Dec 23 2011
You wouldn’t believe they were hardly here only two years ago. There’s something about night food stalls in Asia that makes you feel you’ve tapped into something ageless, but in Siem Reap the bustling, sizzling, richly aromatic grills are relatively recent additions.
For a long time, a sad line of stalls faced Molly Malone’s and was largely ignored by everyone. But then someone had the bright idea to expand and now the grills and tables set up to accommodate the hungry spill into the grounds of what is a functioning school during the day. Here the temple-weary line up and sit down to tuck into platefuls of freshly grilled beef, chicken, shrimp and pork, alongside salads, stir-fries, noodles and rice, all washed down, Khmer style, with lots of beer and ice. There’s now even a decent range of Western dishes such as pasta on a lot of the menus.
Only metres away from the starry lights of Pub Street, the dimly lit food stalls start their set-up early in the evening, while the sun is still working its way down the sky. As the light fades out, the coal fires heat up and names such as Khmer Love Barbeque burn into the night.
It’s easy to imagine how some visitors might be deterred by the spectacle. Increasingly pushy hawkers nab wandering foreigners as they pass exhorting them to eat at their stall, waving a menu in their faces “You eat here?” they say, though sometimes they seem uncertain themselves whether it’s a good idea. It’s impossible to distinguish one stall from another and apply the intuitive rules we apply to restaurants at home for determining what’s good and what’s not, which will give us what we want and which won’t. And that can be unsettling.
Even more unsettling can be the fear that, well, it’s street food. Words like poisoning, diarrhoea and projectile vomiting worm around our minds like the bugs we imagine waiting to invade our intestines. Many hesitate, wonder about the people they see happily filling their faces, then wander off to the safety of the lights. And that’s a shame.
After several years in Asia with an absurdly sensitive tum, I can now spell diarrhoea without having to look it up. But after half a dozen or so excursions to the night food stalls, I’ve yet to experience that wide-eyed wake-up, followed by a low “uh oh”, in the middle of the night. So, while I can’t make any promises, my only statement can be that the food appears to be as safe here as anywhere else in town that happens to have walls.
But the experience can be greater. There is almost nothing in the way of formality. This is relaxed, fun eating, and it’s much cheaper than elsewhere too. The atmosphere is lively, the smells redolent, and ordering as you go along means your food is always hot, always fresh.
The only drawback is the kids that come here to hawk or beg, who are becoming increasingly antsy at those who, rightly, do not give them money. Do give them your empty cans, which they can sell, or leftover food. But we recommend against giving them money, more on which is explained here.
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