by : RJ Fisher last update: April 2020
Hello my dear friend,
I’m so excited that you decided to come and visit me here in Phnom Penh. Boy, are you in for a treat! You know that Phnom Penh was once named ‘the pearl of Asia‘ right? Well, there are many good reasons for that, it’s truly gorgeous.
I know you have already been reading up on the city and the sites that you wish to see, so we’re all good in that section. You did however ask me about the food over here, which is why I have a nice surprise for you upon your arrival. I’m taking you for a Phnom Penh food crawl! This makes for an excellent opportunity to acquaint yourself with the Khmer cuisine and food culture.
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Phnom Penh Food Crawl
This food crawl will keep you away from the riverside area since this is where most travelers dwell when visiting Phnom Penh. I am not saying that there are no decent restaurants at the riverside, but as it’s near to your hotel you can easily explore on your own. You won’t need my directions for that.
Instead, the Phnom Penh food crawl will introduce you to iconic Khmer food in the local neighborhoods where the locals come to eat after work. You know what they say, any restaurant that has locals lining up must be good. And as a bonus, it’s also good for your wallet!
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First we will make our way to the Olympic stadium in the middle of town. Don’t worry, we’re not going to work out, you’re on vacation after all. The area around the Olympic stadium is where many locals come to catch some leisure time after work. Some of them will just sit in the grass enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures of late afternoon. Others will join in group outdoor exercise like aerobics, tai chi or dancing. I even saw a belly dance class practicing there.
It’s fun to walk around and watch the young and old play their shuttle cock games. Maybe we’ll be so lucky that there’s a match ongoing on the football field. We can take a peak from one of the slopes behind the galleries. Luckily it never gets too crowded here, not even on match days.
Num Banh Chok
In the same area with views of the dance groups is a row of about a dozen food stalls each with their own specialty. Let’s go for a hearty bowl of Num Banh Chok at the food stall with no name. This dish absolutely has to be in the Phnom Penh food crawl.
Rice noodles topped with a green fish curry/gravy from ground lemongrass, turmeric root and kaffir lime. You can load all kinds of fresh herbs and vegetables on top like mint leaves, holy basil, bean sprouts, green beans, banana flower and cucumber. Even though many Cambodians eat this for breakfast it’s a dish that can be enjoyed at any time of day.
Like in other Asian countries, rice noodles are a staple dish in Cambodia. It’s funny that many countries claim to be the original inventor of rice noodles after which it became popular in the surrounding countries. Cambodia has claims as well. As for me, I just like the fact that each country has its own variety of the dish and they’re all good!
Num Banh Chok can be found all over the city, but this street stall has the flavors perfectly balanced and the vegetables and herbs are always crispy fresh. Naturally we drink some freshly squeezed sugar cane water and I promise you, this is as Cambodian as it gets.
Time for our next destination. We won’t actually “crawl” over there, but we will go by tuk-tuk instead. This time of day the traffic is pretty busy so sit back, relax and enjoy the local scenery. We’re heading for Tuol Tom Poung (Russian Market), which is not too far from here. The inside market with souvenirs, clothing and trinkets will be closing soon and all tourists will have left. Good! That’s exactly what we want.
This area is teeming with small restaurants catering to locals and a large NGO expat community. Most restaurants here are ok, but not special and certainly not authentic. However, there are exceptions and particularly “Channang” on Street 456 is excellent, serving authentic North Eastern Cambodian food.
Let’s try the Prahok Ktiss, a spicy dip made of prahok (fermented fish paste), kroeung (Khmer curry) and minced pork. Strong flavors indeed and I hope the smell won’t be too pungent for you, but it’s authentic Khmer and that’s what you’ve asked for right?
Let’s dip those vegetables in the Prahok Ktiss, it’s so delicious. I think we need a cold Angkor beer to extinguish the blaze. We can drink it with ice as the Khmer do.
-Update, June 2019: it seems that “Channang” restaurant is rather unreliable with regards to opening hours. As an alternative, try the excellent “123 Pig” restaurant just around the corner in Street 123 at #26.
Phnom Penh Street food
On we go to Street 13 this time. Behind Wat Ounaloum near Phsar Kandal Market the food vendors have set up their carts for the evening. There are probably hundreds of locations in Phnom Penh where we can get street food, but I chose this location, because the food hygiene here is slightly better than most other locations.
The place is packed with locals that come out to eat at the food stands or for take away.
Let’s take a short stroll along some of the food carts to see if there’s something we like.
On our stroll we can pick up some “chet chien” or flattened sweet battered bananas that are deep fried and then sprinkled with black sesame. We will hand pick some spit-roasted chicken skewers, lemon grass sausages and other barbecued delights, all with the salt/pepper/lime dip of course.
Now let’s find a place to sit at one of the food stands. I hope you don’t mind a small plastic stool and a low table, because that’s the norm here. And we sit shoulder to shoulder with the locals.
We order some sticky rice and garlic stir fried morning glory to accompany our barbecued goodies. Maybe some fish amok if they have it, that’s a must try. Let’s not forget the pickles, chili and prahok if you fancy, I know I do. Oh, and let’s get some more beers shall we?
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Coconut milk dessert
Time for dessert! We relocate a bit further down Street 13 for an original coconut milk dessert at a sweet stand. My favorite sweet stand is actually near the Orussey market, but it’s a bit out of our way, since we have more plans for tonight. Don’t worry, this one is also pretty darn good with a wide selection to choose from.
Giant shiny metal bowls brimming with beans, rice, tapioca-like sago, brightly colored jellies, jack and other fruits are awaiting us. No problem if you don’t speak Khmer, just point at what looks appealing and they will load up your bowl together with shaved ice and coconut milk.
My favorite is the Bang Em San Daek Khiev (green beans in coconut milk). What a treat! This is what Phnom Penh food is about.
Well, if that didn’t fill you up I don’t know what will. Enough with the Phnom Penh food, I’m bursting, let’s go for a nightcap.
Phnom Penh Bars
We have options here. If we’re lucky you’re here on a Thursday, which means we could go to the Samai distillery in the Bassac district on Street 830. It’s the only rum distillery in Cambodia and mind you, the rum is top notch. They even won many international awards for the quality of their rum.
The distillery has a small beautiful bar that only opens on Thursday evenings for cocktails and a very nice ambiance. It’s not cheap, but hey we just saved a ton of money on food so why not?! If you like your rum neat I dare you to try their Kampot pepper infused rum.
If it’s not Thursday then we might go to the Juniper Gin Bar on the rooftop of the Point hotel. It’s at the riverside so the close proximity to your accommodation will make it possible for you to indeed crawl back to your hotel if needed. Fantastic views over the river combined with an airy breeze and good vibes makes this a perfect place for digestives.
Or what about Bassac lane? This neat small lane full of atmospheric bars serving cocktails, good wine and (local) craft beers is another hotspot for after dinner drinks.
Well, I guess you still have some time to decide before your arrival so think it over.
Phnom Penh international airport is the gateway to Cambodia with flights from all directions. Check the Skyscanner website for the full schedule of incoming and outgoing flights.
Within Cambodia, as well as from Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, the cheapest way to Phnom Penh is by bus.
Book your ticket and secure your seat.
More Phnom Penh Food
I’m sorry we didn’t get to taste the bai sach chrouk (pork over rice), lort cha (stir fried short noodles) and beef loc lac (marinated beef). We also had to skip Khmer red curry, pumpkin custard and meatball nompang (baguette).
You know what? Let’s do that the next day on the Phnom Penh Food Crawl 2.0!
See you soon buddy, we’re going to eat and laugh till belly burst!
Have you tried Phnom Penh food? Tell us how you liked it in the comments. Or maybe you have suggestions on where to find good Khmer food in Phnom Penh. I’m always on the lookout to add interesting options to the Phnom Penh Food Crawl.
If you like to know more about Khmer food then check out my article ‘13 Must eat Cambodian foods‘
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