Reporting from: Siem Reap, Cambodia

This is the other side of Cambodia: laid back, more rural, more touristy. The economy in Siem Reap is based around the hordes of tourists that descend upon temples like Angkor Wat in the soon-to-arrive high season when the rain stops.

Just a few minutes away from the shrines, many of the estimated 70% of Cambodians who grow rice practice their trade on fields as small as thirty by one hundred meters. While some farms are being combined into larger, more scalable tracts, many are still owned via “soft titles” by families who reclaimed their land rights after the Khmer Rouge got tossed out.

These are the families who grow rice to feed their families. Some farmers grow other crops – like chilis, which they turn into more preservable chili powder and sell within Cambodia or to Eastern Thailand – but as more and more farmers have branched out into such crops, supply has grown too high, confusing farmers who fear they will have nowhere to sell their products. Someone who could help them export simple products like Cambodian chili powder would be a godsend.

After all, many of these farmers rely on Cambodia’s cheap cost of living – and their subsistence crops – to survive. Earnings (well) under $1,000 a year are the norm just outside the cities.

To live in Cambodia takes an adventurous spirit. Nevertheless, you could spend your days in Phnom Penh’s upscale BKK1 district, full of nice apartments and pricey, Western-style cafes. You could even eat fish and chips at any of the tout-laden backpacker restaurants along the riverfront.

But that’s not the real Cambodia. So just how cheap is the cost of living in Cambodia?

Housing prices in Cambodia

When it comes to apartments, you can get a pretty good deal. Local classifieds websites (Craigslist isn’t a thing here) offer passable apartments starting at $200 a month. Areas like 7 Makara and BKK 3 offer remodeled, Westerner-friendly digs with reasonable price tags. For $300 a month you could live rather comfortably; and for $500-$800 a month you could have a pretty decent pad near everything the city has to offer in a quiet part of BKK1.

Well, as quiet as things can be in a city with non-stop development that often goes 24/7.

The main concern when shopping for an apartment in Cambodia is to make sure that it has hot water. If you’re willing to take nothing but cold showers, you can find places for $50 a month. If you’re like me, you’ll make sure to ask if your new home includes hot water, as well as an air conditioner.

One of the big things in Phnom Penh right now is buying Cambodian-style apartments, renovating them with new air conditioners, nice floors, and lots of paint, and selling them at a premium. It’s the oldest game in the book, but it seems to be working… at least for now. If you’d rather buy than rent, you can find decent-sized apartments in average (yet safe) parts of town in the $30,000s; expect to pay a little north of $10,000 for a full remodel.

Transportation costs

Driving in Cambodia is expensive. Or at least owning a car is. While the government is pretty pro-business overall, it has allowed only one company to import all of the decent, drivable cars. Everyone else gets to import salvaged cars and scrap metal.

Sky high import taxes of over 100% drive the price of owning a car up beyond what most people can afford. Want to pay $11,000 for a 2001 Camry? Come to Cambodia. Prices differ on the engine size and other factors, but it’s all around bad.

Gas isn’t cheap, either – about $4 a gallon. Most people here drive fuel-efficient motorbikes that cost about $1,500 and require a lot less paperwork. When they need to fill up the tank, they pull up to a roadside stand and buy gasoline kept in old one-liter Coke bottles. Pour it in and go.

Food prices in Cambodia

Among other day-to-day expenses, food may be your largest cost. Unfortunately, it’s not as cheap as you might suspect it would be in an emerging market.

Yes, there are carts on the street near the Central Market or other areas selling pork on the cheap. There’s even the occasional street stall near the riverside offering vegetable spring rolls for $0.12 a pop.

By and large, however, living a Western lifstyle in Cambodia will cost you more than you might think. There are few Western chains: KFC, DQ, a Burger King at the airport, and a few coffee shops. Pricey local shops serve demand from expats and tourists for Western food, charging as much as $11 for a small plate of tacos or $4 for a halfway decent hamburger. Indian food is plentiful and is relatively inexpensive, but you could still easily spend $8-10 for a decent dinner if you want a little meat.

Local fast food chains offer up cheap meals, but expats don’t seem to like them.

Even Khmer food doesn’t come cheap as a foreigner. I spent $2.50 on a take-away carton of vegetable fried rice at a street stall off the tourist track. Even taking away a small “white person tax”, it’s still expensive in a city where plenty of people earn under $100 a month.

If you want to gobble up tuna sandwiches on the riverfront, expect to pay $5 for the privilege. No, it’s not prohibitively expensive, but you can get crappy lunches in the United States for $5 or $6. When you consider that streets not far from the center of Phnom Penh flood when it rains too hard, prices seem a bit costly.

Comparing the cost of living in Cambodia

I’d estimate that you could live in Ho Chi Minh City for the same price as you could in Phnom Penh IF you favor the mocha latte and cheesecake lifestyle. Rent is cheaper here, but as more of a frontier market, Western food is pricier.

Here in Siem Reap, rents start at about $400 and go up to about $1,000 for a pretty nice villa. For $3,000 a month, you could have a self-supporting compound with a mansion on it. Hopefully, however, you’d either be retired or have a business in the tourism trade.

The cost of living in Cambodia is reasonable compared to many places, but don’t underestimate the extra costs involved with living a Western lifestyle in an emerging frontier market. Cambodia imports a lot of goods other countries produce locally. Also, infrastructure is growing quickly to keep up with demand.

I see great investment opportunities in Cambodia for savvy people, but don’t come expecting $0.25 meals the way some overseas living “gurus” tout.

For more “boots on the ground” information and help starting a life or business abroad, contact Nomad Capitalist here.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: May 15, 2020 at 12:03PM