Can you survive on $3 a day in Phnom Penh?

I still get the occasional question about the cost of food and eating in Cambodia – but being asked whether one could get by on $3 a day was a new one. It is not an endeavour that I would be at all interested in personally pursuing.

My answer:

Yes, but it would be tough going and repetitive. For a tourist, it would be hardcore. Most Cambodians get by on a $1 a day but in practice, it is an extremely grim way to live; mostly involving cooking your own watery vegetable soup, a little fish paste and rice; and doing so for entire families rather than cooking alone.

It’d be much, much easier if you were cooking for yourself and buying produce from the local markets. While I was living in Phnom Penh, my weekly vegetable bill would come to less than $5 – but this wouldn’t include meat or rice; or the four or five meals out of the house a week. $21 a week would buy a good deal of rice and prahok.

To do it otherwise, you’d have to be eating at the very local joints especially market vendors at Orussei, Olympic Market or other outlying markets where you can generally pick up a decent bowl of noodles or something with rice for around a $1. You’d end up having to have one very light meal a day. My plan would be (if you’re eating outside the home):

Breakfast – Pork and rice; or a hefty bowl of khtieu for around 4000 riel. Coffee.

Lunch – Buy a baguette or two (a few hundred riel), whichever fruit is in season (another few hundred riel), and some pate or cheese to fill the bread. Interchange with ramen whenever you get bored.

Dinner – Pick up a preprepared curry/soup and rice from around Psar Kandal or Psar Chas. Alternate with a small fried fish occasionally.

My big tip (if you’re going to stay in one place/not move around too much) would be to buy a Rabbit-brand water filter (list of retailers(PDF)). You pour in tap water and out comes drinkable, bacteria and virus-free water. It’ll save you a hell of a lot on bottled water.

Life is sweet

Sweet Cafe salad

Nhoam svay trey chhaoe (Green mango salad with smoked fish)

I spent a whole lot of time in Phnom Penh reliving my old life. I had plans to cover a few new restaurants but the holiday temptation to slide back into the old ways was too powerful.

Part of that life is Sweet Cafe. Sweet is the most dependable Khmer restaurant in town. Of all the Cambodian restaurants in Phnom Penh, it was here that I dined with most frequency. Order the most traditionally Khmer-looking foods on the menu and you’ll never walk away disappointed. Order something not from the pantheon of Cambodian foods, vegetarian for instance, and chances are you’ll be served up a loosely inedible dish in a glutinous sauce. This is a restaurant designed for middle class Cambodia and not for the unpredictable caprices of Westerners who occasionally drop in.

Sweet Cafe trokun

Trokun de luxe – kangkong stir fried with chili, whole garlic cloves and shredded lotus stem.

The one thing that has changed at Sweet is the menu; now an approachable photographic bible of meals. If you were keen on methodically eating a swathe through the cuisine, this would be a great place to start. There are not less that 200 dishes presented in full pictorial glory. Order a sour soup, a salad and a fish and you’ll never eat poorly.

Sweet Cafe Samlor Machou Yuon

Samlor machou yuon (”Vietnamese”-style sour soup)

Location: Sweet Cafe, 21B Street 294

Orussei Market

Ever wanted to know where to find the stall in Cambodia that specialises in just pig’s ear, snout and throat?

Pig's Ears at Psar Orussei

Like every other question that involves where to buy something in Cambodia, this porcine otolaryngologist can be found at Psar Orussei, not to be confused with Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tom Poung). Apart from that sort of meat horror (which oddly, I also stumbled upon at Orussei Market last time that I wrote about it), Orussei is the catch-all market for Phnom Penh.

Everything you need to live a comfortable Cambodian lifestyle exists amongst its uncomfortably dark and crowded stalls. Prahok, karaoke machines, orange beer coolers and Honda Chaly parts can all be found within. Your local Phnom Penh corner store that stocks 400 different but equally useless objects have all been bought at Psar Orussei

My ostensible purpose for being there was to buy a Western-style grill for a friend; a grill far superior to the pot barbecue that I previously invested in before I discovered the breadth of items available at this market. For your reference, the grills are on the southeastern outer corner of Orussei on the St. 111 side.

Psar Orussei

Even the more palatable cuts of pig can be found barbecuing in the centre of the market, amongst a heavy concentration of food vendors which takes me about five passes to find. It’s not the best bai sach chrouk (pork and rice) in town but the complimentary bowl of watery chicken soup came with a slice of carrot and a hefty chunk of congealed blood tofu, which is an individual touch.

Psar Orussei

For a market that is relatively “modern” in Cambodia, it is suffocating and dingy.

Psar Orussei

Orussei Market is the worst place to find anything in particular. Even after years of tactical excursions into the heart of this labyrinthine bazaar, I could not describe to you where that pig’s ear vendor was but I can guarantee that you’ll still be able to find a meat vendor whom is equally unappealing. Most of my excursions to Orussei end with me unable to find three of the five items I needed. Only ears or throat when I needed snout.

Suckling Pig at Psar Orussei

Slightly more attractive is the outer rim of the market and surrounding streets. Whenever a journalist passing through town asked me where to shoot photos of real Cambodian markets, this is where I’d hit. Street 166 to the north of the market is packed with local vegetable vendors, suckling pig stalls and small fishmongers. It is brighter and less oppressive than hunting down food within the market and easier to make a quick getaway.

Just a pile of catfish


Small, semi-dried catfish at Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), Phnom Penh.

One of the more minor changes that I’ve noticed in Phnom Penh is that the markets are starting to seem even more local. The focus seems to be less on servicing foreigners with “Danger – Mines” t-shirts and more on placating the growing Khmer middle class with grey market Abercrombie and Fitch. The new Night Market on the riverfront, while a poor substitute for wandering along the currently billboarded-in riverfront, is mostly about keeping locals happy; oblivious to tourism.