Last updated on September 6th, 2017
A good way to tell whether your Cambodian friends have a lot of Chinese ancestry is whether they turn really red after a bit of alcohol. We Cambodians have mixed Indian and Chinese stock, and the saying goes that those of us with more Indian genes do not really blush after a sip of hard liquor. Your good host Noeun stays the same, whereas Thea turns a little bit pink. Beware thinking that people becoming red as tomatoes means that you can outdrink them… We would not dare challenge some of those beer and whiskey mixing with ice cubes alcoholics.
Let us introduce you to some alcoholic beverages that are popular in Cambodia so that you can taste local drinks when you are visiting Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor. We’re city slickers so our point of view on what is “popular” is biased towards what urban folks like, but it is in line with what Cambodians also generally drink!
Beer is much appreciated by Cambodians. Angkor Beer and Tiger Beer are brewed locally and sold everywhere. There is a handful of micro brewers here and there, for example on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh, but they mainly produce flat yellowish low alcohol heavy waters, that are a bit expensive because handcrafted…
Sra beer khyom, prateh Khyom (my country, my beer)! The slogan of the commercials for Angkor Beer with the silhouetted logo of the old temple is displayed with pride that should appeal to the nationalistic feelings of the Khmer. Not so… if it tastes good, we’ll drink it which ever far away land it is imported from. Angkor is a local brew and it has been competing with Tiger Beer, a singaporean brand (with Heineken), also brewed locally, for the wallets of thirsty Cambodians since the early 1990s. We’ve had the honour of touring their plants (and if you’re invited you should). Angkor is brewed in the coastal City of Sihanoukville, and Tiger Beer in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. We like to joke that they must be among the few Cambodian factories that abide by local environmental laws. They’re state of the art and you can taste it in the beer.
Tiger had a little edge over Angkor for many years, a little one, not a huge margin, but significant enough. Right now, many local drunkards we know tend to prefer Angkor Beer. The problem was never the taste, more the quality control. Under a 40-degree sunshine, beer does not keep well either, and many a small drink in the wall shops kept foul tasting barrels, add the journey from the seaside and Tiger would taste fresh more often than Angkor Beer.
Then came Carlsberg from Denmark… Well, let’s be realistic… ouf of several hundred beers the world over, we’re all drinking from the same handful of multinationals, whether in Europe, Africa, America or Asia. Name a mainstay southeast Asian local beer that has not been bought out? The Danes apparently injected some quality control, not that we have insider information, but we’ve been able to taste the result. The taste of Angkor Beer is the same, but it has been more consistent. And customers are more confident that the brew will please them.
So which one will you prefer? Tiger or Angkor? Up to you to decide after you have had both. Don’t worry, we’re not sticking to either for long. Sometimes we drink one, other times we drink the other one. Some Cambodians even swear that bottles are usually better than cans, and the bigger 640 ml bottles are better than the smaller 330 ml bottles. Probably a myth, we can’t tell the difference. But do check the expiry date before you drink…
What do Tiger and Angkor taste like and how do they compare to other imported beers? They’re both standard blond lager beers with a light taste of hop. Neither beer is as bitter as Heineken (also a popular import, but more expensive), or Budweiser (for the rich only and hard to find). Europeans will dismiss them as light Asian beers for certain, until they crumble to a heap after a few hours drinking with the locals. Anyway, how good it tastes depends on the company at the table and the food you eat it with. Most local dishes from our pages on Khmer cuisine and what to eat in Cambodia will wash down well with local beers!
Cambodians will often drink their beers with ice cubes. The more, the better. Not many imported beers can be swallowed with ice cubes! You’ll appreciate your brew ice cold in May when the local temperature hits forty degrees! We also eat munchies and finger foods with our beer. Some light snacks among friends: grilled meats and seafood. It is unusual to be drinking without eating, or very western.
If you don’t like the local beers, don’t worry, you won’t go thirsty in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap Angkor, Battambang, Sihanoukville or any other major Cambodian city. There are dozens of American, Asian and European beer imports available from corner shops. Prices range from very cheap (under a dollar a can) to unreasonable. That easy… but drink in moderation!
Palm Wine has an important following in Cambodia. It is the traditional drink as true as palm trees dotting the Cambodian landscape are the national trees of our country. In many villagers, there are palm tree climbers. Those folks agile enough to climb up to the skies with their bare hands and feet, or sometimes rickety ladders of fortune. Falling from the skies is common among palm tree climbers (so is alcoholism). They come down bringing palm fruits that will be pressed to yield an opaque greenish juice. Once fermented, palm juice is consumed as toeuk thnaot (in Khmer it sounds inoffensive as it is called “palm water”).
Toeuk thnaot is sold around the villages of Cambodia in wooden cylinders attached to the back of bicycles. A drink is just a few hundred riels, and customers will buy litres of palm wine. City dwellers like your Gnarfgnarf correspondents do not have the stomach for large quantities of palm wine. The raw stuff from the village is a powerful laxative. But if you see a traditional palm wine hawker, go on, have a sip. The little foam on top is natural, and so is the fermented taste.
The Blue Marble Cafe of Phnom Penh introduced to the world the Sex on the Palm Tree cocktail, a variation of the traditional recipe that substitutes vodka for palm wine, and mixes freshly squeezed orange and pineapple juice. The cocktail was a big hit because of its hilarious name.
Visitors interested in bringing a typically Cambodian souvenir home can get nicely packaged bottles of palm wine from Confirel, a local family business working with villagers. Their palm wine is independently certified as an organic produce and is sold in many supermarkets and drink shops.
Rice wine is made by fermenting rice in water with yeast. Rice wine using the higher quality jasmine rice is among our favourite traditional Cambodian alcohols. Rice wine is called sra sor in Khmer (white wine). It looks more like water, but it packs 15 to 20 degrees of alcohol, sometimes it can go up to 30 degrees but it’s not a good as the lighter batches!
The entire production is household and village based. If farmers cultivate rice and raise pigs, there is a good chance that they will be producing rice wine for a bit of cash. The fermented rice residues from wine making is fed to the pigs (they love it!), so nothing is wasted. It’s hard to find good rice wine if you don’t have relatives or friends in the countryside. When we take short trips to the villages, we never miss to bring back to the city earthenware jars of the good stuff for a few thousand riels.
Rice wine is ideal for shots as it drinks smoothly, is lightly scented (thanks to the jasmine rice), and does not irritate the throat as other strong liquors do. Rice wine can also be used as a rather neutral alcohol in many traditional cocktails. As it has far lower alcohol content than vodka or rum, lighter drinkers will enjoy more of their cocktails and fewer headaches.
Grape wines are not a luxury item in Cambodia, but not an every day beverage either. Wines (tapeang chou, or fermented grapes in Khmer) are more like delicacies served on special occasions, such as weddings or banquets. If Cambodians had the money, they would be drinking red wine in large quantities. There would not be any need to educate city folks on the virtues of grape wines as it is quite a bit more expensive to buy good bottles of wine as beer by the pitcher.
We’ve tasted only one locally produced grape wine in Cambodia. And as far as we know there is only one “Chateau” in Cambodia. Actually, it is not a chateau, but rather a prasat (temple and fortress). This wine is known as Cuvee Phnom Banon, a prasat located close to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. If you happen to be around an open bottle, by all means, have a sip! It is strong and sweet! Otherwise, it may be better value for money to purchase a French import.
French wines have been popular in Cambodia for over a hundred years, in particular red wines from Bordeaux. In most cities, it is very easy to find good vintages at affordable prices (the tax on alcohol in Cambodia is much lower than that of its neighbours). Supermarkets and “drink shops” (shops that sell all kinds of alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages for home consumption) have large selections of French wines. At less than ten US dollars a bottle, we are able to pick up a recent vintage of a mainstream Bordeaux (2011 Mouton Cadet, Bordeaux AOC or Bordeaux Supérieur). Deals abound for visitors looking for more specific crus classés and having deeper pockets. There are also plenty of Australian wines on offer, but they are not as good value as Cambodians prefer French wines.
Enjoy the many drinks and beverages of Cambodia with plenty of local food! Chaukchey (Success!)