Cambodia scams: US dollar and currency scams

Foreigners living in large cities in Cambodia have the distinct advantage of using US dollars to pay for most goods and services (for now). Americans especially will appreciate being able to withdraw funds from their US bank accounts without having to ponder the classic currency exchange question of the ages — do you withdraw in local currency or USD?

However, the lack of currency import and export controls, and other relatively loose financial regulation, leaves several traps for the unwary, and can lead to expensive and embarrassing transactions. This is not a new problem, but one that seems to bubble up especially around major holidays and during tourist season. Here are some classic Cambodia currency traps:

Ripped bills Cambodia

Ripped, torn, or worn: These US dollars were all rejected in Cambodia.

Real money in bad condition

In Cambodia, US dollars that are not in pristine condition are often rejected. If a vendor is willing to accept them, or if you take ripped or worn bills to a money changer, you will usually get 5-10% less than their actual value. Don’t worry, your worn riel are probably fine as long as they are in one piece!

Business owners and shopkeepers tell us it is because they cannot get full value for money in poor condition from money-changers, and given what a hassle it is to reject customers making large purchases we are inclined to believe them. In the United States, banks can send ripped or torn bills back to the government to have them exchanged for new bills. Banks in Cambodia do not have that option, and for that reason, most will not change ripped or torn bills.

While refusing to accept ripped or torn bills is not a scam, many vendors and stores will try to pass off ripped and torn bills on tourists and expats, knowing those bills will not be accepted in Cambodia. Don’t fall for this; inspect your change!

Look for:

  • Rips or tears of any size (seriously, the small ones will get you!)
  • Writing or stamps on bills
  • Old bills that may not be ripped but have heavy creases from use

Old bills or denominations

The older US dollars (with the smaller presidential portraits) are not accepted in Cambodia, nor are most of the pre-2010 $100 bills without the latest authenticity features.

The US $2 bill used to be considered good luck in Cambodia, but now they are often not accepted.

Look for:

  • “Small head”-style US bills
  • $2 bills
Cambodia spirit money

The top bill is counterfeit and the bottom is a fake — “spirit money.” It actually says “copy” on it!

Counterfeit bills and “spirit money”

Spirit money is ceremonial bills made to be burned as an offering in religious ceremonies and for festivals. Usually, the bills are obviously smaller than real bills and are printed on different paper. If you see a $100 on the sidewalk around Chinese New Year, chances are it’s not your lucky day!

However, “good” fakes are also in circulation, and some unscrupulous cashiers may try to pass off fake or bad condition bills to tourists and foreigners, especially those under the influence. These photos come from friends who were having a good night in Sihanoukville until they woke up the next morning to find that their change from drinks purchases was essentially worthless!

Look for:

  • Any stray characters (see khmer script on the $50 bill above)
  • Bills that are a different size or texture than your other dollars
  • Obviously small bills that are blowing like tumbleweeds down the street or being burned in a small can
  • Marker lines (see photo below) that might indicate that the bill has failed a counterfeit-detecting pen test
counterfeit money Cambodia

The black marker line on this $100 bill means that it did not pass a counterfeit test.

Changing money at the border

If you cross a land border in Cambodia, you may be told that you need to change money into riel, or that there are no ATMs in Siem Reap. This is a scam. If you change money at the border you will be given an atrocious exchange rate. Know that there are ATMs in Cambodia that dispense US dollars and that you will be able to use US dollars all over the country. In fact, when you get your Cambodia visa you are required pay in US dollars.
Look for:

  • Shady dudes trying to talk you into changing money into riel

Currency exchange

Most money changers in Cambodia— apart from at the airport — give very good rates, often better than what you would get abroad. So if you’re tempted to change US dollars into your country’s currency before heading home, be aware that some money changers will use the opportunity to pass off bad bills.

The editor of this website has ruefully admitted to being suckered twice at a currency exchange place in Siem Reap. The first time she was give a $100 bill with a corner cut off, which was not accepted by merchants in Cambodia. The second time she was changing dollars into British pounds and was given bills that while still valid, were out of circulation and not accepted in stores (they had to be exchanged at a bank). So heed her advice and check your bills carefully (and make sure the amount is correct) before leaving the currency exchange counter.

Look for:

  • Old bills
  • Worn, ripped or torn bills
  • Count the amount — they will often round down and not give you the change

Find out more about money and currency in Cambodia.

The best backpacker hostels in Sihanoukville

Before deciding which Sihanoukville hostel is right for you, it is important to understand the layout of town. There are three tourist hotspots: Victory Hill, Serendipity Beach, and Otres Beach. All areas have their own unique characteristics and are spaced along the coast around 7km apart from one another. In this guide to Sihanoukville’s best hostels, we’ll cover backpacker hostels in all three areas.

Monkey Republic Sihanoukville

Monkey Republic is one of the most popular hostels on Serendipity Beach Road.

Serendipity Beach is where all the action is. It is located at the center of the Sihanoukville coast line and delivers pretty much everything you could want from a coastal town: beach bars, loud music, and drinks served in buckets.

Victory Hill is the quietest of the three, and is more of an expat community than a tourist destination. It has some good restaurants for bargain prices, and it may be a place to keep in mind if you want to get away from the party scene in Sihanoukville.
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Which Cambodian island paradise is right for you?

With azure seas lapping at white sandy beaches, palm trees, and a horizon dotted with tropical islands, southern Cambodia is reminiscent of Thailand of days gone by. Thoughts of Cambodia normally conjure up images of temples, yellow-robed monks, and children riding buffalo through rice paddies, but the country also offers island paradises with days spent lazing on lush tropical beaches and nights partying away at an all-night jungle rave. With so many options to choose from you may wonder how to choose, but this handy summary will help you find your perfect Cambodia island destination.

Where the Cambodian coast meets the Gulf of Thailand, the ocean is dotted with hundreds of islands, with over 25 off the coast of Sihanoukville and Ream National Park alone. Although some are uninhabited and others are privately owned, there is definitely a sandy island paradise somewhere that’s just waiting to tick all your boxes!

Koh Rong Koh Toch

Koh Rong is known for cheap accommodation and more fun than you can handle.

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Understanding Phnom Penh property types

Cambodia’s capital city has more and more housing built every day, but most Phnom Penh real estate fall into one of six categories: Traditional Khmer houses, Khmer-style shophouses, renovated shophouses, Western apartments, full-service apartments, and freestanding villas.

Cambodian wooden house

Expats romanticize Cambodian wooden houses, but they aren’t easy to find!

Traditional Khmer houses

As Phnom Penh grows, traditional wooden Khmer houses are harder and harder to find in the city. Cambodian wooden houses are made of wood and on stilts (this isn’t the first year Phnom Penh has flooded, after all); traditionally the breezy area under the house was used for hanging hammocks, lounging, and keeping livestock safe. Today, almost all available wooden houses in Phnom Penh have been renovated, and the downstairs will have been turned into a ground floor made from concrete, and many have been turned into restaurants. While the idea of a wooden house is charming, they can be hot and prone to mosquitoes — many expats find themselves spending most of their time in the concrete part of the house because it’s easier to keep cool with air-conditioning. Continue reading

Is Sihanoukville gay friendly?

If you count the number of gay bars and gay hotels in Sihanoukville it would be easy to come to the conclusion that this is not a gay-friendly town.

Located in a vibrant and beautiful seaside town with a population of nearly 200,000 people, Sihanoukville’s only gay bar seems a bit lonely when compared to similar-sized cities in Thailand. However, with the help of a gay friend who lives in and loves Sihanoukville, I decided to dig a little deeper than just a simple bar count.

The first step of my investigation was a series of conversations which confirmed that what is true for gay culture in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is also true in Sihanoukville: the ultra-accepting and friendly Khmer culture extends equally to homosexuals and heterosexuals.

After plenty of insightful conversations with both straight and gay Cambodians and expats, I was convinced that Cambodia is like any other progressive country. They still have some traditional families and rural communities where it is difficult to be LGBT, but for the most part sexual orientation does not play a role in how you will be judged.

Gay Sihanoukville

OGA Bar, the heart of Sihanoukville’s gay community.

The second step of my mission to find out if Sihanoukville is gay friendly took me to OGA Bar, the lone gay bar in town and the heart of the gay community, and I emphasize heart! Continue reading

Surviving dengue fever in Cambodia

A few weeks ago I suffered through dengue fever…again. This is either the second or third time I’ve had the virus in Cambodia, and I’m sharing my experiences here both to garner sympathy and as a cautionary tale.

dengue fever Cambodia

Getting dengue fever in Cambodia — not a good buzz.

Every time I have had dengue, despite showing similar symptoms, it has hit me differently. Last month I was feeling fine when all of a sudden I got a terrible lower backache that I attributed to sitting in front of a computer for too long. But a few hours later I started vomiting, and shortly after that was running a fever, getting the chills, and feeling like electric shocks were running up and down my body. I went from feeling dandy to being in the the grips of a serious bout of dengue in just a few hours. For two days I thought I was going to die, but it disappeared just as quickly as it came on — my fever subsided on the third night and I went back to feeling normal, although very tired and run down. Continue reading

Review: Suns of Beaches hostel, Koh Rong

The amusingly named Suns of Beaches is a brand-new Koh Rong hostel on a beautiful private beach. It’s so new, in fact, that they have just started accepting their first guests. We took a tour of the place and saw what was on offer and are confident that Suns of Beaches is going to be popular.

Suns of Beaches Koh Rong

The private beach in front of Suns of Beaches on Koh Rong.

Right now there’s an eight-bed mixed dorm bungalow, with more on the way. One night in the dorm costs just $3.50, which is a steal. This is a soft opening price and will almost certainly go up in the future. There are also camping options, in the form of tents on the beach, each with a double futon mattress and pillows. Continue reading

The best gyms in Siem Reap

Siem Reap isn’t known for its fitness scene, but more and more gyms are popping up all of the time, and there’s a range of options to appeal to just about anyone. In this post we’ll cover the best gyms in Siem Reap, including Western-style, local gyms, a fight club, and lots of classes.

Sokha gym Siem Reap

One of the most popular gyms in town with expats, Sokha isn’t perfect but it is air-conditioned.

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Review: Giant Ibis bus, Phnom Penh to HCMC

Let’s face it, long bus journeys in Southeast Asia are unlikely to be the most fun part of traveling in the region. When a land border crossing is added into the mix, it becomes even more unpleasant, but is something of a right of passage. Luckily, Giant Ibis takes the pain out of crossing the Cambodia-Vietnam border, with a six hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to HCMC.

giant ibis hcmc

The Giant Ibis bus from PhnomPenh to HCMC (Saigon).

Several bus companies cover the popular Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) route. Of all the Cambodia bus companies, Giant Ibis is the best, unless of course you are looking for the kind of experience that includes blaring Khmer karaoke, lack of air-con and cramped seating. Giant Ibis buses all come with powerpoints, free WiFi and fairly spacious seating even for a larger person. They also offer a snack when you board the bus and the capable staff make you feel as though if something were to go wrong, they might be able to do something about it.

If you are headed from Phnom Penh to Vietnam, remember that you need to get your visa before getting on the bus. The exceptions is that citizens of Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK may enter visa-free for 15 days. Several other Asian countries are also eligible for the visa exemption. If you’re not on the list, here’s how to get a Vietnam visa in Phnom Penh. On the other hand, if you are headed from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, you can get a visa at the border.

Giant Ibis HCMC PP

This is about as luxurious as it gets on this route!

From Phnom Penh it’s 170 km to the border and takes about four hours. It is important to be aware that when you board the bus in Phnom Penh the Giant Ibis rep will take your passport to check whether or not you have the correct visa, and ask you to fill out your Cambodia exit card. The rep will keep the passport and get everyone stamped out of Cambodia at the same time.

There’s a brief stop between the borders at a strange restaurant and giant duty-free complex (with ridiculously cheap booze) where you can have lunch and browse the shops while they process the visas. While you are shopping, the Giant Ibis rep will be busy getting everyone’s visas stamped. You can change money but the rate is extortionate, so get Vietnamese Dong in Phnom Penh before you leave.

Then it’s back on the bus to the Vietnamese border. Once at the border you will get your passport back and cruise through immigration (because you’ve already been stamped in). Then you’ll get your luggage x-rayed and back onto the bus. It’s important to note that they are currently in the process of building new (huge) border crossing offices, so this process may change somewhat in the future.

Giant Ibis PhnomPenh HCMC

Giant Ibis seats have powerpoints to keep your phones charged.

Once you are through here, the Giant Ibis bus will be waiting for you. Once everyone is back on, it’s another two and a half hours to Ho Chi Minh City. When you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City the bus drops you one street over from Pham Ngu Lao, which is the main drag for backpacker restaurants and bars. The traffic is notoriously faster and even more chaotic in Ho Chi Minh than Phnom Penh so be careful crossing the road, and the office can be hard to spot.

On the return journey, you can get a Cambodia visa at the border as long as you’re from one of the approved countries. Tourist visas cost $30. Overall, it’s a surprisingly easy bus journey and border crossing without any of the scams that are usually seen at overland borders. The Giant Ibis staff will give you the option of paying $5 for them to process your visa, or you can do it yourself. Many tourists choose to let the staff do the work for them so as to not have to deal with immigration officials. It’s not a scam, it’s just a way to speed the process along and it is optional.

Tickets on Giant Ibis between Phnom Penh and HCMC/Saigon cost $18. Unlike every other company that operates on this route, Giant Ibis charges the same price to Cambodians and foreigners. You can book at any travel agent or guesthouse in Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Minh City, or you can also book on the Giant Ibis website for an extra $1 and select your own seat.

Giant Ibis schedule:
Phnom Penh – Ho Chi Minh City: 8:00 a.m.
Ho Chi Minh City – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m.

Giant Ibis

3Eo Street 106, next to the night market, Phnom Penh
T: 023 987 808
37, Street 7 Makara, Behind Sokimex Gas Station, Kampot
T: 023 999 333

Check other buses that go from Phnom Penh to HCMC (and vice-versa)

What’s new in Battambang’s restaurant scene

As the city grows and grows it seems that every day there are new restaurants in Battambang opening up. Meanwhile some of the older establishments have changed hands and gotten a makeover. Here’s a review of some of the newer offerings around town:

Vintage Wine Bar Battambang

Vintage Wine Bar in Battambang

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