Street Food Stall, Battambang, Cambodia.

Footpath Feasting: How to Eat Safely in Cambodia

How to eat safely in Cambodia is a concern of many travellers heading here and is something we are asked about all the time by people planning a visit. Getting sick can ruin that once in a lifetime trip to Angkor Wat , but it can ruin a whole lot more than that if you catch something really nasty.

How to Eat Safely in Cambodia

There are so many different factors that can cause you to become ill after eating at a restaurant or street food stall, making it an issue that we often find hard to cover when writing about destinations.

For example, a few years ago on a guidebook assignment in northern Italy we were driving to our next destination when Lara told me the name of the hotel we were staying at that night. It sounded familiar and I recalled why… a couple of weeks before our stay the hotel in question had a serious outbreak of food poisoning amongst a group of guests, resulting in one fatality.

As it was the summer high season, we had booked all of our hotels in advance and it was too late to change to a property we’d prefer to be writing about. Needless to say, the mood at the hotel was somber. The chefs were using thermometers to check the doneness of scrambled eggs at breakfast. The waiters were very suspicious of my cameras. They probably suspected we were doing a story on their food poisoning incident.

It was a dilemma trying to determine how to cover the hotel in the book we were working on. It was one of the grandest hotels of the region, with a noble history, so was it fair on the hotel to mention the incident (“nice hotel, but avoid the food!”) or unfair on potential guests to not write about it?

A couple of recent incidents in Cambodia raised a similar issue for us. While it’s one thing to get sick yourself or read reports about groups of people falling ill after a meal at one of the best restaurants in the world, it’s another to see poor food handling practices up close.

We had just arrived at a new hotel in Phnom Penh and with deadlines looming that afternoon we decided to order some room service for lunch. Our own needs aside, we also try to make a habit of ordering room service at hotels we’re writing about to see what it’s like, as travellers often tell us they ate in their room because they were too tired to go out.

The fresh spring rolls that arrived that day were very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that the prawns were raw. The ‘chef’ hadn’t cooked them before preparing the rolls. I would eat raw prawns in a sushi joint in Japan or a fine dining restaurant in Italy, say, where they serve them uncooked in olive oil, and where they know how to handle them. But the last place I’d eat raw prawns is Cambodia.

For an unsuspecting and unlucky guest, eating the uncooked prawns could have meant a couple of days suffering bacterial diarrhoea, or worse, contracting hepatitis A or typhoid, both distinct risks in Cambodia. One reason why you should have those pre-trip vaccinations.

A couple of weeks later we did a popular cooking course at a restaurant in a Cambodian city where the ‘instructor’ really had a thing about food safety – and sprinkling Knorr’s chicken stock cubes into every single dish. While his obsessive use of the stock cubes was disconcerting, his admirable safety lessons were undone by the plastic container of ‘meat’ he proudly showed us.

I prefer metal containers for hygiene reasons. I also prefer to keep raw beef, pork and chicken in separate containers. Yes, he kept all three types of meat in the one container for use in both his restaurant and the cooking classes he ran with his wife each day.

If you were being generous you could say that, well, it’s all going to get cooked anyway and that any bacteria (yes, you chicken juice floating around with possible campylobacter and salmonella) will die when the meat is cooked to a safe temperature. But really, would you want to cook or eat in a restaurant with a kitchen that takes that unnecessary risk in the first place?

While I would never recommend a cooking course where the secret flavour ingredient is Knorr’s chicken stock, I would also never knowingly eat at a restaurant that takes such risks with food hygiene when it comes to meat storage. Nor do I want to be recommending it.

But as travel writers do we have an obligation to other travellers to not only not mention these places in the stories we’re writing but to also ‘out’ places that could potentially harm — or even kill — guests with poor food handling practices? And how do we know that places we recommend actually do have better food handling without going into the kitchen to do an inspection?

In the case of the hotel in Phnom Penh, Lara sent the spring rolls back and sent an email to the hotel owner and manager. It turned out the hotel was in between chefs and a very junior kitchen staffer had forgotten to cook the prawns.

The cooking course instructor, however, didn’t think that there was anything wrong with his food handling practices, even after I pointed out the potential problem. It’s a popular cooking class that is recommended in guidebooks and travel forums and included on food tours. There’s no way we will be recommending it.

As we’ve now been living in Cambodia for six months and have spent plenty of time in kitchens here, doing cooking classes and interviewing chefs and restaurant owners, we thought it was time for some tips.

Tips For How to Eat Safely in Cambodia

Be more conservative in Cambodia

Take a lot more care in Cambodia than you would in other countries when it comes to food that you’re willing to try on the streets — hepatitis A and typhoid are not souvenirs you want to take back home. For a number of reasons, diseases are more prevalent here, hygiene standards are generally lower, and street food stalls are not as scrupulously clean as they are in Vietnam or Thailand. Most travellers we meet have been sick at some stage of their Cambodian trip.

The usual South-East Asia street food rules apply

Make sure the stall is busy with locals. See whether the cook or vendor is wearing plastic gloves. Look for a tub of dishes that appear to be getting washed in hot soapy water. Check to see if the chopsticks are in sealed paper/plastic or they and the cutlery are presented in a container of piping hot water. Make a note of how clean the kitchen or food preparation area looks if you can see it. All are essential in Cambodia.

Take extra care with fresh, uncooked food

You want to buy some sliced fruit from a street cart on a hot day? Sure, it’s fantastic, especially when sprinkled with salt and chilli, but is the vendor wearing gloves when cutting it or is there somewhere nearby where they appear to be washing their hands? Yes? Great. But if he or she is also handling money, good luck. I’ll peel my own fruit, thanks.

Be careful at the hotel breakfast buffet

If you’re at a hotel/hostel with a buffet, don’t pick up food or pieces of fruit with communal serving spoons or forks and then go and sit down and eat with your hands. Buffets themselves are never a great idea but sharing cutlery can be just as dangerous.

Wash your own hands well

Always wash your hands well before you eat, but especially if you’ve been in the countryside, shaking hands with people, and perhaps patting (hopefully, rabies-free) dogs. Wash your hands throughly with soap for at least twenty seconds. Or use a hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol.

Remain cautious in restaurants

Don’t assume that visiting a Western-owned restaurant means you’re safe. Unless the chef is operating at the level of a restaurant like Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, food hygiene standards might not be much better than a market food stall, and in some cases could be worse. Lara was in bed (and in the bathroom!) for two days after eating at an established French restaurant in Siem Reap — one that came recommended by local residents. Take care.

Take care at cooking classes too

If you’re doing a cooking course, find out if the instructors are qualified as chefs or have worked in a good restaurant or hotel kitchen, where you can expect there are procedures in place for food safety. Hopefully one where the hotel wasn’t “in-between head chefs”. You don’t want to be eating any meats that were stored together raw in the fridge, as we had to in Battambang.

Take calculated risks

Because I’m living in Siem Reap, in the name of research I’ll often take more risks than the average person would or should. I might just finish off that slightly undercooked roadside beef satay, order beef carpaccio at our regular Italian place, or get a beer with ice in it. But I don’t have a full day’s tour of the temples in a tuk tuk booked for the next day. Nor a plane to catch. As the saying goes, only gamble what you’re willing to lose.

There are 12 comments

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  1. sharon stein

    we are heading to cambodia and Vietnam soon. We are very concerned about getting sick on the food. We are staying at the Sofitel in Siem Reap, taking the ama waterways riverboat and then staying in Ho Chi Minh city at the caravel.
    We will be stoping overnight in Phnom Penh as well.
    are there any restaurants you feel are “safe” to eat at in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh city?
    Also do you recommend typhoid shots for our trip? We have read many of your entries and have printed some out to take with us.
    thanks so much in advance.

  2. Terence Carter

    Greetings Sharon – you don’t need to be overly concerned, just careful.

    Our Saigon suggested restaurants are here (we have a couple to add, coming soon):

    Our Siem Reap suggested restaurants are here:

    Our Phnom Penh suggested restaurants are here (note that this is also a little out of date):

    We do recommend typhoid shots for your trip.

    Happy travels!

  3. Christine Matthews

    We are travelling to Hanoi, Holong Bay River Cruise, Siem Reap, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Min City in the new year and we are getting a bit worried about eating out, and health. Wondered if you could give us a bit of advise. There are four of us going and we are all in our 60s.
    Christine Matthews

  4. Lara Dunston

    Hi Christine

    Sounds like a great trip – you’re visiting many of our favourite places. Do check out our HANOI section where you’ll find a post on Halong Bay – we tested our a number of cruises firsthand and compare them. We also have lots of stories on Ho Chi Minh City filed under Saigon, which is what the locals tend to call it; more coming on Hoi An, where we lived for 3 months last year; and of course loads of posts on Siem Reap.

    As for street food, we have more general advice in this post on how to eat street food safely There are lots of tips there, but I guess the most important ones for you are:
    * don’t be too adventurous when it comes to street food days for the first couple of days in each place – give your bodies time to adjust to the bacteria.
    * eat at good, recommended restaurants instead.
    * when it comes to trying street food, follow the rules above and on the post I’ve linked to – make sure you’re going to busy, popular stalls where the food is fresh each day and cooked to order and hasn’t been sitting around all day.
    * stay away from raw and undercooked seafood and poultry.

    Do let us know if you need further tips or have any other questions. It’s going to be a great trip!


  5. Stella

    Hello! This is really nice article. I will be Heading to Cambodia a week from now, can you please send me the food resto or establishments that you recommend the most? Thank you ao much!

  6. Carolyn

    Hi there, I just took a look at the recommended restaurants for Siam Reap. I note they were reviewed some time ago. Would you still recommend them? Also would you be happy to eat salad and have ice in drinks in these establishments? Would it be rude to ask the waiter if they use purified water for ice and salads? Many thanks! Carolyn

  7. Lara Dunston

    Hi Carolyn

    To answer your questions first…

    All good cafes and restaurants use water made from purified water and wash their salad greens thoroughly. We live in Siem Reap, so we have no issues with either. One way to tell if ice is made from drinking water or not is to look at the pieces – if they’re rounded oval-shaped pieces of ice they’re good. If they’re more roughly chopped/shaved as if they’ve been cut from a large block, they’re not. You’ll only find the latter served at a street food stall in a local residential neighbourhood, and I don’t recommend you drink anything from those stalls. You’ll be fine, however, with the drinks/shakes etc served at the stalls around Pub Street and in the Old Market area, which only use quality ice.

    Don’t ever hesitate to ask waiters if you’re unsure. Cambodians are some of the most direct people around so they won’t consider it rude.

    Re restaurants, check out our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap – I last updated this in December, but I’ll try and update it again this weekend. I’ll be adding Malis restaurant, which only opened a few weeks ago and is a must.

    I am working on two longer and more comprehensive restaurant guides, one covering Cambodian restaurants and the other covering everything else, but I probably won’t get those up for another couple of weeks when we’re back home in Siem Reap, as we’re currently away working in Myanmar. Everything on this post is still relevant, however, Malis and Chanrey Tree aren’t on there (they’re on that Culinary Guide):

    There are also many more better cafes than Cafe Central now, which you’ll find on this cafe guide:

    If food is a top priority, you may wish to consider my Savour Siem Reap experience:

    Don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any more questions.

    all the best

  8. Charlie

    I need help of where I can safely buy food to cook myself and which vegetables are safe etc because I know lettuce may not be because of water content contaminated

  9. Lara Dunston

    Hello Charlie, to be 100% sure fresh the fruit and vegetables aren’t contaminated, it’s best to buy organic produce from ‘Happy + Co’ in Siem Reap, which is sold in the supermarkets. You’ll see their very distinctive packaging. (See here: ) There are a few other smaller organic producers – look for the small print on the plastic bags. I still recommend thoroughly washing the produce before cooking and eating it. Are you in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh?

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