To explore a new place often goes along with some kind of expectations cooked by many different ingredients. The main ingredients for expectations are objective research on the one hand and on the other hand subjective experiences shared by friends, strangers or online.

travel pot ingredientsExpectations have two sides. Create hope and encouragement are the good parts whereas a lack of facing the reality belongs to the not so tasty ingredients.
The moment we set foot in another country is the moment of truth. All the information and third hand experience which we googled or got told before, will be proved right or wrong by ourselves.

In this month we had a closer look at Cambodia, a country we still don’t know for sure what to think about it. Maybe we’re not the only ones, but we were blind to see the true character of a country transforming into a tourist wonderland.

Siem Reap is a good example of this change. The city is fully overrun by tourists and all the Cambodians or – let’s face the truth – the rich local and international investors could do, is to serve their needs. Destroy and build resort after resort until there is nothing left for those this country truly belongs to, the Cambodians.

Here comes another good example of how unstable the information about traveling a new place can become over the years:

In some travel blog we read that accommodation in Siem Reap can be as low as $1 per night. Also the name of the hostel was mentioned. Having this information in the backs of our minds, we arrived in Siem Reap, headed to the recommended super cheap hostel and got knocked out.

In a span of 2 years the prices for a dorm room quintupled (got 5 times higher).

This experience taught us a good lesson about raising expectations:
Expectations shouldn’t given more value than little helpers to plan a trip.
Never let expectations solely determine the way you approach the New.

Here comes a list of examples regarding our expectations and how reality proved it totally different.

Traveling Cambodia for the first time

What we expected vs. how reality hit us

Expectation: A country full of jungle and nature

Cambodia sounds exotic. It sounds dangerous. It sounds wild. We were prepared for facing the challenges of the jungle. Hopefully there would be no need to kill a snake or even a tiger?

Reality: A barren wasteland

Cambodia countryside
Empty fields, burning fields, barely any tree in sight. We visited Bokor National Park, expecting to see some nature. Yes, there was some nature, but how can they still call it a national park if half the park is turned into a construction site?

Expectation: A country mainly popular among backpackers traveling Southeast Asia

Abandoned French colonial house in Bokor National Park

When growing the idea of traveling Cambodia, we had this totally crazy image in our heads about how unexplored and cheap everything will be. We considered Cambodia as one of the less traveled Asian countries and thought we can stay there on little money. When we heard about how inflationary the Riel, the local currency, is, we already saw ourselves living and dining like kings.

Reality: An expensive tourist trap

cambodia expensive resort

Rich families, mainly from England, Australia and Korea, wasting their time in expensive resorts and restaurants. Get food at a local place to save money, people will tell you. Getting food at a real local place can be a daunting task. They don’t speak English, they are closed half the day, run out of food, there are no menus of price lists and everyone just stares at you in a way that makes you feel unwanted there.

If you go to a restaurant, expect to pay extreme prices – for breakfast, a toast with an egg the cheapest item on the menu for $2.50 – or more. Who in their right mind will ever pay $12 for a simple pizza?

Don’t expect local food will be cheaper. It’s not. It can more expensive than a western meal. We had to survive on one portion of noodles or rice a day for our stay here.

We expected to tour the country by motorbike but were shocked at the prices. In Kampot, we could still get one for $4 (already a bit pricey compared to our previous experiences) but in Battambang, the price rose to $7 and finally, in Siem Reap the regular price was $10, with some places charging as much as $15.

The only good news regarding prices: at $0.50, beer is (still) reasonably affordable, but some people try to get away with charging you double but look around and you may find prices even lower.

Expectation: Danger


Every book and website advises vaccinations. Tap water is infected with typhoid and cholera; malaria is everywhere. Walking outside in the dark is dangerous, people are robbed all the time. People will scam tourists everywhere.

The list of scams in Cambodia is endless. From having to bribe officials at the airport to rental places stealing the scooter back when you rent it to restaurants that refuse to return your change.

Reality: A safe country

Phnom Penh balloons

Barely any mosquitoes anywhere. Tapwater may not be drinkable but doesn’t get you sick, unlike in more popular tourist areas such as Bali.

The people, although a bit grumpy at times, are generally very helpful and friendly. We didn’t encounter a single scam the whole time we were here. Tuktuk drivers are actually very helpful and will give you all the advice you need – as long as you take a ride.

Expectation: Less touristy, more quiet

Bokor national park twisty road

Coming from Bali, where tourism is about to destroy the once existing tranquillity, we were hoping for scenic places away from tourist crowds.

Reality: Cambodia in some places has already changed into a second Kuta or Bangkok

Tina at Phnom Penh market

Looking at foreigners like they are walking ATMs, sellers swarm around you like annoying mosquitoes to offer you a ride. Even weed or opium are sold like noodles and ice cream. No matter how many times you say no, the next person will just try again.

Opium, narcotics or Valium pills are sold in pharmacies and can be purchased easily without the need of a receipt. Still, we were constantly approached by drug dealers, reminding us of places such as Kuta.

Expectation: Having to deal with two currencies: the riel and the US dollar

riel note

Before we arrived in Cambodia, we informed ourselves about the typical things to pay attention to. One of the main bullet points was the local currency, the riel.

The dollar would be accepted by the “touristy” places, the riel by the “regular people”. We had to get riel to get around but nowhere outside Cambodia will anyone change riel for other currencies.

Reality: There is no need for riel

Cambodian streets - burnt money

Oblivious tourists were lining up at the airport money changer to get some riel (with a $5 exchange fee) but actually, the US dollar is the default currency.

Contrary to the hints of several travel blogs, there was no need to stash riel in order to pay for things under $1. Riel is just used instead of cents: 4000 riel is always one dollar, so when having to pay $0.50, you just pay 2000 riel. There is no local that would prefer riel over dollar.

2 comments on “Cambodia: Expectation versus Reality”

  1. Another interesting article, just a couple things. They do not sell opium in pharmacies nor narcotics. There are mild narcotics like codeine but it’s very expensive. They only sell Tramadol which is sold in numerous countries. It’s only an expensive tourist trap if you go to expensive tourist traps within the country, otherwise you said you spent 13 dollars a day. That’s ridiculously cheap. There’s plenty of places for real Cambodians, it’s just that Westerners aren’t able to stay there. The reason you felt unwanted at the local food shops is not because you’re unwanted it’s just that the people there know that you will not be able to order, first because you don’t speak the language, second because you have no idea what the foods are and most important, even if you were able to order you probably would not like what you’re getting, as the food at these local places is very low quality and not what we eat. All this probably made them nervous about you being there. So it’s just the fact it’s a very poor country, you can’t do stuff like you expect.

    1. Hi Andre,
      great advice you’re sharing here, especially about the local food stalls. Sometimes you want to experience authentic local street food but after all you’ve got to realize that it might cause serious stomach issues. Nevertheless we tried to find stalls which made a clean impression, often they’re indicated by the amount of tourists eating there. A short written menu in English can also minimize the stress of ordering. 🙂
      Thanks for sharing your own experience and clarifying things!

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