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FAQ (and not so FAQ)

Food and Drink

Most recent update: July 24, 2008

1.) How's the local food?
2.) What's the availability of western food?
3.) Is the food safe to eat?
4.) How about water and ice?
5.) What beer is available and what's best?
6.) Can you recommend a good restaurant?
7.) Is food expensive?
8.) Any supermarkets around?
9.) Can I get a decent cup of coffee in Cambodia?
10.) How's the nightlife?
11.) I heard all the bars were shut down, what's up with that?
12.) Are there any fast food restaurants?
13.) Do the local restaurants mess up the orders much?
14.) What about special orders?

Q: How's the local food?

A: Personally, I don't particularly care so much for Khmer food in comparison to its neightbors. It's a cross between Thai and Vietnamese but with a fraction of the flavor. I find Khmer food quite bland, really. It's been suggested that Khmer food is less exciting than its neighbors' because of years of war and occasional famine, whereupon they just let their cuisine fall away. It's a plausible explanation as apparently Cambodia did have quite a cuisine but in the past thirty years or so, like so many things, it seems to have been lost. That said, there are those who do like the food and of course if you're coming on a holiday, please ignore what I say, try the food and make your own decision about whether you like it or not. For more information on Khmer food (and a much more positive testimonial) see this website: http://www.frizz-restaurant.com Recipes, and more.

Q: What's the availability of western food?

A: In Phnom Penh just about any cuisine you can think of is represented somewhere by a restaurant and represented fairly well. Siem Reap also has a generous supply of western and other Asian cuisine restaurants though the quality of the food in Siem Reap tends to be tourist and not fine-dining. If Khmer food doesn't do it for you, you'll find plenty of satisfactory alternatives in either of these locations. Sihanoukville has plenty of eateries with western food, Kampot has a couple, and in Battambang there are a few places with western food as well. Anywhere else and you're going local.

Q: Is the food safe to eat?

A: Everybody eventually comes down with some kind of food poisoning here but everybody has to eat. I wouldn't stress too much on the food. Look at it, smell it, whatever, just eat. I've gotten sick at nice restaurants and I've eaten from street stalls where the food was pre-cooked hours before and had no problems whatsoever. The best rule to follow is if you see a place with a lot of locals, than the restaurant is probably okay.

Also realize that individual body chemistry plays some role in how you will react to unfamiliar food. Eleven years I've been in Southeast Asia and there is still some kind of bacteria I can't seem to get my body adjusted to.

Q: How about water and ice?

A: Do not drink the water!!!! Bottled water is readily available and any brand, even the cheapest, is better than sticking your head under the tap.

Phnom Penh Municipality claims their water is treated and safe to drink and this is probably true, and Siem Reap has also upgraded its water supply. However, by the time the water reaches the tap it's probably been contaminated. More of a problem, though, is that many businesses and residences still use private storage tanks and these may very likely have some form of contaminants in them. I would not advise drinking the water anywhere.

I've never had a problem with ice and have it in my drinks all the time. The ice to be careful with is the stuff delivered in the big blocks covered with saw dust. You can recognize this ice because it will be broken up in non-uniform shapes and sizes. Most restaurants will not use this ice in drinks. Still, I've drank this ice without problem. But almost any restaurant or bar is going to serve you safe ice, so don't worry about it.

Q: What beer is available and what's best?

A: In restaurants and bars the most common brands are Angkor, Anchor, Beer Lao, and Tiger. Angkor is domestic, Tiger and Anchor are from Singapore but brewed locally (Anchor is young Tiger), and Beer Lao is imported from Laos. Tiger and Angkor are the most common beers on tap. Two other local beers are Crown and Bayon but these are cheap rat's piss and rarely seen in restaurants and bars catering to westerners. There are several other local brands as well but the contents hardly qualify as beer. You can also find Heineken, Budweiser, and some of the Thai brands.

Most expats seem to drink either Beer Lao or Anchor. I go for Beer Lao.

Q: Can you recommend a good restaurant?

A: For detailed food recommendations and listings please see the relevant sections on the following toa guides:

Siem Reap
Phnom Penh

Q: Is food expensive?

A: In general, eating here is more expensive then say, Thailand, due to distribution and importation matters. There are plenty of decent $4 meals to be had but not a whole lot of decent $2 meals. However, if you do go local and eat from the street stalls you can get by quite cheaply. Keep in mind that Cambodia has been hit harder than many nations in the recent global spike in food prices.

Q: Any supermarkets around?

A: Phnom Penh has at least three large supermarkets (Lucky, Super Pencil, Big A) that stock plenty of western stuff - food and toiletries. There is also a smaller store, Bayon Market, and many convenience stores. 7-11 hasn't moved in yet, but Caltex has its Star Marts at many of its service stations.

In Siem Reap there has been a recent explosion in convenience stores. On Sivatha Street is the well-run Angkor Market, there's a Star Mart on Route 6, Sokimex has a Sokimex Express at its station on Sivatha Street, and numerous other local attempts at creating a 7-11 atmosphere have popped up all over town. Siem Reap is due for a real supermarket of some sort but it still hasn't happened.

Q: Can I get a decent cup of coffee in Cambodia?

A: When the British colonized a country they left behind infrastructure. When the French colonized a place they left behind coffee and baguettes. So while you may not be able to get yourself around the country very well, you can certainly enjoy a cup of coffee while you're trying. Well, that's the idea anyway, but the reality is that coffee, though plentiful, is often bitter sludge here. So much for the legacy of French colonization.

Q: How's the nightlife?

A: Not bad. Phnom Penh has quite a bit of nightlife, though it's not for everybody. If you're easily offended by the sight of free-lancing Khmer and Vietnamese girls trolling for a customer for the evening, your options are more limited, especially if you want to stay out late.

Away from the girl scene, the FCCC has always been popular but it's a tad pricey. There are plenty of options along the river and along Street 240. Backpackers tend to congregate around the lake so if you're easily offended by dreadlocks and body metal and been there, done that, know it all attitudes by people who haven't been anywhere, done anything, or know anything, avoid the lake. The rest of us go to places like Sharky's, Martini's, Howie's, Shanghai, or the Walkabout or any number of the twenty-nine-thousand-gazillion-billion-dillion bars that pop up every year. Let me at least describe the places I've been to more than a few times. And yes, a lot of bars have girls walking around looking for a male companion (and $20) for the night. Deal with it, that's how it is here.

Sharky: A huge place on Street 130, they claim to have the longest bar in the country and I think it's a legitimate claim. Plenty of Viet and Khmer girls wandering around. If you're alone or are a new face you'll be approached by a few, but most are polite and friendly and will leave you alone if that's what you want. This is not a high-pressure meat market and they try with varying success to keep out the aggressive "want massage?" girls. Beers start at $1.50. Rock-n-roll atmosphere. Excellent food. I do a lot of my early night Phnom Penh drinking in this place (and it's around the corner from where I stay). Very few backpackers come here but the clientele has become a little more diverse in the past year or so. Large screen TV they sometimes turn on. Open from four p.m. until two in the morning, though it begins to quiet down after midnight.

Martini's: Now located off Mao Tse Tung Blvd or somewhere down there someplace. Famous for a reason. Open-air beer garden atmosphere with plenty of food and an indoor discotheque - sound-proofed to the outside. Beers start at $1.50. Dozens and dozens of girls, some unfortunately looking a little too young and conversely there are a few Vietnamese tarts who look like they started in the profession during the American war in the 1960s. Still, despite these extremes, if you're looking to shack up with someone of legal age for the night this is not a bad place to go, but if you come too late, i.e. after one a.m. the pickings can be quite slim. I much prefer Sharky's to Martini's as the former is much more suited to hanging out with your friends and having a conversation while the latter is more about picking up a companion for the rest of the night. Some of the girls here can be a little too aggressive and it seems without fail that every time I walk into this place some haggard Vietnamese tart grabs my ass before I can even order a beer.

Heart of Darkness: Street 51. A famous club that is no longer any resemblance to what it was that made it famous. It's expanded considerably in size and is now more of a trendy dance club than an intimate hole-in-the-wall. WARNING: For some time there have been countless incidents of violence (several a month) including shootings and pistol whippings inflicted upon westerners by spoiled young Khmers with rich and influencial daddies (and uncles). And when they couldn't find a westerner to harass they turned on themselves culminating with the shooting death of one Khmer patron that saw the club shut down for a couple of months. The offenses that have led to assaults on westerners have been walking too close (within five meters), staring too long (in excess of one-tenth of a second), being white, being tall, being short, being with a Khmer girl, being with a western girl, not being with a Khmer girl, being alone, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc. Historically, foreigners entering this bar are often subjected to tight body searches, while daddy's little rich boys walk in with pistols under their shirts. The security at the door was a complete farce. After the forced closure of the Heart they swore they would address their security and volence issued. Recently re-opened I am of the opinion that the jury is still out in this one. The old clientele is back and they still can't get along with anyone.

More nights then not there are no problems and this place continues to be quite popular with all types, but given the outrageously large number of violent incidents here, there's reason enough for me to steer clear of the place. If despite this warning, you still want to go and a group of young Khmers walks into the place (or are already there) acting as if they own it and they don't give a shit about anyone or anything, leave immediately! Because they well and truly don't give a shit about anything or anyone and that most certainly includes you!

Howie's: A couple of doors down from the Heart. Laid back late night place with tables out on the sidewalk or A/C indoors, great for watching the bullets and bodies fly out of the Heart. Popular with expats as a place to drink and chat at three in the morning.

Walkabout: Also on Street 51 just down from the Heart and Howie's. Open 24 hours. Pool, darts, pub atmosphere. Plenty of girls. In Aussie pub style everything is paid for in advance and that includes the food you order.

Shanghai Bar: Another Street 51 bar in the same neighborhood as the three previously mentioned places. Laid back, open from 5 p.m. until around 2 a.m. Singles atmosphere, but not a high-pressure meat market. Offers a cozy outdoor terrace and if there is a major sporting event on you'll probably catch it here.

Billabong: Not a bar per se, this boutique hotel is on a quiet side street (Street 158 a hundred meters or so west of Street 63) in the center of Phnom Penh. They do however offer a bar, a good menu of Thai food, and a swimming pool.

Cantina: On the river near the Pink Elephant, Happy Herb's, etc. Drinks and a bit of Mexican food. Owned by one of Phnom Penh's more animated expats.

Siem Reap is a bit quieter, but still has plenty of drinking holes. I'll mention a few.

The Angkor What? Bar: Long-standing backpacker bar. Beers from $1.00.

Red Piano: Famous food and drink spot at one end of "Pub" Street. Reasonably priced food and a comfortable atmosphere.

Khmer Family: Late night drinking spot on "Pub Street". Cheap beer. Happy hour. Formerly known as the Temple Bar.

Temple Club: Large, stylishly decorated place with pool tables, dancing, food, late-night lounge, friendly place.

Linga Bar: Siem Reap's first and only gay-friendly bar and restaurant. Half a block from "Pub Street". In the words of the owner, "your grandmother would feel comfortable here." Some nights the straight customers outnumber the gay ones.

Laundry: Late late night bar, sometime western discotheque. Occasionally host to all night raves that attract half of Siem Reap. The Laundry is looking to build a reputation as a relaxed comfortable late night hangout, which it is. Old Market area. Gordon to the manager: stock Beer Lao, please! Popular with the French crowd.

Want to go local? Try the Sok San Palace. Down a side street just up from the Zanzybar, this is a large karaoke disco/massage parlor that attracts about a 98% local/Asian crowd, but seems happy to accommodate foreigners and westerners (seeing that the name is written in four languages - Khmer, English, Japanese, and Chinese). I've recently been noticing more and more western tourists coming here. If you want to see how the locals party, seated around tables drinking warm beer with ice, check this place out. Many girls available for a variety of services as well, though the ones available for take-out service can be a bit mercenary. Hopefully there won't be another nightclub edict, as this is very much the kind of place PM Hun Sen sought to do away with when he tried to close all the clubs in late November 2001. Open until 4 a.m. Zone One is another local club, new, loud.

For more information on drinking and nightlife see the relevant sections of the following toa guides:

Siem Reap
Phnom Penh

Also get yourself a copy of the Cambodia Pocket Guides (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) as they do an admirable job of listing everybody or visit their website: http://www.cambodiapocketguide.com

Q: I heard all the bars were shut down, what's up with that?

A: In November 2001, PM Hun Sen got all bent out of shape about vices and things and ordered all the bars shut. For the western-oriented clubs it was very short-lived and within a week or two everything was back to normal. Fear not, drink is plentiful. Enjoy. For a detailed story on the bar closures read this.

Q: Are there any fast food restaurants?

A: Pizza Company and Swensen's Ice Cream are in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. KFC is in Phnom Penh and Dairy Queen is at the Phnom Penh Airport. Locally there us Lucky Burger/Lucky 7 in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and Sokimex Express also functions as a fast food joint. McDonald's is not here... yet.

Q: Do the local restaurants mess up the orders much?

A: Well, yes. Which is why I thought to include this question. And what should you do about it? Send the food back and complain? Well, you could, unfortunately this should not allow you to think that they'll still get it right.

When I'm presented with something I didn't order, a common enough event, I determine first, is it something I feel like eating just the same? And second, will it cost me any more money? If the answers are respectively yes and no, then I just shut up and eat what they brought. However, if either answer is respectively no or yes then things get complicated. And trust me, sorting out a simple food order can become a real test of patience and resolve. And you probably think I'm exaggerating.

Q: What about special orders?

A: Try this story:

An expat is sitting at one of the many riverside restaurants along Phnom Penh's riverfront and places an order for some lunch. Enjoying the taste of bacon, the expat puts in a request for a side order of the stuff. Now, bacon as a side order is not listed on the menu but seeing as the restaurant serves breakfasts as well as a number of sandwiches containing the ingredient, the expat figured they out to be able to manage this order.

The waitress, confused at this request, flips through the menu and not finding bacon as a side order tells the customer that bacon is not available. The expat points out that bacon is obviously available as it's a common ingredient in a number of the restaurant's dishes.
"No have," the waitress replies a second time.
"Okay," the slightly agitated customer says, "do you have BLT sandwiches?"
"Oh, yes, have bacon, lettuce, tomato samwich. You like?" She asks with a big smile.
"Yes, I like. Bring me a BLT, but... no lettuce, no tomato, no bread, and no mayonnaise? You can do that?"
"You want bacon, lettuce, tomato samwich wif no lettuce, no tomato, no bread, no maylaze, yes sir?"
He nods in agreement at the young woman whose trying to grasp what exactly a BLT minus everything but the bacon will look like. She walks off to the kitchen only to return a few minutes later to reconfirm the order as obviously the Khmer cook is no less confident in sorting out this order than she is. Order reconfirmed, ten minutes later a side order of bacon is produced and everyone's happy if not a little confused.

It's not always this bad but be prepared for anything.


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