Review: Sara Ethiopian Restaurant, Phnom Penh

Even the most well-traveled palates can find little fault with the Model UN-esque breadth of cuisines available in Phnom Penh. From Iraqi to Russian, Taiwanese, Lebanese, Nepalese and Mexican, it is difficult to think of a part of the world that Phnom Penh does not have a great restaurant for… except African. But now, for the first time, Phnom Penh has an Ethiopian restaurant. And it is delicious.

Ethopian food Phnom Penh

Ethiopian food has come to Phnom Penh!

Ethiopian food is best known for injera, a sour-ish spongy bread the thickness of American pancakes and made from fermented teff flour, and for a variety of curries based around either turmeric and ginger or the characteristically dark red berbere spice mix, which features paprika, chili, garlic, fenugreek and a handful of other spices. It’s food you eat with your hands, and made for sharing.

Sara Ethiopian restaurant is in a kind of unlikely spot on Street 172 near the back of Wat Ounalom, a street mainly populated by cheap guesthouses and backpacker joints. It’s an open shopfront with five or six tables, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Draft beers are $1, and other drinks are reasonably priced (NB: the only water available is bottled).

The combo plates are clearly the dish to order, unless you are rolling with a large crew or have eaten enough Ethiopian to know exactly what you like. Choose from meat and veggie combo, or veggie / vegan combo. The combo plates give you the chance to sample five or six (give or take) dishes, with injera included, for $5.50 (veggie) to $8 (meat), chef’s choice as to what is included. One combo plate will feed two people, and adding a salad and one more dish on the side generally feeds three.

Sara Ethiopian Restaurant Phnom Penh

Nestled in the backpacker haven of Street 172, Sara Ethiopian is a surprising find.

Doro Wat, the slow-cooked onions, chicken, egg and berbere spice dish, is one of Sara’s signature dishes, although I think the tender beef cooked in berbere spiced butter, Tibs, and the raw beef tartare-style Kitfo (without egg, can also be served well-done) and Minchet Abish (with egg) are stand-outs from the meat menu. The meat dishes are on the pricey side ($8 each) compared to the rest of the menu but the quality of the meat is excellent and you don’t need a large serving to be satisfied.

For vegetarians, we recommend trying the Shiro Wat, a smooth berbere spiced chickpea-flour sauce, and Firfir, injera soaked in berbere spiced tomato sauce, that don’t normally come on the combo plate.

If you are looking for a milder curry, any of the yellow curries are less spicy (they are turmeric and ginger-based). Tikil Gomen has potatoes, carrots and cabbage or Kik Wot is yellow lentils, and the salads are well-dressed and surprising delicious in counterpoint with the curries.

Sara Ethiopian Restaurant Phnom Penh

Not like any combo meal you’ve seen in Cambodia before.

I’ve been there several times now, and although the menu has been updated, it is only to expand the offerings, and quality has been very consistent. Sara’s culinary chops reportedly come from her mother, who also runs an Ethiopian restaurant in Sanaá, Yemen after leaving Addis Ababa for better business opportunities. The service can be a bit timid and a bit slow, but the food is great and definitely worth a visit (or, if you are like us, two or three visits a week). They don’t do delivery yet as far as we are aware, but they do provide catering services.

To close your meal, you can have spiced tea or Ethiopian coffee for $1, or a special “Ethiopian coffee ceremony” for $5. This coffee ceremony includes incense, a side dish of puffed rice and peanuts, and a pot of Ethiopian coffee. Maybe it was the food coma talking, but we were entranced by being enveloped by the perfumed clouds of this aromatic ceremony, relaxing while we sipped dark roasted, spiced coffee and munched on the crunchy toasted rice and nuts.

Sara Ethiopian Restaurant

Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays 9 a.m. to midnight
St 172 (near the corner with St 13), Phnom Penh
T: 070 36 30 41; 070 503 256

What’s going on with work permits in Cambodia?

Update 9/2/2017:

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ll probably have heard the rumors that in a few days Cambodia will be requiring a work permit in order to renew long-stay EB visa extensions. Although there have been several articles in the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily, to date, nothing has been confirmed.

Cambodia work permits

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re going to need a work permit.

According to the reports, work permits will be required to renew 6-month and 12-month EB visa extensions, but a work permit will not be needed to renew single-entry 1-month and 3-month extensions. It is rumored that at least for a while, foreigners will be able to submit a letter from an employer in lieu of a work permit stating their intention to procure a work permit in the immediate future.

Many websites and agents are pretending that this requirement is a certainty starting this month, however none have actually confirmed this with the Ministry of Immigration, who have only given answers that waffle on about what the requirements are and when they will be implemented. Expats are getting themselves into a sky-is-falling tizzy over what may be nothing (at least for now).

Remember, in 2015 it was reported in the Cambodia Daily that the work permit requirement would be strictly enforced, and the Khmer Times reported that those without work permits would be fined at the airport. Neither of these things came to pass (and as the Cambodia Daily didn’t get work permits for their foreign employees, even they didn’t seem to have a lot of faith in their reporting).

Continue reading

Review: Siem Reap Plaza Premium Lounge

Late last year the Siem Reap airport lounge got a complete overhaul. This may not concern many Move to Cambodia readers, but if you, like me, got one of those snazzy new credit cards that includes worldwide select lounge access through Priority Pass, you’re all about hanging out in the lounge, pretending to fly business class when you’re actually going to spend the flight stuck in coach.

Siem Reap business class lounge

Flying biz or just wish you were? Welcome to the Siem Reap lounge.

If you’re a lounge lizard such as myself, you know that the quality of what’s available to Priority Pass members varies widely from airport to airport. Of course they are always better than sitting at the gate the hoi polloi, but some of the lounges haven’t been updated in a decade or two and only serve tiny crustless sandwiches made with semi-stale white bread. Continue reading

How to get from Phnom Penh to HCMC (and vice-versa)

Whether you decide to travel overland or by plane, it couldn’t be easier to get from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, the city formerly known as Saigon. Just be aware before you go that you may need to get a visa for Vietnam in advance, depending on where you are from (but Cambodia visas are available on arrival for most nationalities). Here’s a run-down of the best ways to get from Phnom Penh to HCMC.

Cambodia Vietnam bus

Heading from Phnom Penh to Saigon (or he other way around)? Hop a bus!


Buses between Vietnam and Cambodia are relatively quick, comfortable and cheap. Taking the bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (or vice-versa) is straightforward: the buses leave from and arrive in the center of each city, the border crossing is fairly painless, surprisingly scam-free, and usually you will not be required to change buses. Many of the buses have wifi (whether it will be working for the journey in question is another story) and provide water in addition to a meal stop. Continue reading

What’s happening on Koh Rong

After a few short years of tropical island paradise, followed by a year or two of debauchery, Koh Rong is an island in flux, as it adjusts to the massive increase in tourism and resulting environmental strain without losing the chilled out character that made it so popular in the first place.

Koh Rong news

Don’t worry, Koh Toch Beach is still beautiful.

So what’s been happening on Koh Rong lately?

Good things! First, there’s been a push for environmental conservation, beach cleanup, and wastewater management. None of these things seemed like a big deal with there were only 20 tourists landing on the island each day, but now during high season there can 1,000 or more people landing on Koh Toch, and it’s put a massive strain on the island’s resources. But now the businesses are banding together to push for sustainable practices and products—you’ll now find bamboo straws and re-usable drinking bottles at the more tuned-in businesses.  Continue reading

Somlor Kakor Cooking Class, Siem Reap

I’m often asked to recommend a cooking class in Siem Reap and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never actually taken one in temple town. I’ve looked at a few but they all seem painfully tourist-oriented, and the menus are always the same: spring rolls, green mango salad, and amok. You’ll learn as much about Cambodian cuisine from these classes as you’ll learn about local culture by hanging out on Pub Street.

But when I heard that one of my favorite restaurateurs in town had decided to offer a daytime cooking class, I was eager to try it out. Sela has a open-air restaurant on the outskirts of Siem Reap that’s frequented almost exclusively by locals. On the property he has a small organic garden and a few chickens and dogs wander around the place. To my eyes, it’s the perfect spot for a cooking class.

Siem Reap cooking class

We made this! Young banana tree salad with fish marinated in lime juice.

So when I had family visiting, I took the opportunity to try it out. The name of the class is Somlor Kakor Cooking Class, which I took as a good sign. Somlor kakor is a quintessentially Cambodian dish, and one that you’ll never find on the menu at restaurants aimed at foreigners. Continue reading