The Cambodian currency is called Riel.
However, most Cambodians use US dollars as well as their own currency. Even the littlest shops quote prices in US dollars.
1 US dollar is equal to 4,000 Riels (or very close to it, click to see the current currency exchange rate). This was the case during our trip, and apparently this was the case in the 1980s.
50 Riels of Cambodian currency
Click image to see closeup and more
pictures of Cambodian money
But now, due to price increases, some bigger shops have increased the Riel’s exchange rate, making it something like 4,200 Riel to 1 US dollar. This is for bigger shops only. The smaller ones still hold the same 4,000 Riel to 1 US dollar rate, probably because it’s easier to count the change with a round number.
In border cities, merchants will also accept the Thai Baht in addition to the US dollar.
The Riel is still widely used though, especially in remote and non-touristy areas, but sellers in the city are well stocked with both currencies. When you shop you can ask for the change in dollars. If they don’t have enough dollars, or if your change is something like $0.50, well, then Riel it is (they don’t use US coins).
On an interesting note, even the ATMs in Siem Reap spit out money in US dollar denominations. I just found that fascinating.
The Cambodian Riel in the Past
When you have conversations with the Khmers, you’ll keep on hearing them say that Cambodian money is worth very little, or even that it’s worthless.
The Cambodian people’s notion of the ‘worthless’ Riel seems to come from the fact that not so long ago, during the civil war, the Riel really was worthless.
During the Pol Pot regime, the use of money was abolished and you could see Riel on the street with nobody caring to pick the money up. There were no shops and no buying or selling activities. Only work.
When the regime ended, the government had to reintroduce Riel into the economy as the currency of Cambodia.
Cambodian People and Banks
On another interesting note, our tour guide also said that Cambodian people do not trust banks.
They keep their money themselves (under the mattress?), and save for big money purchases. They don’t ask the banks for credit. Everything, including houses, motorbikes, and bicycles, must be paid in cash.
Can you imagine? Again, this distrust probably originated back to the Pol Pot regime. When the economy is shot, banks are crippled, the Cambodian currency depreciates, and the people’s money is gone.
Here are the notes that you’ll see most often when in Cambodia.
Click image to see
Cambodian money close up.
All images courtesy of Tourism Cambodia.