Khmer Food and water

Friedel and iced coffee in a bagCambodian food is not outstanding.

Frankly, it’s rather bland. This is surprising given the excellent cuisine cooked up by the country’s neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Still, food is plentiful and the hungry cyclist will have no problem finding a regular supply of roadside stands and restaurants to eat at.

The basis of the Cambodian diet is rice. Rice soup is a popular breakfast dish, as is sliced pork served over steamed rice, and most meals come with rice on the side.

If you don’t like liver, you may want to stay away from the rice soup since it often has chunks of liver included. Alternatively, just eat around the liver; the broth is very flavourful.

After a while you can get tired of rice so keep an eye out for Chinese restaurants. There you’ll find noodle soups and fried noodles for between $1-2 U.S. a dish.

Like all over the region, the cheapest food can be found on the street. Many women will set up a table to offer you rice and a ladle of something from one of several pots. This is great if you don’t know the language. Just lift up the lids and pick something that looks good. At these buffet-style street stalls you’ll pay as little as $0.50-0.75 U.S. for a meal and you’ll be served in literally seconds.

Beware though: the food from the pots is not kept hot (rice is kept in an insulated container so it stays warm) and hygiene standards may not be the best. Also the meat tends to be a cheaper cut and can be quite bony. We jokingly named these kinds of restaurants “peek-a-pot” because we’d peek into about 6 pots and try to figure out what was inside. Often, we had no idea.

It’s quite rare to see street stalls where people are actually cooking to order. There is one section of vendors in Siem Reap, near the night market, where dishes are freshly made for around $1-1.50 U.S. each. Sometimes you see a vegetarian noodle dish being fried up in markets.

In the bigger centres, if you can push your budget up a notch you’ll find great food in a nice atmosphere, still at very affordable prices compared with back home. Spending between $3-5 U.S. for a main dish will let you eat in a sit down restaurant with tablecloth, good service and presentation. For $10 U.S. a dish you should expect top-of-the-range food in a refined setting. You can choose between Khmer food or a large variety of Western cuisines in cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Cambodian BBQAlso, keep an eye out for ‘Volcano Pot’ restaurants, like a Cambodian BBQ where you can grill meats and seafood at your table on a hot plate.

REFRESHMENTS
The drinks scene is a little more encouraging than the food in Cambodia.

On a hot day, nothing goes down nicer than a refreshing glass of sugar cane juice, freshly pressed and served over ice with a squeeze of orange. The cost of this delectable treat? Just $0.12 U.S. or 500 Riel almost everywhere, although we were asked for double that in Phnom Penh. Regardless, it’s still a cheap and cooling drink. You can recognize the sugar cane vendors by the press they use to get the juice out of the plant. Look for what appears to be a ship’s wheel (used for rotating the drums of the press) on the end of a cart.

Tukaluk stands are also common. Vendors will set up a glass case with a variety of fruit on show. All you have to do is roll up, sit down and say “tukaluk, please” and they’ll mix up some fruit with ice and various sugary syrups. The fruit content is sometimes a bit low but it all tastes delicious and starts at just $0.50 U.S. – a little more in Phnom Penh or for a really good one loaded with fruit.

Absolutely everywhere you’ll find ice boxes, usually bright orange or red, by the roadside, stuffed full of canned drinks including several types of sodas and a range of beers. Expect to pay $0.50 U.S. for each soft drink and $0.60-$0.75 U.S. for beer. Anchor is a popular beer brand drunk by locals, while Angkor is favoured by many tourists.

Many street stalls serving food can also make you an iced coffee. Try saying cafe t’koh and see where that gets you. The Khmer pronunciation is hard to get a handle on! These run about $0.40 U.S. each. and you can have them just black with some sugar or with sweetened condensed milk. Sometimes you’ll also see a large jar of a green liquid and this is a drink made of winter melon with sugar added and also served over ice.

Sometimes you’ll see a man on a bicycle or with a motorised cart selling various syrups over ice. Like the sugar cane juice, these are dirt cheap. Kids love them.

Anytime you sit down to eat, a glass of iced tea nearly always appears free of charge.

Cambodia’s water is among the least monitored and lowly rated in the world. You really shouldn’t drink it out of the tap but don’t worry about the ice you get in restaurants as it is purified. When you see ice coming from a big block and being ground into shavings by hand, then you do run a risk of getting sick from it. That said, we drank icy drinks almost every day, often with ice from these large blocks, and only Andrew got sick over our 6 month time in the region: once in Cambodia and once in Thailand.

For drinking water, you can buy bottled water everywhere. Large bottles are sometimes hard to find. The cheapest are 1 litre blue bottles that cost about $0.15 U.S. each or 700 Riels. You can also bring a water filter and use that to purify the tap water yourself.

Comments

  1. Nicole
    7th January 2010 at 4:04 am #

    Hi, I was just wondering if it is still ok to drink the ice from the drinks if they are made from the same water that is unsanitary. Thanks.

    • friedel
      7th January 2010 at 7:02 am #

      Hi Nicole, I just updated the article with some info on this, thanks to your note. Basically, if you see ice cubes it’s almost certainly fine. But if you see someone shaving ice by hand off a large block (as you often will in Cambodia and sometimes in Thailand) then you have to be a little wary. That said, we had these kinds of ice drinks too many, many times and only Andrew got sick. Once, in Thailand, we know it was because of a hand-shaved ice drink. The other time, in Cambodia, we aren’t sure.

  2. Bob Adair
    9th June 2010 at 7:27 am #

    While travelling in SE Asia in 2008, I bought a used 3-speed in Phnom Penh and followed a Lonely Planet route down to Sihanoukville, via Takeo and Kampot. I’ve done a fair amount of cycling over the years but this one was special. I carried two changes of clothes in a cloth shoulder bag, ate whatever cooked food was available in roadside stalls & stayed in comfortable and very inexpensive guest houses. Bottled water is everywhere. I usually started the day just before sunrise and tried to be wherever I was heading by noon.

    Cambodia is hot and you may not find luxuries at every turn, but I felt safe on the roads, and was always gratified by the friendliness of the people. Bike travel is magic.

    • friedel
      9th June 2010 at 8:05 am #

      Bob, what a great story. I love that you just bought the bike that was available on the ground and made a trip of it. Fantastic! Too often we think we need to have so much expensive equipment and bikes to do a tour, but this proves the opposite. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Doug Nienhuis
    10th June 2010 at 3:34 am #

    I can relate to your stories about “peek-a-pot.” I often spent the night in smaller towns on my trip to Cambodia and getting food wasn’t always that easy.

    I went into those same types of restaurants and I would lift the lid on each pot to see what was inside. I made my decision on what to eat based on the size of the swarm of flies that came out of the pot. The larger the swarm, the less likely it was I’d eat what was in the pot. Not surprisingly, there were a few nights where I didn’t eat anything at all.

    A fantastic country, though. I enjoyed my time there very much despite the “peek-a-pot” restaurants. 🙂

  4. Suy Kosal
    20th January 2011 at 9:09 am #

    DEAR POSTER!

    Why your bold Article is CAMBODIAN FOOD IS NOT OUTSTANDING?

    I suggest and insist you to change to CAMBODIAN STREET FOOD…

    • max
      20th December 2012 at 10:55 pm #

      I am a third generation cambodian who has traveled to cambodia on several occasions and your article title is very insulting! Our food is amazing and fresh and we use the finest ingredients and spices. There is something seriously wrong with your taste buds.

  5. Tanh
    15th November 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    That’s disappointing that you’ve such an experience with Cambodian food. When done properly it can be a very rich and flavourful experience. Most dishes are not as hot as you might expect from the region though. Most are spicy with a balanced note and texture. I think you might not have stayed long enough to get a real sense of what the cuisine is all about in Cambodia. It can be a real shock for foreigners who are not accustomed to the lifestyle and austerity in that region of the world but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the varied cultural influences that make up the cuisine. One of my favourite dishes is twak ko, the beef sausage. A variation on the volcano pot where they use butter to sear the beer marinaded beef and serve it with fried noodles is also a popular one. If anybody reads this, please know that you should not bring your own influences into enjoying another culture, lest you miss out on the actual culture all together. Cheers.

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