Cambodian food tours are taking off in Phnom Penh thanks to the team from Urban Forage. Ellie Dyer meets the Australian blogger whose flavour for life inspired the idea. Photography by Conor Wall.
Having grown up in the small community of Walcha in Eastern Australia, Sonya Duck jokes that the most exotic meal she ate as a youngster was her mum’s spaghetti bolognese.
But watch the 35-year-old expat today as she leads a group of mystified tourists around Phnom Penh’s markets, stopping off to pick out a spiky rambutan from a fruit stall before heading to a Khmer dessert stand, and it’s clear that the Australian is fearless about embracing, and introducing others to, new tastes.
The former tour-group cook and tourism professional, known to her friends as “Ducky”, is the force behind Urban Forage food tours. The business, launched last year, guides intrepid foreigners around Phnom Penh’s markets, local restaurants and food stalls.
“I had no intention of running food tours,” she says of her initial move to the Cambodian capital a year ago. “I just started blogging about Phnom Penh and my travels, and about the amazing food. And then I started getting a following on Facebook and Instagram.”
With 17 years of previous travel industry experience — she once traversed Europe as a mobile cook for camping tours, treating tourists to gourmet dishes such as snails — former colleagues soon began to contact her about showing visitors around Phnom Penh.
As the numbers increased hand-in-hand with Ducky’s love of Cambodian food, she approached local tuk-tuk driver Sok Eang, aka Mr Smiley, to help out. In April, the food tours were born.
“I think the tours are a great idea as they promote Khmer food amongst tourists and also foreigners living here,” he says.
“It’s grown organically since then,” Ducky adds. “Now, it’s really busy. [For] my biggest group, I took 23 people for breakfast. I had to do them in separate departures as it’s a bit intimidating walking around the market with 23 barang.”
The tours are intended to introduce visitors to local foodie spots, from filling breakfasts at Boeung Keng Kang market, to evening snacks at the stalls set around bustling Kandal market, to a slap-up Cambodian barbeque meal with plenty of beer.
“I love food and the city, and I think sometimes it gets overlooked,” says Ducky, who goes on regular food finding missions with the help of the team, which has expanded to include two more drivers.
“I really just want to show as many people as I can all the little hidden parts that tourists don’t get to see. The stuff you only discover after living here for so long,” she says.
Two Australian tourists being led through a steady steam of motorbikes and traders at Kandal market clearly appreciate Ducky’s knowledge and support.
While chomping down on chunks of rich grilled pork and sipping tart pomelo juice in chaotic Street 13, just before heading on to a barbeque dinner, both women admit that they wouldn’t have had the confidence to try the market’s wares without Ducky’s guidance.
It seems other tourists feel the same. As Ducky guides her customers to a local dessert stall to test out icy bowls of sago and coconut cream, more curious tourists soon flock in, seemingly gaining the confidence to ask for sweet treats once they’d seen other foreigners enjoying the dishes.
“I love the tapioca and banana with coconut, that’s my favourite, but I’m quite partial to the sweet lentil dessert as well,” Ducky says. “It’s just taking people to places that they wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable even walking through by themselves.”
And for Ducky, there’s always more to learn. On our trip she enters into conversation with a vendor over a small, red fruit that we soon ascertain has been brought to Cambodia from Vietnam. “I’m still finding my way around,” she says with a smile. “It’s exciting still, which is awesome.”
For more information, visit urbanforage.co