Because I’m always scrimping on vacations, I plan my foreign trips around locations that are cheap for Americans.
That’s why we’ve been to Mexico, Thailand and Peru, and I hope a future trip will be to Cambodia, where gorgeous beaches, historic temples, rain forests and ancient cultures await.
My friend Tom Gordon and his wife, Cris Peterson, not only enjoy vacationing there regularly, but have launched a small charity called The Pepper Project that sells gourmet Kampot pepper and other Cambodian products from their small storefront in Orange, Calif., and donates profits back to organizations there. (Note: Tom used to be an editor at the Register.)
Since I’m hoping to visit Cambodia soon, I asked Tom for some tips on touring the “Kingdom of Wonder.”
Bottom line: Cambodia is probably one of the best places to travel on a budget, he said.
Here are Gordon’s tips:
1. Take a tuk-tuk. There’s no need to take an expensive taxi in Cambodia. Tuk-tuks (motorbikes towing trailers with bench seats) are everywhere. In Bangkok, many tuk-tuk drivers will cheat you. They’ll take you to shops where they get a kickback. Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers are overwhelmingly good guys. They work hard and they hustle. A few bucks will get you a ride across town.
A word of warning: Hold on to your belongings. Cris and I were comfortably seated in a tuk-tuk, chatting away, when a guy riding on the back of a passing motorbike tried to grab her purse. She held on and, after a brief tug of war, she won. That problem seems to be on the rise.
2. Try a moto. If you want even cheaper transportation, try a moto. There are young guys on beat-up motorbikes waiting at almost every corner. For a dollar or two they will take you where you want to go. But words of warning here as well: Moto drivers are usually from rural provinces and speak little English.
You better know where you are going because, basically, they will keep going until you tell them to stop, they run out of gas or they hit the ocean.
3. Get clean currency. This is an easy one. Before your visit to Cambodia, ask your banker for clean, unmarked bills in all denominations — Cambodians hate dirty or torn money.
4. Use your dollars. The U.S. dollar is accepted virtually everywhere and, in fact, most prices are in U.S. dollars. In the big cities — Phnom Penh and Siem Reap — there are ATMs everywhere that dispense U.S. dollars. You will get change in Cambodian riel. When you get it, simply tuck it into a corner of your wallet. Riel are great for tipping. There are 4,000 riel to a dollar.
5. Don’t buy from kids. Cambodia is one of the poorest nations on Earth. Many kids sell stuff on the street — knock-off sunglasses, books, postcards. Please don’t buy from them. The kids are bright and cute as can be, but because they are on the streets they are not in school. In addition, they are targets for child predators. Instead, bring along small toys like Hot Wheels or Beanie Babies. When a child starts hounding you to buy their trinkets, hand him or her that small gift. This lets them be kids for a few minutes and doesn’t promote their exploitation.
6. Don’t get scammed. Would you visit an orphanage in the U.S. to photograph the kids who live there? Probably not. Don’t do it in Cambodia either. Many of the orphanages are scams. Most of the kids aren’t orphans at all. You’ll also see women begging with tiny babies in their arms. This is a scam. I had a friend who watched the change of shifts as one begging woman handed a lifeless-looking baby — possibly drugged — off to another woman. Orphanages/schools that charge tourists to “teach” for a week should also be avoided. Friends International is a group that helps street kids. Its motto: “Children are not tourist attractions.”
7. Save on hotel rooms. Sure, you can stay at the Raffles for hundreds of dollars a night. We stay at a small place called the Blue Lime. For $75 a night we get a room with a private pool out the back door and a tasty breakfast in the morning. In Cambodia, that’s luxury living. Clean rooms with air conditioning can easily be found for $20 and less.
8. Eat cheap. A nice meal will cost you $5. You can spend more or less, depending on your budget. It’s not all noodles and rice. Limoncello restaurant on the riverfront in Phnom Penh serves the best spaghetti Bolognese I have ever had. Viva has decent Mexican food, but be warned, they make salsa with Thai chili instead of jalapenos. It’s hot. A meal at either place goes for $5-$6.
9. Speak English. Khmer is tough — for me, anyway. It took me three years to learn how to order a glass of white wine (srah sor). But even today when I order, most waiters look at me like I am babbling some unknown language. Most young people speak at least a little English these days. You can easily communicate in most restaurants, markets and shops.
10. Go to the Russian Market. I am no expert on watches, but when you can get a Rolex for $25 it is either 1) a really good deal or 2) a fake. The Russian Market is a huge, sprawling, sweltering maze of shops.
After about 50 trips to the market, I almost know my way around. You can bargain for watches, jewelry, souvenirs, DVDs, clothes, auto parts and food. In other words, almost anything. For a first-time visitor to the Russian Market, you may want to flee after 30 to 45 minutes, searching for fresh air. But it is an experience that cannot be missed.
11. Make sure to haggle. Haggling is a must. Take the price they offer, cut it in half as a starting point. Keep in mind — as you drive a hard bargain — most Cambodians are poor. A difference of 50 cents on an item likely means nothing to you. To them it might mean dinner for their family.
12. Shop for good. It’s easy to shop at organizations that make a difference: Cambodian Handicraft Association (25 disabled women), Khmer Creations (at-risk women), Yodicraft (80 disabled young people), Daughters of Cambodia (former sex workers) or Friends International (protecting street kids) are some of our favorites. Their products are unique and carry a special meaning.
13. Buy travel insurance. There are two places you don’t want to be: one is Syria, the other is a Cambodian hospital. Neither is conducive to a long life. When you visit, make sure you have travel insurance.
It might be the best money you’ve ever spent because if you get hurt badly you’ll want to get to Bangkok as soon as you can.
Here’s a little story: Our friend and his very pregnant wife got into a car accident near the coast in Cambodia. His wife was taken to a local hospital and told they would have to abort. Our friends objected and were flown to Bangkok. The baby is now a healthy, lively 2 year old.
Travel insurance can cover things such as getting caught in a war, lost luggage and medical expenses, including evacuation to Bangkok or home to the U.S.
For everyday ailments, there are many drugstores around and the pharmacists are quite knowledgeable. U-Care has the best reputation for quality meds. Common medicines are cheap, and you do not need a prescription.
14. Bargain airfare right now. At this writing, EVA, an airline based in Taiwan, is offering a $777 round-trip fare from Los Angeles to Phnom Penh. It’s good Mondays-Thursdays between Aug. 26 and May 31. For information: evaair.com or 800-695-1188.
To learn more about The Pepper Project, go to pepperproject.org or call 714-271-9987.
Got a travel tip on how to save money? Send it to me. If I use it, I’ll give you credit. Contact Marla Jo Fisher: firstname.lastname@example.org