If you’re up for an evening of exploring local Cambodian treats that seem a little too intimidating to source for yourself — think wet market, no English spoken, no menus and itinerant vendors — then a tour with Urban Forage’s Ducky could be your answer.
Australian Ducky offers a range of food-related tours in Phnom Penh, including an evening market and barbecue dinner trip, which appealed to us as the focus is local (though she does provide other itineraries appealing to more higher-end tastes). We stumbled onto one other food tour, but Ducky’s one seemed more street-food oriented, and though it culminates in a meal at a proper four-walled barbecue restaurant, it is a very local one.
The US$40 price tag covers hotel pick-up and drop-off, food, drink and transport by tuk tuk, and Ducky’s commentary, making it a very reasonable deal if you’re travelling alone as you’ll get to sample so much more than you would dining without companions.
The evening begins at a rooftop bar where you’ll get to see the city from an impressive height. Sip on a cocktail and meet your fellow tour takers — we had a group of three friends from Australia and an American family of four based in Shanghai in our group. The views really are worth seeking out, particularly for sunset — and the monsoon can make it especially atmospheric. Even if you don’t jump on a tour, make sure at some point you visit Eclipse to get a real sense of the layout of the city.
Next up, we headed to Kandal market, located in the central riverside area. Though you may well easily stumble across this market on your general ramblings around town, ordering something to eat from a vendor may well be a different story. While you can always try pointing and picking, of course, there’s value in a guide who knows where to go and exactly what to buy for a good experience.
First up we actually stopped at a dessert stall to sample a bowl of typical Cambodian desserts, which included a local melon, amazing coconut jelly, a sweet version of lentils and a few other delicacies. So far, so good.
A bag of pork scratchings miraculously appeared for us to snack on as we headed back through the market, stopping at a stall to try green mango with a classic dipping mix of salt, sugar, chillies and dried shrimp. While we’d had the salt-sugar/chilli combination in Thailand before, the dried shrimp was new to us — and really interesting, in a full-bodied, no-holds-barred kind of way.
A local beer appeared too as we stood in line to wait for our barbecued pork from an itinerant vendor who was doing a roaring trade. Slightly smokey and super tender, it was served with a chilli dipping sauce and chunks of cucumber, and was one of those wonderful market miracle transformations between what looks like a fairly basic set up and a divine culinary experience.
We headed back to our tuk tuk, stopping at various spots in the market to check out unusual items, like Chinese century eggs, which are preserved in a process that lasts 100 days.
Then we were off to our barbecue joint — you’ll see a zillion of these across town, packed with beer-swilling, hungry locals, but you’ll likely feel a bit shy walking into one. Staff won’t speak English and you won’t find any menus in English, so the tour is a great opportunity to experience one.
Ducky’s cricket man was MIA at the market, but she managed to rustle up a collection of other critters for us to try at the restaurant. You’re either an insect eater or you’re not, we reckon, and we are sorry to say we passed on these as well as the ant salad. But we loaded up on the curries, stir-fries and rice instead — none too spicy, all extremely more-ish.
The family we did the tour with, who knew we were writing about the tour (Ducky didn’t!) contacted us afterwards specifically to tell us how much they enjoyed the experience — the mother felt she was at her edge exploring the wet market and wouldn’t have otherwise gone on such an adventure.
If you’re experienced at streetside dining in the region, you may not find the tour overly educational in terms of learning loads of new stuff, but if you’re new to the region — and especially if you’re new to Cambodia and travelling alone or as a couple — this Urban Forage tour is a great short-cut to getting to know Cambodian cuisine and market life, and experiencing a typical local night out. Ducky herself, it’s worth noting, is very generous with her advice on what else one should do while in Phnom Penh. Recommended!
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