Visitors to Phnom Penh are sometimes surprised at the cost of food, but it’s perfectly possible to eat for $5 — or 20,000 riel — a day if you know where to look. The first trick to cheap meals is to put aside thoughts of familiar nosh and get experimental. A Western breakfast can set you back $5 all by itself, but the Khmer equivalent is much kinder on the pocket. Think of pork and rice as the equivalent of a bacon sandwich (same kind of meat plus carbs, right?) and you’ll be adopting the right cheapie mindset. Next, remember that tea (called teuk dtai) is always free in Cambodian restaurants so there’s really no need to pay for that can of Coke. Eating local ingredients served in local eateries is the best way to save some cash and meet some new favourite foods.
For breakfast, try the Cambodian staple of pork and rice (bai sach chrouk), served at numerous stalls across the city. Look for a glass case full of freshly grilled pork and huge metal pots of rice, with a plastic covered table and a few stools. Price can range from 2,500 to 5,000 riel depending on portion sizes and whether you get a fried egg or soup alongside. Other breakfast options include kuy teav noodle soup, fried noodles and bor bor rice porridge for a similar price.
If you’re in need of a little caffeine (and a lot of sugar) to kick start your day, an iced coffee is the perfect complement to a street breakfast. Get your tongue around some basic vocabulary to order your coffee just the way you like it. Coming in at 1,500 to 2,500 riel, you could even have two… but might end up with the shakes.
Most markets have a food court area that offers a choice of dishes for lunchtime. Although Russian Market is popular for shopping, be warned that the food stalls in the centre of the market can be pretty sweltering come noontime. Instead, you might like to try the options at Central Market, with white tiled counters lined down the west side outside the market building. Grab yourself some banh xeo, spring rolls or pork skewers plus a sugar cane juice. You’ll be full for less than 8,000 riel.
If you’ve already spent too much time in markets, look for a buffet canteen such as Phsar Kabko restaurant on Street 9 or Helen’s Bakery on Norodom Boulevard. Choose your dishes wisely and pay less than 8,000 riel.
For an afternoon snack or evening refuel, scout the carts that perambulate around the city streets. A takeaway carton overpiled with stir-fried lort (short rice noodles also known as ‘worm noodles’), spinach and a fried egg will do the business for 2,000-3,000 riel. Grab 1,500 riel worth of barbecued or steamed corn on the cob along riverside or look out for the doughnut lady selling sticky loveliness for 500 riel each.
Want to treat yourself to dinner on a chair where your knees don’t reach your ears? Lucky Pho has filling soup for 10,ooo riel and Warung Bali’s menu is also easy on the wallet. If you’re a dedicated economical eater, you’ll find a late night pork and rice restaurant that also serves chicken and ribs for 5,000-6,000 riel at the end of Street 19, close to the Independence Monument. Tables are on one side of the road, and the kitchen is on the other. Listen out for the cart selling noodle soup with all manner of meatballs and vegetables for 3,000 to 6,000 riel, preceded by a bamboo stick beat from swaggering young men to alert you to them.
If you’ve managed to be frugal, you may even have some loi left over for a beer or two. Small local shops are cheapest (2,000 riel a can) but spend a little more and you can join the informal bar seating outside the mini-mart. Alternatively, scout the riverside for happy hours or head to a Khmer beer garden for a bargain jug (around 8,000 riel) with free peanuts.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 13th April, 2015.