Food tours are all the rage in Southeast Asia and in January 2019 we tried out three Phnom Penh food tours to see what their take was on what Cambodian food has to offer.
One tour, UrbanForage, we had tried on a previous visit a few years ago, so we gave them a whirl again, along with two relative newcomers, Phnom Penh Food Tours and Lost Plate. An important disclaimer here, while all three tours were tried out on an anonymous basis, one of the people behind Phnom Penh Food Tours was a writer for Travelfish some years ago—she did not know we were doing the tour until after we had completed it. As always, we paid our own way with all three operations.
It’s easy to think of food tours of all being the same, with little to differentiate the offerings, but what we found were three very different operations, each choosing to put a different degree of influence on food, and each will appeal to a different type of traveller (or foodie).
Phnom Penh Food Tours
The sister tour to the longer-running Siem Reap Food Tours, Phnom Penh Food Tours offers two choices—a morning tour and an evening tour. If you have a serious interest in Cambodian street food, this is absolutely the tour operator you should use.
We opted for the morning tour which took us through a range of street food outlets, markets, one sit-down restaurant and a lot of random snacking. Our local guide, Vanarith, hails from Koh Kong province in the southwest of the country—“born into a banana leaf” he exclaimed at one stage, and he was more than capable, with an excellent grasp of English and a very good rapport with the local vendors.
The tour started on time at the post office, near where we grabbed a simple one plate dish, we then moved on to Phsar Chas for some more grazing, including an excellent bowl of nom banh chok after which we jumped in tuk tuks for a run across to Phsar Orussey. Here we spent some time in the market itself but also a lot of time walking the lanes and back alleys in the surrounding area. We think the best way to do a street food tour is on foot and, this part of the tour was the highlight as we’d spy something random and just try it—even if, on one occasion it tasted like glue.
From here was back into tuk tuks to head down to Doeurm Kor Market, a massive fresh produce market a little to the southwest of Olympic Stadium. Here was your typical wet market walk through, with plenty of opportunity to sample fare along the way. Our last stop was a short tuk tuk ride away, the only sit down restaurant of the morning, but where we were so stuffed we could barely make a dent in the noodles we were served.
While the route was obviously planned out before, Vanarith did an excellent job as we veered off piste on occasion and also with organising food for our tour companion who was some form of a pescatarian. Questions were answered confidently and (to our knowledge) accurately and he had no problems working as translator between us and the various food vendors.
At US$65 per person, this was the most expensive of the three tours we tried, but we feel, for someone looking to get a pretty in depth walk through Khmer street food, this was easily the best of the three tours we tried. We were very impressed with Vanarith and actually hired him independently for some other food walking later in our time in Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh Food Tours: T: (012) 505 542 https://www.phnompenhfoodtours.com/
The newest kid on the block, Lost Plate offer food tours across an eclectic range of destinations (other places include four cities in China and Portland in the US) and we tried their sole Cambodia option, an evening tour.
Where Phnom Penh Food Tours placed plenty of emphasis on street food, with loads of walking and grazing, this tour was much more focused on getting us to specific restaurants to try certain dishes. In between we were ferried around in tuk tuks, each of which included an ice, beer and water-filled esky—the tour involved an absolute minimum of walking. Lost Plate have taken an interesting tilt on the food tour, trying to expose the guests to a different type of cuisine at each stop, be it classic, royal, dark (post KR) or new fusionish (yes I know that isn't really a word).
After picking us up on time (in the midst of a torrential downpour) we were ferried over to the first stop, a streetfront nom banh chok restaurant where we each had a delicious bowl. Our guide, Leanna, a Filipino American who was born and raised in Cambodia, was great at talking us through the dishes and had a good manner with the guests. She was also training a Khmer guide who joined us for the ride and it was great having him along for an additional viewpoint on what we were eating and how things worked.
Our next stop, was to our mind the one dud of the tour—a boat noodle place which is a part of a chain of restaurants in Phnom Penh. While it fitted with the “royal” part of their tour concept, We really felt a food tour should be taking guests to places which are at least somewhat inaccessible to the casual visitor, and in that regard this stop was not a good choice. That said, one of the other guests on the tour thought it was a highlight—it can be hard to please everyone.
From here we dropped down a notch and slipped into their “dark food” phase—a downtown Khmer fast food place—with dozens of dishes displayed in bain-maries or made to order. The restaurant was humming with custom and for people who had never been into a Khmer restaurant before, this was a good choice as it was pretty much as authentic as it could get (giant rats scampering through included).
Our second to last stop filled the fusionish stage of the trip. A hole in the wall vendor near Tuol Sleng which served only takeaway but who has agreed to set up a table for Lost Plate customers. The ribs are baked in a large ceramic jar—the owner figured out how to cook them himself and when they took off in popularity, he ended up closing his hair dressing salon (where we were sitting) and to just sell ribs instead. Bloody good ribs too.
Turning the hipster dial up a notch we then rolled across to Sundown Social Club, a newish and trendy expat bar overlooking the Russian Market. By this stage, ten days into our stay in Phnom Penh, we’d already been to the bar twice, so it would have been good to have had a more local spot chosen as the final stop, though it must be said, the IPA went down awfully smooth.
The Lost Plate tour was US$49 (apparently a low season promotion despite it being high season in Cambodia) and was the cheapest of the three tours we tried. We’d say it is a good choice for those who don’t want to get down and dirty walking through markets and/or are a bit squeamish about street food, but would like to at least try local fare. Also if walking is not your strong point, then this is a good option as you’re generally shuttled from one place to the next.
Lost Plate: T: (011) 646 801 https://lostplate.com/cambodia/
We tried Urban Forage a few years ago when it was still being led by the founder of the company, Ducky. Fast forward to 2019 and the Phnom Penh tours are being led by Irish Shauna as Ducky is now busy in Siem Reap expanding the franchise it seems. While our previous take on the tour was that it was a reasonable introduction to Khmer food, since then an almost 50% increase in price (we paid $40 for the tour a few years ago) for seemingly pretty much the same product, makes it a hard one to recommend when considering the other options available.
The tour started with a pickup from our accommodation (30 minutes late due to traffic) where we were than taken to Eclipse Sky Bar for a cocktail and to enjoy the sunset. At this stop, Shauna along with a Khmer friend she was training as a guide, delivered their take on Khmer recent history and societal norms. The venue, a hit with tour groups and casual tourists is a crowd pleaser to be sure, but you’re well on the beaten tourist trail here.Once the sun had set we were tuk tuked across to Phsar Kandal where we took a bit of a walk through the market sampling fruit, desserts, some pork belly and other local delicacies. We then walked around to a pork rib stall on the edge of the market where Shauna dashed around the corner to grab us each a cold drink (beer or soft drink) to ease our thirst while we waited for some pork ribs to get cooked up.
From here, it was back into a tuk tuk and across to a Khmer BBQ place. As luck would have it, we had eaten there the night before and seeing a Vespa Adventures tour at the same place again left us asking ourself how far from the tourist trail had we really strayed?
At $55 the Urban Forage tour is a hard one to recommend and our advice would be if this kind of general view of Khmer fare is what you are after, then saving some money and doing the Lost Plate tour would be a solid approach.
Urban Forage: http://www.urbanforage.co/wanderlust
In all three cases you can expect to go through a mind boggling amount of styrofoam and plastic bags and it would be a great first step to see these food tours (and others like them across the region), investing in branded reusables that we could use instead. If any of the tours had used a tote bag for fruit for example, and offered it up for sale at the end we probably would have bought it. Every one used is a plastic bag avoided.
Secondly, all three guides knew their way around Khmer food but we heard some absolute clangers when they got going on other topics. Phsar Thmei is not a Vann Monyvann building (a mistake we’ve made in the past!), the Khmer Rouge did not “invade Cambodia” nor was their dislike of Khmer pop music the primary motivation for their revolution. Also please dispense with talking about local people in a patronising, parental manner. The historical inaccuracies floated over the heads of some of the Cambodia first timers on the tour, but when base facts like this are being gotten wrong, what else is off the mark? I’m not suggesting the tours be more scripted, all three of the guides had a generally fun, gregarious and social vibe to them, but yes getting your facts right still matters.
Lastly, all three supplied us with a recommended eating list (Phnom Penh Food Tours and Urban Forage in an email, Lost Plate in a very well-presented brochure), these lists, which were fairly different in their contents are excellent resources for finding more great places to eat. They’re also a great reason to do your tour at the start of your stay rather than the end, so you can try out more of their recommendations.
Oh and one more thing—even in peak season, in the case of both Urban Forage and Lost Plate we got shuffled around a bit as there was nobody else on the tour. If you are a solo traveller book early to have the best chance of having other people join your tour.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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