People often ask me why I love Southeast Asia so much, why I keep going back year after year, why I dedicated my career to crafting tailor made experiences throughout the region and why, I miss it so much if I’m away for too long. Sometimes I think there is not one word, nor a decent phrase that could possibly begin to sum it up and then I think actually there is one… food.
The food of Southeast Asia is just magical; each country has its own unique cuisine and you only need to travel a few hundred miles for it to change radically. Thailand and Vietnam are home to perhaps two of the more renowned cuisines but Cambodia, which is lesser known for its food, is not to be missed. Rich, creamy fish amok curry and lime-marinated beef salads are amongst my favourite dishes. The deep fried spiders less so.
One of my favourite things to do in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is to eat like a local. There are so many fantastic markets, street food stalls, and hole in the wall eateries – but on your own it can feel almost impossible to know where to start and so I thought I’d be kind, help you out, and tell you all about the best street food tour of Phnom Penh
One of my favourite street food tours in the capital is the evening Vespa tour (you can read more on “day 12” of this itinerary here). I love this tour because it is not just about food (which includes fresh oysters with traditional Cambodia toppings and an amazing fish amok curry amongst other delights), but it also includes cocktails in funky little bars, live music spots and what’s more, you get to whizz around the city by night on the back of a Vespa.
But on my most recent trip of Cambodia I decided to hit the markets of Phnom Penh for an alternative street food experience – at breakfast time. With my mother at my side, we began our private guided tour of the markets – beginning with a strong and sweet Cambodian iced coffee.
Food in Southeast Asia is not just about the flavour, it also about the people. It’s about the love that goes into making it – the chopping, the talking and laughing, the frantic frying, the serving, the toppings, the packaging. It’s about watching the little lady who looks older than your grandmother squatting on a tiny plastic stool (that would better suit your three year-old nephew), cackling and jesting with the lady selling dried fish besides her as she flips miniature pancakes on what looks like a cake-tray-meets-pizza-oven. The food of Asia is an experience. It is not just (shudder at the thought) a meal. And what better place to experience this than the local market.
As we stepped into the busy Kandal Market, our senses were immediately overloaded with an array of colours, smells and sounds. The sound of furious chopping and cackling of women as they prepared the food was a fitting soundtrack to the brightly coloured spices, exotic fruit and unidentifiable vegetables that we were immediately presented with.
We slowly grazed our way through the various sections; the fresh fish became dried, the raw meat became cooked and the grains of rice turned into… desserts!
The experience is so much more than just eating, it’s wonderfully interactive too. The lady pictured above, who was selling the delicious banana-sticky-rice delight, touched my arm as she gave me my change, admiring my pale sun-starved skin, which I would so happily have traded for her light cocoa coloured skin that showed barely a wrinkle despite, no doubt, many an early morning shift at the market.
We continued walking and turned a corner when suddenly we noticed that a woman walking our way was wearing a thick brown mud mask, just her eyes peering out from the textured cream, perhaps off to make a quick purchase from the fish section whilst waiting for it to work its magic. We had, I realised, entered the beauty section. Leaving the smell and sounds of flapping fish in the distance (well a good 100 metres or so) our nostrils were now filled with the more toxic scent of nail polishes.
No matter how big your local Tesco Extra may be, it will never be quite as extensive (or as fresh, or as colourful) as the markets of Cambodia. And I couldn’t help feel a little sad at just how far we have moved from this kind of food production in the west.
Mother was blown away. “Everyone should come here Delia,” she said with purpose as we left the market and climbed into our tuk-tuk for our next adventure in the capital. I told her I would try my best.
If you would like to book this private, guided street food market tour of Kandal and Old Market in Phnom Penh (that also included visiting a temple and exploring the colonial architecture of the French Quarter where we sent a postcard to Dad telling him what he’d missed out on) then please do contact us – please note we organise tailor-made holidays of Cambodia and not just this experience alone.