Continuing on the bumpy partially unpaved road to Phnom Penh, we stopped in the village of Skun. The specialty there is fried tarantulas and Sam was more than happy to demonstrate how to eat one. Children with live tarantulas appeared to scare the shit out of all the tourists, then relentlessly tried to sell us fruit. There were plenty of crickets and grubs, too. I left with a bag of pineapple (which I don’t even like), but no tarantulas.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, we had a quick lunch at Khmer Saravan. I chose a traditionally spicy Thai dish, chicken larb, hoping to get an authentic spicy dish.
Unfortunately, they made it Thai hot by adding seemingly an entire container of crushed red pepper to the ground chicken, giving it an unpleasant, harsh, spiciness. I could barely eat it. And no cabbage?
That evening we strolled around the palace, surprised to learn that Cambodia still has a king, the life-long bachelor and ballet dancer son of the former ruler. Needless to say, there are no heirs. We dined at Romdeng, a beautiful little restaurant that is staffed by young homeless people being trained in the hospitality industry.
My tamarind martinis and crispy duck spring rolls were excellent and so was the service. However, my seafood salad was less pleasing. Scallops, onions, and cabbage were tossed with squid rings that were overcooked and chewy, then drizzled with an overwhelmingly fishy vinaigrette.
The following day we would take a private tour to The Killing Fields and nearby Genocide Museum. No one had much of an appetite after that, yet we found ourselves back at our hotel, standing on the dusty street craving a cold beer and bite to eat. I ordered an Angkor and beef with onions, which was more like onions with beef.
We were excited about a cocktail cruise along the Mekong River, however, a torrential downpour with lightning made it necessary to revise our plans. Wearing plastic rain ponchos, we got into tuk-tuks with zip up covers and rode through the flooding streets to Touk, a touristy restaurant with a popular covered rooftop deck across the street from the river. There I ordered ginger martinis, more spring rolls and duck with noodles, one of the best dishes I had while in Cambodia.
The lack of Cambodian restaurants in Atlanta didn’t really occur to me until after my trip. Apparently, there had been one in Tucker called Phnom Penh that is now closed. Why? Perhaps because Cambodian cuisine lacks a defining dish; Japan brought Americans sushi, Thailand introduced us to unusual herbs and spicy flavors, Vietnam came along with pho, and Korea delivered a unique table-top barbecue experience. I could open a joint called Crispy Critters but I just don’t think fried insects would catch on here.