Keeping hydrated is of utmost importance in the tropical climate of Cambodia, and there are some great local options for you to enjoy.
With tap water generally considered non-potable, bottled water can be found all over the country. 330ml bottles can be usually bought for 1,000 riel ($0.25) from street vendors – look out for the large plastic orange iceboxes – as well as drinks shops, minimarts, and supermarkets, with bars and restaurants usually charging a bit extra. There are a large number of local companies producing bottled water here, with international beverage giants such as Coca Cola and Pepsi also coming out with their own brands.
For a 100% natural drink with several health benefits, grab a fresh coconut and slurp up the sweet water inside. These ubiquitous green globes are machete-chopped open with consummate ease by the local vendors, who often push carts full of them along the street. Expect to pay around 3,000 riel per coconut. Hang around the vendor with the big knife, and they’ll gladly hack the coconut in half when you’ve drained out the juice so you can enjoy the soft jelly-like flesh inside. Several restaurants and cafes also sell fresh coconut, often trimmed of their green exteriors so they can neatly fit in the fridge – chilled coconut water is a supreme cure for the dehydrated (ie. hungover), especially if you try the local trick of adding salt.
Sugar cane juice is also a fresh, healthy and energising drink to be savoured on the street. Most markets will have vendors on the periphery, as well as many roadside stalls dotted around. The large mangle machines squeeze out the juice from the peeled cane sticks, which is then collected in a plastic cup of ice along with some fresh orange juice to balance out the sweetness. A cup usually sets you back 2,000 riel.
Fresh fruit shakes, smoothies and juices are massively popular in Cambodia, and can be found in pretty much every café, guesthouse, hotel and market. A large range of seasonal fruits – mango, banana, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, dragon fruit, apples, avocado, passion fruit, carrots, oranges and more – can be selected to make up your blended beverage, with prices starting from around 4,000 at street stalls. Be aware that many local vendors will automatically add sugar syrup, condensed milk and/or egg whites to the iced mix, so keep an eye on the preparation stage and be prepared to jump in to maintain the purity of your drink.
In the morning, you can find freshly made soya milk sold by street vendors, with a green version sweetened and thicker than the unsweetened white one. Or perhaps try the traditional Cambodian drink of palm juice, which is stacked with vitamins.
Cambodia is now renowned for its iced coffees, which tend to be on the sweet side due to the fact that the beans are roasted after sundrying to preserve the sugars and oils, and are commonly served with sweet condensed milk that collects at the bottom of the glass. You can adjust the sweetness by the amount you stir the contents. Vendors in the murky food section of Russian market are toured as making the best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, although there are now countless tuk-tuks selling takeaway coffees on the streets to choose from.
Iced tea is also a widely drunk beverage, especially at local restaurants where a free pot may automatically appear for a table of new eaters to enjoy with a glass of ice while they wait for their order. These are usually the Chinese-style jasmine green tea. Hot tea can be ordered, including black tea such as the standard Lipton yellow label variety, with lime and sugar.
And of course, there are cans of soda (fizzy soft drinks) available all over, including the usual suspects like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Fanta, Sprite, and a few more esoteric options like Winter Melon, Grass Jelly, Soursop Juice and Bird’s Nest drink.
And now for the harder stuff. Beer is widely available and ranges from questionably cheap lager cans up to pints of bespoke craft ale that’ll set you back a few dollars. The most popular lager brands produced locally and available in cans, bottles and draft include Angkor – the country’s original brew with the popular slogan “Our Country, Our Beer”; Anchor – pronounced An’cher to differentiate it from Angkor; and Cambodia – a relatively new beer on the scene, but one of the best marketed.
Other favoured labels include Tiger, Kingdom, Crown, Ganzberg, Phnom Penh, and Klang, with several international brands popping up in bars, like Carlsberg, Singha, Leo, Chang, Asahi, Tsingtao, and Beer Lao. There are also a handful of canned or bottled local stouts including ABC, Black Panther, Angkor Extra, Barrley Black (that’s how it’s spelt), Kingdom Dark, and Phnom Penh Stout. As yet, no Guinness on tap though.
A chilled lager can on the street can be purchased for a mere 2,000-3,000 riel, with prices rising as you take your drinking inside. Happy Hour discounts on draft beer are extremely common at establishments, usually during the late afternoon/early evening. Even the most fashionable bars and high-end hotels rarely charge more than $2.50 for a glass of draft beer.
In recent years, there’s been an explosion of microbreweries, especially in Phnom Penh, creating craft ales for the increasingly discerning local, expat and tourist markets. Prices are naturally steeper compared to local lagers, but the sumptuous flavours and the higher quality of alcohol (read: less hangovers) might make it worth the investment. Prices start from around $2.50 per glass and rise to around $5.
Cambodians very much enjoy drinking beer, especially with food and usually poured over ice. When joining a group of Khmers for a drinking session, expect them to dictate the drinking with rounds of cheers, or chul kao moy (meaning “hit glass one”).
Wine is rapidly becoming a choice beverage of the expanding middle class, and there are plenty of wine shops to be discovered in major tourist hubs such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, with bottles imported all major producers such as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the US. There are even now a few Cambodian wineries in operation.
But if it’s authentic Cambodian “wine” you want to sample, then check out palm wine or rice wine.
Palm wine, or teuk tnaot in Khmer, is the fermented juice of a sugar palm fruit, around the alcoholic strength of beer and often sold out of bamboo containers off the back of a bicycle in the village for a handful of hundred riels. The foam on the surface is natural and indicates freshness, but beware: the sweet drink can have somewhat of a laxative effect on imbibers. A local company called Confirel produces and sells palm wine in a variety of forms in nice bottles at shops and supermarkets – not a bad souvenir gift.
Rice wine, meanwhile, sees things creep up to spirits level – between 15% and 30% ABV – and is best enjoyed after it is infused with fruits, herbs and spices inside a large bell jar for a few weeks. The locals call it srah sor, meaning white alcohol.