While most locally run Cambodian businesses are not very customer friendly, there were exceptions worth doing business with. One of them was a local Cambodian restaurant on the east bank of the Siem Reap river, a block north of the independence bridge (about three houses back). The restaurant was clearly not targeting tourists as it was not on any popular tourist path and it didn’t even have an English name. None of the staff spoke any English, but where there is will, there is way to communicate.
Even though this restaurant was locally owned and run, it did not support discrimination and the same rates applied along the full spectrum of customers, regardless of their color of skin. Menu had items listed in Khmer language with some English translations to the right of it. Those translations seemed to have been put together by consulting a dictionary, instead of an English speaking person and had to be taken with a grain of salt, but gave reasonably clear idea as to the dish. There were occasional surprises, though:
Several items in the menu were translated into English as “Chicken and Vegetables” however what it ended up being was chicken stomachs with vegetables. Similarly, there would be a column of five dishes each with different Khmer name, but English translation for each of them was the same. The very first meal I ordered had its name listed in English as “Fried Egg with Tuna”. This was pretty close to what I got, except that the fish that came within this uniquely looking and tasting omelette was not tuna. It was some small, fresh water fish. Not a big deal.
The same menus were used by everyone – locals and foreigners alike and the same prices applied to everyone equally. Everyone regardless of their ethnic background also received the same level of service and courtesy, although I could only compare it with myself as I have never seen another foreigner ever dine in that restaurant. Still, despite being a foreigner, I have never been charged extra just because I looked different.
Virtually every meal they had in the menu was listed at mere 7,000 Riels (approximately $1.75) which included unlimited rice and tea (within reason, of course). Best of all, despite being a local restaurant, all customers were provided with safe-for-drinking ice to cool the tea down with. This was great since many locally run eateries use cheaper, industrial ice which is produced in unsanitary conditions using unsafe tap water. For your information – safe ice has smooth, cylindrical shape with hole in the middle of it, whereas unsafe ice is just an irregularly shaped crushed mass.
Food in the restaurant was fantastic. Preparation never took too long and every dish I tried had great taste to it. I also asked the students in my English class to teach me how to request no MSG in my food in Khmer language because no one in the restaurant spoke any English and I wouldn’t be able to continue dining there if they kept adding it to my food. Luckily, the cook had no issue with cooking without MSG for me so I was all set. BTW, it’s easy to remember how to say No MSG in Khmer – it sounds very similar to saying “No BJ” in English. You literally just use the abbreviation of “blowjob” and add “No” before it. If you can memorize “No BJ, no masau soup” they will know exactly what you are asking for and will gladly leave it out of your food.
For a few weeks, this local Cambodian restaurant was my favourite place for eating. It got pretty busy around lunch hour so I tried to avoid going there at noon but outside of breakfast (very early in the morning), lunch and dinner times the place was quiet and enjoyable. Everything was a little too perfect about it. They did not discriminate, food was great and well priced, ice was safe and No MSG requests were complied with. They never tried to overcharge me just because I was a foreigner so I kept supporting the business until the day the owner crossed the line and attempted an overcharge.
It was after a very long time of regularly dining there and never having a problem, when some woman walked in with a tray full of rice cakes. These were small, pinky sized rolls of rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Presence of raisins and some other fruit gave them slightly sweet taste which worked perfectly as an after-meal desert. Because this took place after I had spent more than a month in Cambodia, I could already understand some of the language, especially the numbers, so I overheard her asking for 100 RielS when she was offering the cakes to other customers (other locals who were also dining in the restaurant).
After having offered her rice cakes to everybody else, the woman eventually came to me. I had just finished my meal and the owner of the restaurant was by my table as I was paying for my food. Realizing that the woman didn’t speak any English, I made a hand sign with the money I was still holding in my hand for her to show me how much per cake. At that point the owner of the restaurant who was still by my table and felt compelled to “help” me understand the price took the receipt and wrote “200” on it.
I ended up buying that one cake for 200 Riel but felt like this was a major breach of trust. Needless to say, it was the last time I dined in the restaurant. He was always fair with me before so it was really disappointing to reach the point at which he would try to rip me off because I was a foreigner. Was the desire to earn easy 100 Riels by overcharging a foreigner really worth losing a loyal customer?