Thursday, September 15, 2011

Destination Cambodia: It'll all end in beers

South China Morning Post, Sept 15, 2011

In Phnom Penh there is an expression that loosely translates to: “If you’re not drinking to get drunk, what are you drinking for?” Drinking to excess is a popular male pastime in Cambodia’s capital city, and while fancy cocktail bars have popped up in the last few years, locals prefer to drink beer, often in casual beer gardens. Locally produced Angkor and Singaporean-owned Anchor (pronounced Ann-chore, to differentiate) are the most popular draught beers in town, while ordering the more expensive Singaporean brew, Tiger, displays social status. All are served in short glasses over ice.

Drinking beer in Phnom Penh is almost inextricably linked with female beer sellers, disdainfully called “beer girls”. They wear uniforms colour-coded to the brand they represent and try to encourage beer garden patrons to quaff as much beer as possible. They are known for the difficulty of their working conditions but recently won a much-deserved pay rise.

Many now wear notices asking to be treated respectfully, so be polite as they stop by to refill your glass and you’ll soon be on your third pitcher of Angkor without even realising it.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their habit of imbibing quickly, Cambodians rarely drink beer without several plates of food nearby. Beer gardens all serve the same beers at similar prices but differentiate themselves by their often extensive food menus. The most delicious meals many visitors will have in Phnom Penh will be served next to a jug of beer.

54 Langeach Sros
15A St 178
Tel: +855 17 455 454

Always humming, 54 Langeach Sros is a popular Phnom Penh beer garden set in the courtyard of a former residential villa. Jugs of Angkor, Anchor and Tiger are served here, as are cans of ABC and Heineken, plied by a dozen female beer sellers. To encourage the drinking, 54 Langeach Sros has a menu with nearly 200 dishes and snacks, all delicious.

Their speciality is “Fried fish on the fire lake,” a whole fish deep fried and cooked in a coconut curry sauce at the table in a fish-shaped dish with fresh vegetables and herbs. The grilled pork ribs are tangy, sweet and slightly spicy, and best washed down with a couple of glasses of brew.

Sbov Meas
St 184 between St 19 and Norodom
Tel: +855 12 633 012

Located just around the corner from the Royal Palace, Sbov Meas (“Golden Thatch”) is a lively spot to enjoy a beer with the locals after a long day of sightseeing. The Khmer-baroque decor features fairy lights, waterfalls, flowering bushes and lush foliage. A canal with many footbridges snakes through the establishment.

Sbov Meas is usually filled with young people drinking beer – often out of three-litre beer towers. But don’t be afraid to order food as well. The tasty dish described on the menu as “Eel with curry pants” – eel served with tiny eggplants, chilli, kaffir lime leaves and basil – is the perfect accompaniment to a pitcher or two of draught beer.

Sovanna Restaurant
2C St 21
Tel: +855 11 840 055

Although Sovanna is a typical beer garden with beer sellers enthusiastically hawking Angkor, Anchor and Tiger, the crowd is predominantly families and mixed groups. This may be because Sovanna, in addition to offering half a dozen drink specials, serves food delicious enough to make a visit worthwhile even for teetotallers.

The stand-out dish is the grilled pork – tender, smoky and sweet, it’s nearly impossible not to order more. The lemony fish soup, or sngor chuok trey, has a clear lemon grass broth that’s refreshing after a few plates of barbecue. Pitchers of beer go for 7,000 riel (HK$13.40), and if you order three during the evening you’ll be presented with a free plate of green mango with chillies.

Young Go
1 St 214
Tel: +855 16 680 067

Young Go is a casual local dive that serves just a few things but serves them well. Pitchers of Angkor are just 6,500 riel, and groups of men come here for relaxed after-work beers and simple, unassuming barbecue.

Order beef (sach koh ang), prawns (bong-gorng ang) or squid (dtray-meuk ang) and there will soon be a small grill set up next to your table. Do the cooking yourself, or the staff are happy to help.

Kingdom Brewery
1748 National Road 5
Tel: +855 23 430 1802

Opened less than a year ago, Kingdom Brewery is Cambodia’s first true microbrewery, with a current capacity of just one million litres and a genuine German brewmaster. Kingdom Brewery also has one of Phnom Penh’s most stunning drinking spots: the glassed-in tasting room looks out across Cambodia’s scenic TonlĂ© Sap River.

Tours of the brewery are US$6, and include two bottles of beer. The tap room, where you can try a pint of Kingdom pilsner or their justreleased a dark lager for US$2, is open in the afternoons.