Being Gluten Free In...Cambodia


(We visited Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville (I don't have a separate post for this town), and suggestions from a friend for Kampot are found at the end of this post. For specifics on each city, check out those posts!)

All the basics

I'll be honest - when we booked this tour, I had Vietnam on my brain. I had a friend who took a month-long honeymoon traveling the length of Vietnam. She went on and on about how beautiful it was, and so began my scheming to get to Vietnam. Cambodia was really an addition, so we could see Angkor Wat and the tour we took happened to also spend about a week in Cambodia. And lo and behold, we found Cambodia to be this magical place that my husband and I fell in love with. Now, after 24 countries, when people ask me my favorite country, I’m hard pressed not to put Cambodia right up at the top. Coming from Bangkok, a large metropolitan city, to small and up and coming Siem Reap – followed by back country roads with little to no water or electricity was quite the leap. And the relative simplicity and kindness of the people struck us.

Part of our experience was to explore the fairly recent history of the Vietnam War (the US War in this part of the world), Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which led to the 1975-1979 genocide of the Cambodian people. Perhaps I had come across this terrible genocide at some point in school, but if so, it wasn’t a piece of history that stuck. Cambodia is a young population, one that is re-building and learning who they are – where leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still in politics and deaths of family members and friends are fresh.

I have family and friends who can’t understand why I would travel to a place like Cambodia – but I would trade nearly any material item to have the experience and grow an understanding of the vastly big world we exist as part of. My first taste was in a small village in India, and it was repeated in Siem Reap. I liken it to learning another language. When you start to break down a sentence structure in another language, suddenly all of the rules of your own language snap into place. You can see the organization, the structure, the idiosyncrasies that make it unique, brilliant and complex. When you can experience another culture, another way of being that is vastly different than your own, you begin to view your own life and society through a new lens.

We visited Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. I hated Sihanoukville, so you won't see a blog post on it. If there is one thing I could have changed about this trip, I would have skipped this city. If you are just looking for a beach city to party in, head here, but in my opinion, I could easily have spent an extra day or two in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh instead. First off, it is just for tourists, mostly young, drunk, backpackers. We were there on New Year’s Eve and all of the restaurants had tables set up on the beach. Sounds nice, right? There were pick-pockets everywhere, it was difficult to communicate needs (hello, gluten free), and people were lighting those floating lanterns right behind us, which kept landing on nearby buildings and in trees. I kept imagining the newspaper headline “Hundreds trampled on beach as floating lanterns burned down buildings”. I was getting so nervous we decided to get up, and then had one of our phone’s stolen. Then the next day we went snorkeling, but not on a nice trip. We basically just rented a boat with some crappy equipment and a guy that drove us to some places. IF you do decide to head to Sihanoukville anyway, I don’t really have any great food recommendations unfortunately.

Anyway….because you are here to learn about being gluten free in Cambodia…haha

Being Gluten Free in Cambodia

To learn more about what kinds of foods I typically travel with, and navigating airports, check out the TRAVEL TIPS page.

Similar to Thailand and Vietnam, there is very little understanding of allergies or celiac in SE Asia. No one really knew what I was trying to avoid, but I didn't meet anyone that wasn't willing to check and re-check food for me. The bonus in Cambodia, is that alongside the local language of khmer, nearly everything was translated into English (food labels etc.). I did not see this nearly as frequently in Vietnam (and we just didn’t spend enough time in other parts of Thailand to know if this was similar). ​

Flour vs Flour

I discovered somewhere in Cambodia that there was a miss-understanding on my translation. Then one day it dawned on me why there was so much confusion in Bangkok - the problem was in writing "wheat flour"! After showing my card numerous times, I kept being asked if I could eat rice. My best guess, is that "wheat flour" is just "wheat". "Flour" would automatically be considered "rice flour". So, when they saw "wheat flour" I think they interpreted it as no "wheat" or "flour (aka rice flour)" and automatically wanted to leave rice off my dishes.

At the very first place we stopped in Siem Reap the server spoke fantastic English, so I asked him to write out a gluten free card for me. At the time, I couldn’t find a translation card in khmer.

We ended up asking them to write the same thing that I did in Thailand:

No wheat

No soy sauce

No oyster sauce

No Koki Flour (I actually didn't know this one, until I was writing this blog after the fact)

Yes fish sauce

Yes rice

Please be careful, I get very sick if eating these foods.

Basically, that worked. Mostly, people were overly concerned about making me sick, so they just gave me fried rice with rice, egg and a few veggies. I think there was typically some sort of vegetable oil and salt. I brought along little packets of gluten free soy sauce that I would try to sneak onto this plain dish to add a little flavor.

General Food Guide

This is the list I put together and carried with me in my purse with me. All of it wasn't used, but it made me feel good having it on me. These are all ideas copied from one of the blogs I listed above. I also referred to my THAILAND food list frequently, as you will find a lot of Thai food in Cambodia.

Sauces

  • Avoid soy sauce and oyster sauce

  • Fish sauce is ok

  • Stay away from glazes and sauces, especially in street food.

Foods that should be safe

  • Kao Lam: bamboo canes are called Kao Lam and they are stuffed with rice and kidney beans steamed in coconut milk. Peel down the edges and bite out the rice. We also picked up dried banana chips, beetroot and potato chips, nuts (I found this in a blog, but did not personally try it).

  • Amok! The famous dish of Cambodia, for a good reason! I ate amok pretty much everywhere we went.

Stay Away From

  • Street food that has a higher probability of getting you sick includes stir fries (due to cross contamination), certain soups (where it’s hard to know all ingredients) and BBQ-style meat with glazes or sauces.

We booked our trip through G Adventures check out my blog post on them to find out how much WE LOVED THIS TOUR!

Water

Don't drink it. I mean, drink it, but don't drink it from the tap. This goes for most places while traveling, but especially Asia. It's not that it's bad, it's that bacteria exists in all water, and we are used to water from other places. So if you want to experience what it feels like to have your gut adjust, go for it. If you'd prefer to spend your time sightseeing and not on the toilet, I'd recommend bottled water. We are also outdoor enthusiasts and backpack. We have a UV light that kills bacteria both when backpacking outdoors, and for international - but not all are created equal. This was overkill, but we had it, so we brought it, just in case we were stuck in a situation where we didn't have access to bottled water. But everyone drinks bottled water, so that never happened.

Tipping

Though tipping is very common in the US, it is not required, but becoming more important in Asian countries. If you are doing an excursion, a $1 tip for a half-day, or $2-3 for a full day is appropriate. If there is a driver, perhaps $0.50 for them in addition. You can also consider tipping around 10% for a meal that is adjusted according to service (including no tips for poor service). To keep it in perspective a monthly wage might be $300 for a good tour guide, less for other services, and that tip is really appreciated.

A note about bathrooms

Bathrooms can be anywhere from glamorous to a hole in the ground. If you are in a larger city and at a nice hotel and restaurant, you will find western style toilets with toilet paper, and sinks with soap and paper towels. But if you are in a less expensive place or one that is more rural, be prepared to get comfortable squatting and bring your own toilet paper. DO NOT put your toilet paper in a squat toilet! The plumbing is not designed to handle paper products. I believe every toilet had a garbage can though, and this is where you dispose of your toilet paper. I highly recommend bringing along something like these travel toilet paper rolls.

A Few Blogs that I Used

Here are a few awesome blogs that really helped me prepare ahead of time. Instead of copying their info here, I have added links with the type of basic information you will find there.

Coeliac Backpacker

Use the search tool and type in Cambodia. She does an overview, and then breaks down a few cities: Phnom Pehn, Sihanoukville, Siem Reap, Saen Monorum, and Kratie.

  • Tips for communicating

  • Street food ideas

Cindy's Gluten Free Adventures

Siem Reap. Lacking in actual help regarding eating gluten free, but it was a good guide for the following:

  • Socially responsible tourism

  • Discusses must see sights and other tourist attractions

  • Tour groups

  • Hotel Tips for Cambodia

An Extra City: Kampot

I didn't have the pleasure of visiting Kampot, but fellow traveler Helen R. spent 2 months here successfully!

She said:

"A lot of the restaurants are run by expats who understand gluten free. They don't advertise it but it's doable. I ate there for 2 months and didn't get glutened once....None of them are "certified GF" but they do make the effort. I would recommend:

1) Razorbacks - they do smoked ribs, pulled pork and the best smoked catfish I've had. They also have ribs, chilli and soups. Everything depends on the day and they cook in small batches. They have no problem leaving off the bread on sandwiches and due to what they cook, there isn't much flour. I just spoke to the owners and they even listed ingredients for me.

2) Aroma - kebabs and falafel. They do a plate that comes with the bread on the side or you can leave it off. After talking to the owner, they use rice flour to make the wraps. I had it several times and didn't have any issues.

3) Texas BBQ Cafe - best breakfast ever. They also do ribs, chicken etc. Just tell them you can't eat the flour and they give you potatoes or beans.

4) Thai Fire - good Thai restaurant so able to get curries, etc. 5) Simple Things, I think. It's vegan, vegetarian, and recognized gf. I did find them to be a bit expensive though. Those were the ones we ate at most of the time and I was fine. Lots of places for Amok and local dishes but I don't know the names."

We visited Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville (I don't have a separate post for this town), for specifics on each city, check out those posts!

Here are a few other posts you might enjoy

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