The old market in the centre of Stung Treng town, one of Cambodia’s northern-most (and remotest) provincial capitals, was best described as ramshackle. When it rained, the loose tarpaulin covers that had been strung up would collect the water until it poured over the edges and cut down into the gulley-like alleys, soaking you on the way. Wooden boards bridged the walkways in places where the water had rendered them impassable.
The entrance I normally used to enter Stung Treng’s market involved weaving through parked motorbikes and sellers sitting on the floor offering barbecued sweetcorn, boiled potato (peeled and powdery), or crisp grilled bananas, depending on the season. Entering the market, you first passed gold sellers, whose stalls ran around the edge of the market, before breaking into its heart, where cheap electronics, phones, kitchen goods, clothes, shoes, hardware, and pretty much anything else imaginable could be found.
On those rainy mornings, though, I wasn’t looking for any of that – I was looking for breakfast. Cambodia’s ‘wet markets’ – as in, the stalls selling fresh produce and meats – are normally contained alongside the dry markets and most share things in common: pungent-smelling meat sections with sellers batting away flies with brooms, piles of vegetables, huge sacks of dried assorted spices, fish, garlic, eggs… and somewhere in amongst all that, cooked food stalls. Stung Treng market, though, was a bit different. In the mornings, a collection of breakfast stands opened up in a self-contained area buried within the more general stands, which I stumbled upon with a friend following our noses one morning.
All dark wood and smoky, the space was dominated by a central coffee stand, the proprietor of which always had about twelve tumblers of drip coffee on the go at any one time. She made the freshly brewed, rich Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk and a spoon of chocolate Ovaltine powder, poured hot over a full glass of crushed ice and then topped up with more. Two thousand riel ($0.50) a pop.
She served the coffees with deep fried breadsticks called nom chao quay (នំឆាខ្វៃ), more ordinarily served with rice porridge – something like a cross between a savoury Scottish yum yum and a Yorkshire pudding (apologies to the non-British who will no doubt still have no idea what I’m describing).
With the coffees, we would order bowls of num banh chok – thin rice noodles served in a yellow coconut and fish soup (normally – there’s also a meat and curry option) with herbs and flowers to mix in. As we became regular visitors, the coffee seller would shout our order across to the noodle stand. The dishes there were assembled to order from vats of sauce kept warm over embers, by three women bearing remarkable resemblance to each other. The youngest, in her late teens, delivered the food put together by her mother, while her mother in turn dealt out bong aim (desserts) nearby.
This was my breakfast on the vast majority of days of the six months I spent in Stung Treng, and nowhere was it rivalled, not even in Phnom Penh’s grand Psar Thmei. And oh, do I miss it. Over the course of one night in April 2016 Stung Treng’s market burnt down completely in a fire started by smouldering metal from one of the goldsmith’s stands, causing a million dollars’ worth of damage and the destruction of over twelve hundred stalls. Thankfully, no lives were lost.
It’s now being rebuilt – as many of Cambodia’s markets have been, in the same circumstances – as a large, warehouse-like structure. You might have seen Kratie’s or Banlung’s, if you’ve travelled there. The food stands have relocated to grass verges along the town’s main thoroughfare for now; we found the coffee on our last trip (and were greeted with “where have you been?!”), but we weren’t successful in locating the noodles. Maybe I’ll track them down next time.