Having been made into the tourist trap that it is, the city of Aguas Calientes is stuffed full of restaurants. But they all have one thing in common – they are geared for tourists and offer food at tourist prices.
But a smart traveler realizes that all those locals who stick around Aguas Calientes in order to take advantage of the tourists lured by the overblown promotion of Machu Picchu also need to eat, and they surely don’t dine in any of the tourist restaurants.
Here’s where the Central market of Aguas Calientes, otherwise known as Mercado de Abastos (Food Market) comes to play.
Located close to the train station in the Machu Picchu Pueblo (the name into which the Peruvian government is trying to rebrand Aguas Calientes), Mercado de Abastos towers rather inconspicuously a little bit up the stairs, in a building that hardly attracts any tourists, despite thousands passing in front of it literally on a daily basis.
On the main floor of Mercado de Abastos one can encounter sellers of fresh fruits, however just as everything in Aguas Calientes, these are all heavily overpriced, having been shipped to the pueblo by train. Once done asking fruit sellers for prices but not buying anything because of the ridiculous price, an unlikely tourist can walk up the stairs to reach the market’s upper floor, and encounter stalls selling cooked dishes for the locals who work in the many of Aguas Calientes’ tourist establishments.
Even though at 12 Soles for a menu consisting of a soup and a main dish, the prices up there are still high by Peruvian standards, Mercado de Abastos is the cheapest place to get fed in Aguas Calientes, and truly the only somewhat economical way to eat while waiting to go up to Machu Picchu.
I definitely took advantage of it, and even though during my 3 day stay in Aguas Calientes I was the only tourist who took said advantage, it didn’t bother me one bit being surrounded by locals slurping loudly their food and chewing it with their mouth open like a pack of cows on a field, because it came with the good feeling that I wasn’t allowing the overpriced services of Aguas Calientes take advantage of my being there entirely.
Upon descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain, I met a middle-aged American couple who asked me if where I came out of was the entrance to the hill with the ruins. I ended up having an interesting conversation with them right there on the narrow, cobblestone covered street of the old Inca part of Ollantaytambo.
At one point they mentioned they had dined at Apu Veronica Restaurant located across the bridge heading out of town, and recommended the restaurant to me for some of the best food in town. So I made a point of heading out there and satiating my digestive system after the uphill climb.
Apu Veronica is, exactly as the Americans told me, across the bridge heading toward the fortress. It is located on the second floor of a building, but is well marked to make it easy to find.
I walked up and seated myself in the smallish restaurant currently catering to just a couple of people eating there. However despite being noticed by the staff, I was totally ignored for the longest time.
I proceeded to walk up to the counter and grabbed a menu out of there myself, thinking this would get the message across and a waiter would come to ask what I wished to order. That never happened.
The menu suggested heavily overpriced dishes, but whereas one of the dining patrons was a local, I knew they also had locally priced options. I found those on an individual sheet on the counter.
Called “Daily Menu“, this option offered a selection of a few pre-made dishes for 15 Soles which included a small plate of soup and a glass of Chicha Morada (traditional Peruvian non-alcoholic, sugar sweetened beverage of deep purple color made from dried dark corn). Compared to the dishes listed in the menu, which sell for upward of 70 Soles (over $21 US) per plate, these three course meals are hell of a better deal, but as a foreigner, you’re not supposed to know about them. That’s if anyone bothers to serve you in the first place.
Having figured out what I wanted, and having demonstrated to the staff that I’m indeed present in the restaurant and ready to place an order, I expected a waiter to finally show up after some 15 minutes of ignoring me in the restaurant with hardly any people to keep them busy. It never happened, so I stood myself up, walked up to the counter again, and called up a waiter to place an order there.
I ordered fried trout, but asked if instead of standard rice as an accompaniment, I could get a portion of fresh salad made from whatever veggies they had in the kitchen. The waiter said it shouldn’t be a problem, so I went to sit myself down at my table again.
As per the speed of previously demonstrated service, it took forever to finally bring me my order, but nevertheless, I got the trout exactly as I asked for. Compared to what I got in nearby Puno for half the price, this was a miserable portion of fish, but I was in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, so I took it as it was.
I went to Apu Vernica after descending the Pinkuylluna Mountain so I did feel like unwinding after the heart pumping uphill trek, which is probably the only reason why I stuck around. The terrible service with no reason to justify the insanely long waiting times was otherwise inexcusable. The food however, I have to admit, was tasty and the cook prepared it for me the way I wanted, so I feel like my review is at the draw as far as recommending or not recommending the restaurant.
Furthermore, unless you get sucked into ordering one of the hard core overpriced options from the foreigners’ menu, the value for money in Apu Veronica is decent. The food was safe and didn’t make me ill, so I’ll leave it at just that – Apu Veronica is probably a decent choice for dining in Ollantaytambo, but not if you don’t have whole day to wait for service, or are really hungry.
While still in Cusco, I told Maria whom I was going to meet in Lima, that even though at the time I’ve already been in Peru for 3 weeks, yet have still not eaten a Peruvian ceviche. Since we maintained contact the whole time on the internet and finally set up a date to meet up in real life, I thought it would be the perfect time to finally try ceviche.
Under normal circumstances, I take the masculine role in a relationship, but whereas I’m not familiar with Lima and she is from there, I gave the responsibility for picking up a suitable restaurant for my first time pure Peruvian ceviche to her.
She picked a restaurant called El Chef y El Mar, and it did not disappoint. Located in San Miguel where I was staying, the more upscale restaurant had the prices to match the quality and the atmosphere, but that only made the place more perfect for the occasion.
At El Chef y El Mar, there were several dished with ceviche on offer. We picked a platted for each consisting of two different forms of ceviche and a creamy rice with the calamari. I asked for my ceviche to be extra spicy, Maria went for medium spicy. It was delicious to the last bite. I could not have asked for a better place, company, and type of food to start my addiction to ceviche.
Ceviche is considered one of the flagship dishes of Peruvian cuisine, being one of the most traditional meals offered in Peru.
According to the Peruvian historian Javier Pulgar Vidal the name ceviche comes from the Quechua word “siwichi“, which means “fresh fish” or “tender fish“. One hypothesis proposes that the words Siwichi and Sikbaǧ were confused during the conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spaniards, which caused that it was transformed into the name with which we know it today.
Peruvians claim that ceviche originated in the Mochica Culture on the Peruvian coast, more than two thousand years ago. However Ecuadorians maintain the pre-Inca Empire people along the Ecuadorian coast used to prepare the same cold fish dish for just as long, claiming the origins of ceviche were not exclusively Peruvian.
In both cases, ceviche was originally being prepared by marinating the catch from the sea with chicha – juice that comes from corn.
Later, with the Hispanic presence, two ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine were added: lemon and onion. The development of the lemon farms in the lands helped to shorten the time of preparation of this ancestral dish.
Put bluntly, ceviche is basically raw fish marinated in soury, vinegar like solution. If you like raw fish in sushi, you will likely love ceviche.
From my standpoint – having come to Peru from Slovakia, where what is known in Peru as Ceviche is commonly available in its Slovakian form as “Zavinace” and purchasable from pretty much any grocery store for under a Euro, I was already familiar with the type of fish and had taste buds tuned in to it.
Ceviche in general is not the cheapest dish to eat, but a trip to Peru would simply not be complete without giving it a try in some proper restaurant where it is properly prepared.
Caution eating ceviche is however well warranted, as improperly prepared ceviche can be the bearer of bacteria that could seriously harm your health and screw your entire trip.
Fish used to prepare ceviche should be fresh out of the sea and should be eaten early in the day. As a way to honor this requirement, many ceviche restaurants close in the afternoon.
Concluding the First Date with Maria
After enjoying the wonderful triple dish of Peruvian ceviche for the first time, with our bellies happy, I took Maria to a billiard club where she played pool for the first time in her life, and then to a bar where we downed a few Cusquena beers. Late at night, we parted our ways after what for both of us was a highly fun and fulfilling date. We had one more day to spend together afterward, and we both looked forward to it.
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?
Even though excessive amounts of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) added to the food I was eating with the villagers from Sras Srang during the last day of the Pchum Ben Festival made it taste awful so I didn’t have much of it, I still had enough to cause further stomach problems. At this point I had enough pointers to start being apprehensive about MSG and went on the internet to read up on it.
As with many other things, the information available on the internet is rather conflicting. Some said intake of MSG was harmful, while others stated they experienced no problems whatsoever, even after years of use. It was hard to come to a solid conclusion based on other people’s reports, but potentially harmful side effects caught my attention so I started to ask around in restaurants whether they could cook the food for me without MSG.
Eating MSG Free Foods
Harmful or not, I didn’t feel like eating too much food that had its taste enhanced with chemical seasoning. In my mind, the premise was simple – I’d ask a waiter in a restaurant if it was possible to cook the dish I’d order without any MSG. I said I didn’t care if the cook thought it didn’t taste right without MSG, but I made it a requirement if they wanted to get my business. I made it clear that it didn’t matter to me what they believed each dish needed in order to taste right, or what they’d continue serving to other customers, but as for me… you either ensure there is no MSG in my food, or I will never dine in your establishment again.
Unfortunately, Khmer Family Restaurant was unable to accommodate my requests. I used to dine there a lot but since I couldn’t get anyone to take my requests seriously, I quit going there. Luckily, there is no shortage of restaurants anywhere a guy goes and many will be more than happy to oblige in order to earn your business so this was not an issue. Amazingly enough, after I started asking for no MSG in my food, the stomach problems went away.
Habit of Asking for No MSG
Since I already know what the food with loads of MSG smells and tastes like, I could often tell whether what I was served had the taste “enhanced” with it, or not. However this is not always possible as small amounts of it won’t have much impact on taste. It’s like with salt – if you overdo it, you can tell the dish is too salty, but if you put just right amount, then it simply tastes just right.
There were a few occasions when I forgot to ask for no MSG and I found out about it the following day when the stomach cramps came back. Since I was supporting the establishments that were happy to accommodate my requests for no MSG in my food, after a few regular visits I no longer needed to remind them of how to cook for me. But that threw me off the habit of asking for no MSG each time I was ordering food and failed to do it with a few restaurants in which I hadn’t dined before.
Why Such Sensitivity to MSG?
I attribute my initial sensitivity to MSG to clean digestive system. My diet consisted of at least 80% organic food when I was in Canada. Everything that could be had in 100% organic form was a staple of my diet with the rest consisting of either organic, or if not available, then natural foods. Not everything could be had organic, but majority of my diet was chemistry free (except from occasional fast food munchies) so my digestion was nice and clean.
But then when I came to Cambodia and started bombarding my stomach with excessive MSG, the impact was instantly noticeable. I appreciate that people who eat foods full of pesticide all the time have their digestion used to the chemicals and may not feel the negative effects of MSG so harshly. That’s perhaps how one could explain the conflicting reports on MSG intake on the internet.
MSG Free Dining
From my own experience, MSG is definitely bad for your health and has a very negative effect on your body. Elimination of MSG from my diet resulted in elimination of stomach problems I was experiencing while eating foods that contained MSG. But seeing how more and more restaurants with signs that none of their foods contain MSG keep popping out all over Asia, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who experienced similar problems with MSG and that resulted in growing demand for MSG free dining.
This was one of my biggest pet peeves about Cambodia right from the start. In most restaurants (translation – all restaurants, except from upscale, splurge style establishment for extremely rich), you will be breathed down your neck throughout your stay as a patron. I’m saying this without slight exaggeration. Cambodians take excessively wrong approach towards tourists in most instances and waiters in restaurants are no exception. I found it truly hard to accept from the beginning and still can’t get myself to feel easy about it, but I grew to accept it as necessary evil.
Awful Experience Placing Orders
This is what it looks like when you walk into a restaurant with intentions to get something to eat:
A waiter or waitress follows you to the table (or escorts you to it if she got to you before you could seat yourself), hands you the menu and stands there right above you staring at you as you browse through your menu. If you tell him/her that you will take a minute to choose, it will be ignored and the waiter will simply stand there, breathing down your neck, forcing you to make hasty decision just so you get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of having someone stand over you, staring at you while you’re trying to make a decision.
Awful Experience Eating
Once you have placed an order (9 out of 10 it will be a hasty order as you will feel pressure having someone breathe down your neck while you’re choosing), unless you are in an upscale establishment for extremely rich, you will be stared at from a distance. Your waiter will stand nearby with eyes fixed on you, staring you down nonstop. Occasionally, if it’s slow and there are few servers at the restaurant, they may engage at a conversation with each other giving you the room to breathe. But it is very common to have your server stand a few tables down facing you and looking at you non stop. You will feel their breath on you, you will have them within your peripheral vision which makes it really hard to cope with. But this is the way they do it in Cambodia.
Awful Experience Paying
Once you’re done eating and ask your waiter for a bill, you will be brought a little folder with your bill that lists the total for what you have consumed. I have never had any unexplained charges on my bill which is a very positive experience, however… your waiter will wait right there by your side, staring at you as you pull your wallet out, browse through the bills inside and pick what you wish to put inside a folder. The feeling of being pressured and having a person breathe down your neck is unbearable but again – this is the way they do it.
Cultural Differences in Dining Services
Apparently the reason why waiters at Cambodian restaurants put you as a patron through such unpleasant experience is because this is the way Khmer (Cambodians) like it. Khmer people want everything now so servers are always at the ready, never close by, but rather right there.
It is difficult to hold this against your waiters. They actually believe that they are doing you a favour and are providing you with exceptional service by being there for you at any given time. Unfortunately this belief is so deeply embedded that any attempt to try to explain that this makes guests uncomfortable is futile. You will be deemed a weirdo if you express your feelings and ask not to have anyone breathe down your back. Khmer people believe this is quality service. They do not realize that for us westerners this is rather rude and feels like you are not given the room to breathe.
You are likely to experience this type of treatment in one form or another. While Cambodians slowly grow to become a little better behaved, unintentional, yet ill treatment is very common. Unless you are staying in upscale establishment and eat in high class restaurants where western owners train their staff appropriately and maintain standards acceptable by westerners, expect to feel uncomfortable by having your waiter stare you down and breathe down your neck during your stay at their establishment.
Tired and worn out from exposure to heat I was not used to, I headed back to my room at Two Dragons. It’s been a while since I’ve had my breakfast at Khmer Family Restaurant and my stomach was becoming vocal about getting some more food so I went for walk within the vicinity of Two Dragons guesthouse to see where I could have supper. The Home Cocktail Restaurant is only 1 minute walk from Two Dragons, around the corner, directly on Wat Bo Road.
Since my first introduction to Cambodian food I’ve been using Khmer Family Restaurant as benchmark. While my happy day special which included food and Angkor Beer cost only $3, I decided to give the Home Cocktail Restaurant a try even though their set was listed in the menu at $4. But unlike Khmer Family Restaurant, $4 at Home Cocktail Restaurant also landed me with a starter (2 springrolls with spicy, yet tasty dip) and a desert (fried banana – so yummy).
While dining at Home Cocktail Restaurant I have noticed rather unpleasant way Khmer establishment treat their customers. A person who is serving you will be there, right behind your shoulder at all times. From their standpoint this means that they are always there, ready to serve you. However from your standpoint it looks extremely awful, makes you feel uncomfortable and pressured. This wasn’t an incident isolated to Home Cocktail Restaurant, it’s all over you place and bit by bit you will be taking it for granted, yet it always makes for a very unpleasant feeling. I will elaborate on this later.
It is necessary to point out that my server at Home Cocktail Restaurant was very courteous and professional at all times. Food was absolutely delicious from first bite at the springroll, through main course all the way to desert. I have subsequently visited Home Cocktail Restaurant several times while I was still housed at Two Dragons. That only lasted for one week so after I have moved out of there, it was also the end of me eating at Home Cocktail Restaurant.
It is an amazing restaurant which I would not hesitate to recommend. The decoration and overall feel of the restaurant is very rustic so aside from eating local food, you will also feel local from the outside. I really liked it there. One day I dined there during heavy rainfall and the only unpleasant thing were mosquitoes. The thatched rooftop covering the patio, bamboo chairs, wooden walls with large cart wheels made for pleasant stay while rain was ravaging just feet away from me. Home Cocktail Restaurant = great dining establishment.
Every visitor heading to Siem Reap (gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat Archaeological Park) who does a little research on Siem Reap will have heard of Pub Street. Pub Street is the center of tourist life in Siem Reap. It’s a small street on which there is one restaurant, bar or club next to another. No excessive research is needed as Pub Street is an important and always mentioned part of Siem Reap so you will have heard from it soon once you start doing your research on the town.
It was no different with me. Knowing I was heading to Siem Reap, I went to read up a bit on it to get a general idea about this town and Pub Street was a reoccurring mention in virtually every report. When I got to Siem Reap, I was aware of Pub Street, I just didn’t quite know which one it was. Pub Street is just a nick name given to a street because it houses so many pubs. It’s not an actual name given to it by the municipal government.
Perhaps that was the reason why I was unable to find Pub Street on the map of any of free publications available to Siem Reap visitors, including Angkor Siem Reap Visitors Guide and OutAbout Cambodia. But not knowing which one Pub Street has bothered me not. I knew I was gonna stumble across it sooner or later.
Then when I had my first Cambodian meal at Khmer Family Restaurant during my first wander through Siem Reap on foot, I spotted the sign saying “Pub Street” and containing an arrow. I noticed that sign after I had left the restaurant and wanted to do some more walking around town. The sign suggested that Pub Street was close, little did I know the sign meant that this was the beginning of Pub Street. Without even realizing it, when I took my turn in order to get to a restaurant and have something to eat, I have actually turned to Pub Street and wandered down it. The Khmer Family Restaurant where I had my food was also located on Pub Street, I just wasn’t aware of it.
That was my introduction to Pub Street. A few days later I found out the street on which I had my first Cambodian meal – Street number 8 is Pub Street. Why out of all streets crossing Thnou Street down which I was walking I took a turn when I hit Street 8 in order to see if there are any restaurants where I could eat – I do not know. I found Pub Street without looking for it. And since Khmer Family Restaurant offered reasonable priced, good quality food and had fast WiFi internet free for their customers, I was on Pub Street every day of my stay in Siem Reap.
While I was munching on my Fish Curry with Steamed Rice at the Khmer Family Restaurant, something extraordinary happened, something that I had no idea how to properly respond to. Since I was sitting on an outside patio, I was within reach of people on the street which was abused by little kids and landmine victims who continuously and repeatedly kept bothering me with requests to buy something from them. Since none of them takes “No” for an answer and each is determined to literally molest you into buying something from them just so they can leave you the hell alone at last – I grew excessively wary of not being left alone for half a minute. Then a couple of young Buddhist Monks came, stopped before the restaurant and stood there motionless with a firm stare pointing inside the wide open restaurant. Having just been to a country for a few hours and unaware of morning rituals of Buddhist Monks, I had no idea what they were expecting and how to respond to it without stepping over the line and offending (or worse).
I did the best I could in this situation – I pretended I was too busy reading stuff from the menu, hoping it will look like I have not noticed they are standing there, staring in a general direction where I was seated and that it will get resolved without my involvement, which would be inappropriate in any case.
The monks were young boys. While age of Khmer people is oftentimes hard to guess as they are of smaller built than us Westerners and virtually all of them are slender (kind of looking like kids most of the time), these monks looked like boys of about 16 years of age. They were definitely teenagers. They were both dressed in bright orange robes, which appeared to be made of one solid piece of fabric which was skillfully wrapped around their bodies offering an impression of a safely enclosed and well protected body temple within. Both monks had their heads shaved and one of them seemed to have been carrying something that resembled a large bowl underneath his robe.
I saw them as they were walking up the street when they were just outside the restaurant and since this was the first time for me to see a real Buddhist Monk, it was kind of exciting. Yet still, being anaware of proper etiquette when dealing with monks (who are undoubtedly considered a form of “holy men” walking the Earth), I feared that my actions, regardless of good intentions, would be inappropriate, offensive or worse. What do you do when two Buddhist Monks stop right by the table at which you are seated and silently look inside in a general direction of your presence? I have rejected all beggars and hustlers who approached me so far – should I now break my stance on not being able to financially support everyone who asks me for the money and offer some to the monks? Or am I supposed to share some of my food or drink? Or just play a complete dumb tourist, pick up my camera, shove it in their faces and start taking pictures while mumbling to myself: “Cool, a real Buddhist Monk!” I really had no idea what these monks were there for, so coming at them with the money could potentially offend? But does ignoring and not giving do any better? I was stuck, unable to act. I did not know what to do in this situation. It seemed like a standard morning ritual of the Buddhist Monks as while I was sitting there embarrassed, not knowing what to do, I have noticed another pair of Buddhist Monks stopping in the same way at the restaurant across the street.
The rescue for my stickiness came quickly, though. The boy who worked the shift in the restaurant along with that cute girl who served me my breakfast came to the monks after about a minute of them standing there and passed them small plastic container the content of which they had emptied into the bowl one of the was carrying underneath his robe, the boy then gave them a bank note (not sure how much), joined his hands together as if for a prayer and bowed his head. The monks did the same and uttered a prayer in native Cambodian language. It was just something short, perhaps a brief sentence thanking the boy and the establishments for their generous donation and blessing them in the name of Buddha.
After that the monks moved on to the next restaurant to do the same there. It truly seemed like a morning ritual that Buddhist Monks in Cambodia perform as part of the beginning of every day. As I have learned later, monks rely on support from all people who offer money and food as monks don’t work and have no income similar to regular working class of Cambodia. Cambodia people are impowerished, they don’t make much. Average monthly salary is about $60 to $80. However they always take out of that little bit and give to the monks. Very devoted believers who despite not having much themselves, always find some money to give to the representatives of Buddha on Earth.
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.