Phnom Penh is a thriving and chaotic city that brings together Cambodian, French and Chinese influences in a congested, shiny, grimy, yet vibrant and thrilling grind that somehow just works. Although no doubt the heart of Cambodia, some might argue that Phnom Penh is not strictly a Cambodian city. The majority of the population – and the root of the city’s thriving commercial life – is Cambodia’s merchant class. Paired with the energy and creativity of the city’s relatively large expat community, Phnom Penh has a highly competitive restaurant and bar scene. This means that you can browse beautifully turned out international flavours at a fraction of the price you would pay elsewhere, dance the night away in pumping nightclubs, shop your heart out on the emerging local design scene, meander through the markets, or savour the city’s art scene. It’s all there, just on a smaller scale than you might find in bigger and more established capitals, which is in itself part of the charm of Phnom Penh.
In between the temples, markets and buzzing backstreets of Phnom Penh (and even below the towering high-rises and construction cranes), you can find some of the best street food in Cambodia. If you know where to look – and stick with local food – you can eat for $5 (or 20,000 riel) a day. Also remember that tea (called teuk dtai in Khmer) is always free in local restaurants, so there is no need to pay for that can of Coke. Most markets have a food court area that offers many different choices of dishes throughout the day. The Russian Market is popular for shopping, but the food stalls in the center of the market can get pretty hot in the noontime. The Central Market has some good food options on the west side outside the market building. If you’re looking for a great little genuine Cambodian market, check out Psar Chas (also called the Old Market). Street 108 is home to the adjacent Night Market, and to the south you can find numerous lively pavement cafes and food vendors. There are rumours of plans to redevelop this area, so check it out while its still there!
If you are sick of markets, head over to the Norodom street food restaurant on Norodom Blvd opposite Street 178. English is generally not spoken here, but that doesn’t matter as the food available is on display and cooking as you walk in. By day, it is just another example of the crumbling, elegant history that Phnom Penh has to offer. In the evening, its courtyard comes alive with plastic stools and metal tables crammed full of young Cambodians in search of cheap and delicious food. If you’re feeling adventurous and in search of a different street food experience, stop by and grab yourself a seat.
Noodle Soup / Rice Porridge
Breakfast time in Phnom Penh starts at about 6am until about 9am (or until they run out of food), and I would recommend heading to the Central Market.
One of the most popular breakfasts you’ll find in Cambodia (or all of Southeast Asia, really) is a simple noodle soup (or kuy teav in Khmer). In contrast with its Vietnamese, Lao and Thai neighbours, Cambodian noodle soup is often eaten with all kinds of meatballs (pork, chicken, fish) and vegetables (can be vegetarian too), and in my opinion tends to have darker and sweeter broth. While noodle soup is available throughout the day, rice porridge (called bobor in Khmer) is usually only available in the morning for breakfast. The porridge is rather bland, but don’t worry, this is your blank canvas, where you can add whatever flavours and sauces or meats you wish (I like to order mine vegetarian and add a generous amount of fish sauce and chilli). Most Cambodians will eat this porridge with a portion of dried fish on the side, or otherwise with this kind of fried dough used for dipping (extra 500 riel). A bowl of either soup should cost in between 4,000 and 6,000 riel, depending on the options you choose.
Regardless of the time of day, you can find all kinds of BBQ skewers (but mostly pork) all over town. Deliciously sweet, spicy and tangy all at the same time, these can make for an awesome snack or meal paired with a baguette or sticky rice for 4,000 to 6,000 riel.
Baguette (banh xeo):
Similar to the banh mi sandwiches found in Vietnam and Laos (a vestige of the French colonial days), these thick baguettes (called banh xeo in Khmer) can be stuffed with an assortment of fillings. In true Cambodian style, the flavours are a magical blend of flavours from the East and from the West. These can be found on almost every street corner for 3,000 riel.
Nothing compares to quenching your thirst on a hot sticky day with a cold ice coffee or sugar cane juice. Keep in mind that both drinks can be very sweet – sweetened condensed milk is used for the coffee and sometimes sugar is added to the already naturally sweet sugar cane juice – so ask for no extra sugar if your sweet tooth can’t handle it. These should cost in between 1,500 to 2,500 riel.
If you have a sensitive stomach or had a long day of sightseeing, have some fresh coconut water to rehydrate. Make sure you are not given an already opened coconut and that the coconut is not damaged. Young, green coconuts are served with a straw and are sold all over on the street for 2,000 riel apiece. Once you’re done drinking the water, don’t forget to ask the vendor to chop open the coconut for you so you can eat the flesh inside.
If you are in the mood for cheap Western food, head over to Katy Peri for pizza made in an oven on a tuk-tuk! Located at the corner of Street 51 and 172, this particular street food stall is amazing because they are cheap (~$5 for a big pizza), and their pizzas have an inch-deep covering of cheese. Not to mention they are open late and deliver for free!