Finding your next adventure...

Cambodia money

Which currency will I use in Cambodia, how do I get some and what's it worth

This Cambodia money post explains the slightly complicated dual currency system; which one you’re likely to use, what it’s worth and how to obtain it.

The official currency in Cambodia is the riel with approximate exchange rates being 5,200 for one UKP or 4,500 for a Euro while a dollar will get you around 4,000. Conveniently, the nice round latter number is the main one you’ll need to bother about. Also conveniently, and unlike certain other Southeast Asian currencies which also involve long strings of zeros, (we’re talking about Vietnamese dong and the Lao kip), the dollar exchange rate never varies by more than a small fraction. (Fluctuations with the Euro and Pound exchange rates reflect their fluctuations vis-a-vis the dollar.)

Cambodia money
Approximately 1 UKP (above) and 2p (below)

Firstly, the Cambodian riel is not an internationally tradeable currency and you’d have a very hard job obtaining any outside Cambodia even if you wanted to. Which you don’t. (Yes we know you’re thinking of ‘get real’ puns.)

From 1975 to 1980 – the Khmer Rouge period and immediate aftermath – Cambodia didn’t have any currency at all, (Pol Pot had banned money!), so, with the influx of foreign aid and, importantly the UN, in the 80s and 90s US dollars became the de-facto currency. Despite the re-introduction of the riel, this has continued to the present day so Cambodia currently has a dual system of dollars and riel with the two being completely interchangeable. US coins are not in circulation so fractions of a dollar are represented by riel. 25 cents is 1,000 riel, 50 cents is 2,000 and so on.

Sundowner, Kep Crab Market
Be warned, a fruit juice will set you back twice as much as a beer

If you’re charged $2 for a fruit shake you can pay with 8,000 riel, $1 plus 4,000 riel or simply $2. If something costs $1.50 then you’ll receive 2,000 riel change. A traditional problem was a lack of higher denomination notes so even changing $20 would result in a very bulky wallet. In order to remedy a situation where the national currency functions as loose change, the Bank of Cambodia has introduced larger notes (up to 50,000, so $12.50) and declared an intention to gradually phase out at least smaller US ones. Larger USD notes are also subject to much closer scrutiny these days and any slight marks or damage will result in the note being refused. (If you do obtain – or already have – USD before arrival, be very careful of their condition.)

Having said that, one of the first things you’ll see on exiting Phnom Penh International Airport is a long row of colourful ATMs. Most will accept any commonly used foreign cards and most will offer you the choice of withdrawing riel or dollars. You’re probably going to be charged for this withdrawal, (generally in the region of $5 although this does depend upon the bank), so while ATMs are now widely found all over the country, if you make too many small withdrawals it’ll cost you. (We recommend using ATMs outside of banks rather than outside of minimarts.)

A perennial problem is that most machines now only issue USD in multiples of one hundred so if you withdraw $3 you’ll receive 3 $100 bills. (Not much use for paying a tuk-tuk or buying a coffee.) Apart from security issues, that’s another good reason for using one outside of a bank since you can then simply take the large note up to the counter and ask for small change. (Bank clerks are used to this while many city banks have absurdly long opening hours.)

Despite the new larger denominations, withdrawing large quantities of riel will still result in a large wad and of course, nobody wants to get stuck with a bunch of riel at the end of the trip. (We’d also admit that we find Cambodia money rather confusing – the notes’ colours are not well-defined, especially in low light, and you do need to double-check the number of zeros.)

In line with the Bank of Cambodia’s intended strategy, increasingly – in Phnom Penh – you’ll see prices marked in riel. This is not so in smaller towns, (including Siem Reap), and rural areas but having a few riel is useful. However, you don’t want 1 million and consistently withdrawing $50 at a time is expensive. Bear in mind that if you start out with smaller dollar bills, (that you’ve obtained by changing your $100 note at a Phnom Penh bank or exchange bureau), you will rapidly end up with a pocket full of riel that you’ve collected as change in markets and coffee shops. These will include 100s, (barely worth the paper they’re printed on), 500s and 1,000s. Note that, while the zeros are impressive, 1,000, (less than 20p), is still not a suitable tip in a restaurant or for a driver – even in Cambodia. So, save them up as 4 of those do make a dollar which will get you a beer or coffee in some places.)

Another Kep sunset, Cambodia
That’s probably cost you 4,000 riel or $1

So, for anyone considering one of our Cambodia tours, with regards to Cambodia money; we’d say, for now at least, don’t try getting any in advance, withdraw dollars from an ATM outside a bank on arrival, obtain smaller notes at the counter and don’t worry if you end up with a pocket full of smaller riel.