It had to happen sooner or later. The world economic downturn took the better part of a year to really find its way to Cambodia, but when it came, it came with a vengeance. One report said that within 6 months, 51,000 of 350,000 garment factory workers were laid off, this in Cambodia’s leading export industry. When I first came to Cambodia 10 years ago, I remember a student saying that she couldn’t afford to buy petrol because it had gone up by 500 Riel (about USD $0.13). At the time, I thought she was exaggerating, but in one of the poorest economies in Asia, a seemingly insignificant rise in prices is hard felt by many…
I’ve taken my own stand against rising world food prices! I almost always have breakfast out (rice and pork, Vietnamese pho, wonton with noodles, etc.) but lately, two of my usual haunts have raised their prices by 500-1,000 Riels each (the magical number for price increases, it seems). Yes, it’s only about 13/25 cents. But still. It’s the principle! So at my favorite noodle place, I’m demonstrating my passive resistance by not ordering iced tea or wontons with my noodle soup like I usually do. I’m also cooking breakfast more at home, which led me to my favorite gourmet shops this afternoon.
That’s one thing I’ll miss about Phnom Penh– knowing which shop has the cheapest tortilla chips or the best brie or the freshest Italian basil to make pesto. All the tastes of home. It hasn’t been helping now that Top Chef, Masterchef (US and Australian versions), Hell’s Kitchen and DC cupcakes have made it on to Cambodian TV. I probably only go to the gourmet shops once every two months or so, but every time I do, my wallet comes out much lighter. I was almost ready to check out with bags full of country bread, bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin medallions, a jar of red pesto, fresh asparagus and some puttanesca sauce, when I headed into the cold room for some brie. Unfortunately, I spied a case of the most plump peaches I’ve ever seen. It was like finding the Holy Grail. “How much are these?”, I asked the salesgirl. “$18 a kilo”, she replied. Ouch. I picked up a solitary peach and gulped when she rang it up. $3. For a single peach. Really? Sigh. It’s too hot in this part of Asia to grow stone fruit, so cherries, peaches, nectarines and the like are all lux items. And the more you can’t have something, the more you want it! At home, I sat there admiring the peach before eating it. very. very. slowly.
Travel tip: When visiting Phnom Penh, be judicious when trying out the street food. You may want to be careful of fresh vegetables / herbs or even the tantalizingly refreshing-looking fruit pushed around in carts, though. I’ve seen where people wash / cut those things and the images will forever be burned in my mind. Stick with freshly cooked, hot foods and you should be fine. By all means, try the fruit. But buy some from the market (almost every neighborhood has one) and wash / cut it up yourself.