The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated September 8, 2006
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
EATING AND DRINKINGFeeding time
Eating is a treat in Sihanoukville, plain n simple.
The huge number of eateries has led to each seeking a niche so that competition and variety makes eating in Sihanoukville interesting, well-prepared and good value.
This is especially true of non-Asian dining, whereas Khmer and Chinese-influenced food I have always found rather disappointing and somewhat overpriced wherever I’ve eaten in Sihanoukville (Khmers, Chinese and Taiwanese appear to enjoy paying over the odds for average seafood in Sihanoukville, conspicuously displaying a ‘money’s no problem’ attitude). I guess there must be some decent (and good value) Khmer places, but on my trips to Sihanoukville I’m not going to bother with a lucky dip policy on dishes that I am familiar with when I know it’s unlikely neither the bill nor the food will impress me much.
For these reasons I choose to treat myself to dishes I either wouldn’t attempt to cook myself (from unfamiliarity, difficulty or lack of ingredients) or stuff that’s rarely on offer. There are more places to choose from than you could possibly sample even in a month. It’s not for me to instruct on what is and what isn’t nice; you know what you like so be adventurous and you’ll most likely be fed well for a fair price.
What is creditable is that with the hordes of expat-run places, your ‘exotic’ meals will mostly come from a kitchen run by a native of that country or even prepared by them in person – Dutch, Swedish, Sri Lankan, Russian, Japanese, French, German, American, even British to name but a few – this really boosts the chances of the getting authentic flavours and touches that regional cuisine is surely all about.
At breakfast time though, I am nowadays about as spontaneous as a metronome first thing in the morning – and getting my ration of rice in early in the day keeps the Khmers from hounding me to eat more of their precious white stuff at lunch and dinner. The Khmer breakfast joint opposite the Chhe Nge Hotel where I stay downtown does me fine with a decent portion of chicken on rice with proper broth, chilli sauce and pickles. Finished with a glass of hot coffee (with the tiniest dollop of sweet milk in there – an order that’s surprisingly hard to get right) and a few glasses of green tea, this is standard morning fare these days, and though at 5000r it cost more than my down home Kampot standard it was well done and substantial enough to keep my engine running until lunchtime.Drinking
There are bars galore in Sihanoukville it’s true. There is likely something for everyone, whether it’s a chill-out vibe, vast music selections, sports on TVs, DVD movie marathons or the company of hostesses, good old chat or a quiet drink on your own (rainy season is superb for being vastly outnumbered by staff). That said, there aren’t yet any really happening, plush or upscale bars in the Western sense and perhaps it’s the glut of places that means none of them gets particularly lively.
Nonetheless quite a few visitors may look back and count up the hours and dollars spent in bars formed the majority shareholder of their Sihanoukville trip – especially when a loosely planned rainy season away break gets hijacked by a repeated boozing-hangover-hair of the dog cycle.
Get the beers in!
Draught beer straight from the Angkor factory tastes better on home turf than anywhere else in the country, but the days of price wars keeping the prices to just above cost seem to be over – selling beer at 40c a glass was not even covering overheads and certainly never feathering any nests. Most expats across Cambodia don’t touch the variable output in Angkor kegs or bottles though, preferring the silver cans of Anchor (pronounced with a distinct ‘ch’ sound rather than as might be expected for a heavy metal thing used to hold ships in position) – it’s somewhat bland but its produced consistently so and hits the spot when served really cold.
A quick rundown of the other beers you’ll regularly see.
Let’s start with three cheapies: Bayon beer is a really watery brew; Crown an oft-overlooked but more flavoursome choice (not regularly offered in bars though); Klang shows a marauding elephant on this red and white can – drinking this surprisingly palatable 7% brew can make you feel pretty bold too. Asahi I find too bland to drink more than one of, but that’s a plus for others.
Beer Lao (all imported) is a common sight – far better tasting in small bottles than cans, and supping from big bottles doesn’t quite seem right, and drinking chilled bottled beer from a glass seems to miss the point somewhat. I find the Thai-produced Chang a nasty tipple but it’s widely served and has its fans. Heineken is the same overpriced, undeservedly regarded piss in a bottle as everywhere else in the world. Tiger I would rate as crap in cans, lovely (but not cheap) from short bottles, and the best offering on tap.
Going several shades darker, the mighty Black Panther operates in its own little world, supplying high-octane alco-hits to hardened boozers who have become immune to the weedy Anchors and Tigers of this world; it’s quite a bitter pill to swallow and takes an effort to learn to enjoy. It’s cheap and made locally in the same Cambrew factory as the vastly superior Angkor Stout. My thought has always been that the bad batches of this syrupy 8% black gold get canned with the motto ‘Feel the Power of the Black Panther’. (No profits whatsoever go to funding the infamous Black Panther gang in the US ).
Angkor Stout is my favourite beer in Cambodia; much smoother and richer than the others, its distribution has been continually shrinking and has always been overlooked in the local market by the rich man’s choice of ABC Stout – image, price and above all inferior taste put me off this one. Note that all stouts in Cambodia are 8% alcohol, even canned Guinness is usually actually 8% Extra Stout and nothing like the rich n creamy pint poured in your local.
Lots of bars will slip on an insulated beer cooler – that is until new stock is reordered after they all mysteriously vanish, sometimes to resurface in someone else’s bar, a kind of redistribution of resources.Going local
Almost all Khmer joints typically serve beer from cans at room temperature with ‘ice maidens’ or uniformed beer girls flitting around plonking sizeable blocks of ice into small glasses. In local places they get through enough barrels of draft to ensure its freshness (so you won’t be getting beer of questionable vintage like in many a Western bar that could well lead to a disproportionately severe headache the next day to top off the bad taste from the glass). With a couple of friends, there’s something nice about sharing beer by the pitcher, and the third jug is often on its way as vision starts to become imperceptibly hazy and conversation slick and quick.
You’ll see some odd brands being promoted by ‘beer girls’ in brightly coloured dresses. Lots of these brews are way overpriced trash in big bottles that the girl is usually invited to drink with the patron – some, but by no means all, of these young ladies may boost their incomes after hours so to speak. ‘3 Horses’, ‘Archer’, and ‘Alain Delon’ are 3 crap beers being pushed at a predominantly middle-aged male clientele who often choose their beer by the appearance of the serving girl.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some Khmers really trying hard to get sloshed ASAP – and if you’re unlucky, you’ll be invited to down several beakers some of their vile mixture. Consisting of variable parts of ABC Stout, sickly sweet fortified ‘muscle wine’ (or even nastier herbal wine), coke, chunks of ice, soda and Red Bull this is the choice for getting totally battered in a hurry. From a group of 6-10 drinkers consuming jug after jug of ‘Khmer cocktails’ you’ll likely see a couple of them carried by their comrades from the premises and wedged in the middle as three depart on a motorbike, weaving and revving but generally maintaining stability. It’s worth bearing in mind when driving after dark that Khmers drink fast and aim to get properly pissed, whereas many other SE Asians treat alcohol as a more measured endurance event.Wines & Spirits
Bearing in mind that beer is by far the most popular alcohol consumed, the availability, price and choice of wine is fairly good. In what state it’ll be served to you is another matter: chilled reds, tepid or room temperature whites, vino tinto on the rocks, sun-baked glass display cases. This is unfortunately the way even in some of the nicer restaurants and in French-run places too. The rule of thumb is not rocket science guys: whites have to be well-chilled and reds are generally best around 20°C (which is several degrees cooler than room temperature in the tropics).
Most downtown supermarkets and gas station minimarts have impressive selections and a keen eye can pull out some real gems at bargain prices. Knowing this makes me scratch my head ever more at how few restaurants (even mid to upper-end) and bars have much more of a selection than a couple of reds and one or two whites – it ain’t likely gonna go off, doesn’t take much looking after and is a high profit item. And besides, some people just aren’t beer drinkers.
Mixed drinks in bars are a rip-off in most countries around the globe. Cambodia is no exception. When a litre bottle of name-brand spirits costs under ten bucks (and often much closer to the $5 mark), then charging two dollars or more for a mixed drink doesn’t wash with me, especially bar owners who put only a measerly 25ml measure in (standard in British pubs). It’s been worked it out that in such cases a tall Gin n Tonic for example will have the mixer as its most expensive component – in which case, let’s start mixing the drinks the other way so they’d a damn sight more potent and cheaper to boot.
Enough of my rant, many folk like something on ice and cocktails appeal to many at some stage of the evening during their big nights out. Don’t bother with any locally made spirits or stuff from jars infused with all manner of tree bark, sour fruits, lizards and so on – they’re all nasty, but incredibly cheap: winos take note.
When the paymaster general of Tales of Asia ups the medical insurance to cover liver replacements then I will begin, with great gusto, an in-depth exploration of what each bar in Sihanoukville feels like when thoroughly bladdered. Expect a few reviews (of sorts) in coming months.
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
Getting Around Sihanoukville
Eating and Drinking
Wines & Spirits
Other Ways to Spend Time and Money
restaurants, tours and more
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