Travellers who discovered Phnom Penh over 20 years ago and remember the place for its scruffy charm would likely be surprised if they were to return today and taste its international cuisine.
Food and dining has undergone a huge change with a wide array of foreign dishes on offer, but at prices that are still affordable.
The main action is to be found along the Mekong riverside boulevard Sisowath Quay and its many lively side streets with their markets, garden restaurants and supermarkets. Across the river is the equally lively Tonle Sap boulevard with more than 100 restaurants and bistros.
Besides local dishes such as lok lak and hot and spicy stew, the fare offered by the international lineup of eateries will also include wiener schnitzel, grilled sausages, pizzas, filet mignon, bouillabaisse and freshly-pressed mango juice.
One keen observer of the scene is a former German fashion photographer, Peter Dahlke, who is one of the pioneering restaurateurs in Phnom Penh.
“The changes of the past 20 years have been enormous,” says Dahlke, speaking in his restaurant, One More Pub, just a few minutes’ ride in a tuk-tuk from the Mekong River. His specialties are of the European kind – steaks, flour dumplings and platters of French cheeses.
One particularly popular eatery is the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) restaurant overlooking the Sisowath Quay scene from above.
In the past, war correspondents and United Nations staffers would meet here. Today the clientele is chiefly tourists. Occasionally a backpacker will stop by for a drink, but then head somewhere else to eat where the prices are cheaper.
Amid it all, the traveller will have to come to terms with the hard fact of poverty, evidenced by the many beggars out on the streets. Some have their hands held out, hoping for some coins, while children try to sell pirated copies of travel guides.
Many of the adult poor are physically maimed, a legacy of the horrors and suffering under the Khmer Rouge regime of dictator Pol Pot.
Many restaurant owners, be they Germans, French or locals – try to help the needy, aware that the flourishing tourism industry only benefits a tiny segment of Phnom Penh’s 1.6 million inhabitants. Many families have barely $100 a month to get by on.
The Veiyo Tonle is one restaurant that gives donations to the needy. And the waiter there is all too happy to comply when a couple from Paris orders two extra meals that he can take later on to two hungry little girls sitting outside near the restaurant entrance.
Among other foreign restaurateurs who have added to the Phnom Penh restaurant scene is another German, Andreas Stanke. His refurbished Riverside Bistro right on the river is already about 20 years old.
Then there is Tassilo Brinzer, from Germany’s southwestern city of Baden-Baden who each year stages a three-day Oktoberfest at the Cambodiana Hotel, complete with beer tent, sausages and sauerkraut. And, of course, beer.
The rest of the year, Brinzer runs his La Croisette bistro on the rivierside promenade, serving guests from many nations.
German sausage know-how is also offered by Rolf Lanzinger at his Danmeat store. The German is proud of the fact that even the Cambodian royal family are among the customers seeking his sausages and ham specialties.
“I am really happy that the world is now coming to Cambodia,” Lanzinger says. “The people here suffered greatly in a horrific period. They are friendly and ready to help, and deserve to have some tourism.”