more expensive and make a trip to the grocery store a costly one. For example, a simple large box of any breakfast cereal from Kellog's will cost around $7 per box. One can mitigate this a bit by shopping at local markets instead of Western ones, but even there certain products imported from other countries will always cost more. And of course one can greatly increase what they spend by eating out at Western restaurants every day. I had dinner last night where I spent $21 for myself in which the main course was $15, the appetizer $5 and the rice $1. Not all Western restaurants cost this much obviously, but one can easily see how things can add up quickly when living in this fashion.
Transportation is an expense that can also vary greatly from person to person. It used to be that tuk tuks and motos were the only way of getting around. One had to be a good negotiator whenever using these services as the drivers would fight fiercely for every last dollar. But times have changed greatly with the introduction of ride sharing apps. Much like Uber and Lyft in the West, here in Cambodia we have PassApp and Grab through which people can order tuk tuks, rickshaws (covered motos with a back seat), cars and even SUVs. The rickshaws are often used the most and what they are is basically an eggshell shaped seating area attached to the back of a moto. Most rides using this service will cost only $0.75 to $1 USD while the cars will run at $2.00 to $2.50 per ride and the SUVs from $3.50 to $5. Comparatively speaking, tuk tuks will often ask for $3-$4 for every ride. While one can usually negotiate most rides down to $2, that is still double the cost of a ride sharing app and in the case of the latter there is no need to negotiate as everything is measured and automated. I spend about $75 per month using these services but if it was a little bit more I would probably just rent or purchase a moto. I've seen used motos recently for as low as $300 with all the proper paperwork and renting one can go for anywhere from $75 to $90 per month.
This next category is one that is not particularly cogent to my life right now, but as it is for many I have decided to include it. There are several gyms in the Phnom Penh area, ranging from local outdoor gyms that cost less than $1 per day to modern facilities that have every piece of equipment under the sun along with a pool and sauna. For the latter prices vary a bit, but the last gym I was a member of charged me $550 per year. This was the Super Fit Gym in the Russian Market area and the price is fairly comparable to what other modern gyms will charge. Some have monthly rates but it is often more cost effective to pay by the year. My gym was three stories high with aerobics classes, rock climbing, separate sections for weights and machines and a fully decked out pool/sauna. Since I paid for the whole year in advance, it really motivated me to go every day. I do not belong to a gym presently, but if this was something I wanted to get back into, the cost of it would not be prohibitive.
There is one last category that I did not include in my original list, but can often be the most important one for many expats. I am of course talking about the nightlife here in Phnom Penh. There are those who never go out, never drink and for one reason or another do not want nor need the company of young women. If this applies to any of you reading this post, then please ignore this entire paragraph and move onto my final summary paragraph. But for those that want to participate in such a lifestyle, this aspect can often break or make one's stay in Cambodia. It is true that everything is cheaper here when compared to our home countries. But that quickly stops being the case when one goes out every single night and punts on drinks and girls like it is their last night on Earth. I will simply start by listing the prices of drinks in what I would call regular bars:
• draft beers $1
• canned beers $2
• high end bottled beers $3
• craft beers $4-$6
• cocktails and mixed drinks $2.50
• specialty drinks $3-$4
In hostess bars the drinks are priced a bit higher:
• draft beers $1.50
• canned beers $2.50
• high end bottled beers $3.50
• craft beers are not offered often in hostess bars
• cocktails and mixed drinks $3.50 to $6
• specialty drinks $4-$6
• lady drinks $3.50- $6
It is that last inclusion in the hostess bar list "lady drinks" that changes everything. If one is the type of person to hit these sorts of bars frequently, purchase many lady drinks and everything else that often comes along with that, then living in this country is no longer all that affordable. Once again, all these things are less expensive here than back home, but it can be difficult to find solace in that once the month is over and over $5K has been spent on these establishments. I once knew a poker player that would go out several times per week and easily spend at least $300 each night. And of course there are establishments even more expensive when considering night clubs and KTVs. As a group, my friends and I can easily spend $600 on a given night inside of a KTV when there may just be three of us going. And the clubs can be even pricier as girls will often ask for a $50 tip just for sitting with you and drinking your alcohol. One does not have to be a complete monk of course in order to afford living in this country and still enjoy these activities. One just has to not spend as if their lives depended on it and there are alternatives as drinks at expat bars are far cheaper and there are other ways to meet girls besides going to hostess bars.
In conclusion, I will just reproduce my original list here with prices that I currently pay:
• Apartment/Home Rent - $220/month
• Visa extensions - $30/month
• Utilities - $150/month
• Phone/Internet - $20/month
• Groceries - $100/month
• Restaurants - $350/month
• Transportation - $75
• Gym - $0
• Total - $945
So my core costs are at about $1,000 per month. I should add here that I am married with a baby girl and that adds to my costs considerably. I have not included those here, rather separating the costs that apply to myself only as that is what should be most cogent to those who are considering moving here. I am sure there are things important to the lives of others that I have omitted from this list. But the things that I have listed here should apply to most, if not all, and clearly demonstrate that life here is still very affordable. Once again, there are different elements of life that can add to these expenses whether or not it is choosing to have a family or enjoy the single life on a regular basis. If one can learn to carefully measure those decisions, it will go a long way towards determining being able to live in a country like Cambodia.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.