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.