After the tranquility of Monkey Island and the dinky town of Kampot, we were slightly worried we might have contracted ‘Saigon-sickness’ – we were over the gaudy lights, sights and sounds of big cities. However, Phnom Penh is laid-back and pretty chilled out, quieter than most, but a fantastic place to explore on foot or (for the first time on my entire trip) by tuk-tuk.
Phnom Penh is also great spot for trying some of higher-end restaurants and traditional Cambodian cuisine. Meals out in restaurants, with waiter service and full-sized dining tables (not the diddy, red plastic street food perches we were used to) are fairly cheap here. For the first time in a long while I ate out quite regularly in restaurants.
On of my first ‘fine-dining’ (I had a knife and fork) experiences in Phnom Penh was at Romdeng, a restaurant serving scrumptious Cambodian food, cooked and served by former street children, run in a similar style to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in London.
We started by sharing a plate of pork stuffed with bamboo shoots, which was enough for two to share and absolutely delicious. I had the fish amok, a Cambodian classic, which looked small, but was packed with fish and fine spicing. And how could we leave without sampling the beef stir fry with red tree ants?! The ants provided a bit of crunch, but the tender beef was the star here. Banana pancakes and coconut ice-cream followed, washed down by delicious fruity mojitos. Overall, Romdeng was a big hit. The staff were very attentive, although be warned, if you plan to eat later in the evening, the kitchen shuts at 9pm and the staff are pretty keen to get you swept out by about 8:30pm.
…you can imagine hardened war-correspondents writing up their day’s adventures over a stiff drink and a packet of cigarettes below the wooden beams.
Our final evening meal was at the well-renowned Malis, a restaurant that has featured on Gordon Ramsay’s cookery series as an example of the finest Cambodian cuisine. The starters lived up to the hype – a huge basket of deep-fried soft shell crabs and chicken and pork skewers that were tender and moist and packed with flavour. Our mains, king crab with Kampot pepper and a whole baked river fish were visually exciting, real show-stoppers, but proved a little frustrating when trying to tackle them.
A particular highlight was taking in the bustling Sisowath Quay from the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club with a few rounds of cocktails. The atmospheric bar is known as a hub of Cambodian ex-pat culture, and you can imagine hardened war-correspondents writing up their day’s adventures over a stiff drink and a packet of cigarettes below the wooden beams.
Our daytime food experiences were on a par with some of the best street food that we found in Vietnam. Wandering around town on our first day we found a little restaurant that served noodles and two types of spring roll. The food at this spot was so tasty that we ended up returning on our last day for lunch. The noodle dish featured tofu, spicy sausage, fried spring rolls, peanut sauce, chilli, leafy greens and rice noodles, all doused in fish sauce and coconut milk – a tasty treat that we couldn’t resist.
There’s plenty more to say about the food in Phnom Penh, the nameless trolleys of delicious goods, the carts overflowing with deep-fried delights . I never got a bad meal, and if you’re travelling on a tight budget you can’t go wrong. Be sure to pick a stall that’s buy with a steady flow of trade, and maybe check out my guide to 20 of the best street food dishes in Southeast Asia, so you can get your order straight before you go!