As a traveller, dining in Laos is also not as cheap as in other SE Asian countries. When it comes to food, Laos adopted that crappy discriminating practise widely popularized throughout Cambodia. Just as it is in Cambodia, Laos eateries believe that it is perfectly justifiable to overcharge (rip off) foreigners so getting food for the price a local would pay is rare.
Restaurants in popular tourist areas have menus in both Lao and English, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s bilingual. This is just an illusion created to make you believe that you are getting a local deal, but the prices on the menu only apply to foreigners. A local would come, look at the menu, smile at it, put it aside and ask in a language you cannot understand how much it was going to be for him which will never end up being the same as what you as a foreigner would have to pay.
Out of this part of South East Asia, Thailand is the best country when it comes to the availability of locally priced food available to foreigners. Prices in Thailand are often clearly marked and visibly posted, even if you go to the most non touristy market in an area where you will have been the only foreigner in ages. Yet the price posted will apply globally – this is how much this particular item costs and everyone, regardless of their color of skin will pay this amount. There is no such thing as different price for different people. Sadly, that’s not how it works in Laos. As a tourist, aside from finding transportation and accommodation vastly overpriced compared to other countries in SE Asia, I also found lack of inexpensive foods available to foreigners financially exhausting.
Bowl of fried rice with squid and shrimp can be had for $1 in Cambodia. That same amount will buy you steamed rice with nice dose of (really spicy, mind you) chicken stew in Thailand and in Vietnam, you could also almost throw a beer in it with food but forget about getting a decent portion for an equivalent of $1 in Laos.
Pakse in southern Laos was the only place where white bread sandwich with friend egg and veggies could be had for 8,000 Kip (roughly $1) but be prepared to shell out more everywhere else.
Overall, even for a skilled budget traveller capable of finding the means to travel, sleep and eat on the cheap, Laos happens to be an expensive trip. As a foreigner, the cost of food will be out of proportion to what locals pay but that’s a sad reality of many places in the region.
As big fan of Asian food, I could not wait to have my first Asian meal in an Asian country. Sure, I did have my authentic Korean dish aboard Korean Air flight from Vancouver to Seoul, but I wasn’t quite in an Asian country yet. Now I was – Siem Reap in all its glory.
Since there was no buying for me at the Center Market, I continued on, told 500 other Tuk Tuk drivers that I was fine and didn’t need any ride, weed, cocaine, bum bum (that’s what they call the act of fornication) or anything else and turned left on Sivatha Bulevard, which appeared to be the main street in Siem Reap, according to the map in the Siem Reap Angkor Visitors Guide. The map also suggested that there was a high concentration of stuff to the left which is why I turned there, instead of heading right.
There is a large corner building that houses Canadia Bank, which had the sound of Canada to its name – my homeland. That’s where I slid to the 2 Thnou Street and followed along passing by a number of massage parlors, pharmacies and other shops. The thought of eating my first Asian food in Asia has driven me forward so I have disregarded all other, albeit attractive shops and focused strictly on restaurants. At one point I spotted one right on the corner of 2 Thnou Street and Street #8 and walked in to check the menu. I was immediately approached by the server who stood by my side as I was checking what they had for eating. Given information I have gathered from on line research, I believed that this restaurant was a bit overpriced so I excused myself, much to the disappointment of the server who believed I was a sure fish and followed up that Street 8 where there seemed to be one restaurant after another on both sides.
One that immediately caught my eye was called Khmer Family Restaurant. Not only did the name applied that this was a locally run restaurant with local management so my purchase would support locals, but the name also suggested that I would be eating local food, which would certainly greatly enhance my first dining experience in Cambodia. Khmer Family Restaurant it was. I stepped in, seated myself on a patio under the fabric roof as heat within the walls of an establishment without air-conditioning would be unbearable and asked for a menu and a $.50 draught beer they had advertised on the sign facing the street.
I was served by a beautiful Khmer girl and ordered Curry Fish with Rice. It was still early morning, but closer to about 8am by now and the temperature outside reached truly intolerable level. I did not want to know what it’s going to be like during mid day hours. As I was sitting on a patio close to the street, I was being repeatedly approached by street people. Little girl – could not have been more than 6 years came to beg me to buy a bracelet from her. Realizing these kids are trained to play with tourists’ feelings and used as easy tools to get money from otherwise refusing foreigners, I stood my ground and respectfully declined. Afterall, weight of my luggage was enough of a burden as it was. Adding to it with keepsakes was not an option by any stretch of imagination.
Kids kept coming. Both boys and girls, couples and groups, selling t-shirts, postcards, guide books, scarves, and everything else that can be sold. I was approached by someone twice a minute. Victims of landmines were the most difficult to turn down. Those people miss limbs, some miss parts of their chest or several limbs. Many don’t speak English and bear signs with well tailored sales copies that will hit the sympathy nerves of even the hardest to break individuals.
I remember that one guy coming with clutches bearing a box tied to his neck and a sign in his hand which said that he’s not begging, only trying to work which is hard now that he’s got no legs. So he’s selling guide books. It was extremely difficult to turn that person down, but I’ve only been out in the open for 30 minutes and if I already started spending on items I don’t need, where would I be in a week from now?
When my meal was served to me, my eyes started to glitter. The presentation was awesome and when I took my first mouthful, I was in seventh heaven. The curry fish was served in a bowl made of fresh banana leaves held together by staples (lol, that one part kind of spoilt it all, but still impressive presentation), and dose of rice was served on a side of a larger tray that housed both. It looked fantastic and tasted even better. My taste buds were having the feast of the lifetime. It was a delicious dish which along with draught beer cost a total of $3 US. Wow.
My first impressions after dining at the Khmer Family Restaurant were more than positive. I could not have asked for a better place to have myself introduced to the local kitchen and have my first normal interaction with local people (only Khmer aka native Cambodians work at the Khmer Family Restaurant).
Licking myself all over after finishing my meal, rejecting offers from dozens of other people who attempted to sell me something, then rejected dozens of Tuk Tuk drivers who pulled over just to offer me a ride somewhere after I’m done eating, hanging on tightly to my camera bag so someone doesn’t snatch it, I went to pay for my bill. I left a generous $1 tip, which is a ridiculous amount to pay as a tip, but given that my total bill was $3, my $1 tip represented a 33% uppage. That’s perhaps why that gorgeous girl who served me my breakfast was so surprised and asked if I was serious that this $1 was for her… Hmmm, even though broke, this dining experience at the Khmer Family Restaurant in Siem Reap made me feel wealthy for a minute.
I have tried many restaurants after this initiation to the world of Cambodian dining, but Khmer Family Restaurant remained my favourite for a few weeks. Given that this was my first dining experience in Cambodia, I was generally happy with my choice. An amazing restaurant with great food, fair prices and as I have discovered later – great internet with free WiFi for customers. I was about to become a loyal customer but it didn’t last very long. Unfortunately, being a Khmer run business, they don’t care much about establishing a loyal clientele and are extremely lazy so when something needs attention, instead of taking care of it, they’d laugh at you for their inability to resolve it.
For example, when internet wasn’t working, I asked if someone could take a look at the router thinking that it may need restarting, but when after 45 minutes nobody bothered to take a walk upstairs to take a look, I had to ask again which was responded to by everyone having themselves a good laugh that I haven’t had any internet access for almost an hour. When this unprofessionalism (not necessarily limited to the Khmer Family Restaurant, as it is the nature of all Khmer run businesses) got in the way of me requesting to have the cook stop adding MSG to my food because it was making me sick, I knew it was time to quit patronising this establishment. Not only would no one bother to follow my request to quit adding MSG to my dishes, they even had themselves a good laugh at me because it was their food that was causing my intense stomach problems. Needless to say, what started as a good relationship was swiftly ended when their true colors showed up. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour is typical of any Khmer run business.