After months of dealing with currency conversion rates and attempting to run out of each currency just before we leave each country, we were surprised to see some familiar faces in Cambodia. Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Franklin- how you been? Although Cambodia has its own money, the de facto currency is the US dollar.
It goes back to- you guessed it- the Khmer Rouge. They were building a utopian communist society, so there was no need for money, and the old riel was abolished in 1975. After Pol Pot was ousted, a new riel was introduced in 1980. Imagine, in the late 20th century, a country without a currency for 5 years!
Plenty of distrust in the government remained, so the new riel didn’t catch on. People gravitated to the more reliable (yes, even today) dollar, and I hear you can spend Thai baht near the Thai border too.
ATMs in Cambodia actually dispense US dollars, which is great for us: no conversions to remember. The riel is used in place of coins, usually at a rate of 4000 riel to a dollar. So if your meal was $3.50 and you give them a five, your change will be 1 US dollar and 2000 riel. That’s handy for buying a bottle of water (2000 riel for the 1500 ml bottles).
Of course, relying on an outside currency means your central bank has no control over it, and woe is you if the US dollar gets weaker (as it has in recent years). Loading up ATMs with Benjamins is another way that this country hasn’t been able to take charge of its own destiny.