I’m bad to my stomach but good to Cambodia. About every six months, when we’re in Phnom Penh, I eat pizza. I love pizza, so it’s a good thing a good pizza is not so common where we live in Thailand or I’d completely ruin my gluten-free diet. (Unlike many people with gluten problems, I’m fortunate in that my symptoms are not so bad. I can cheat. Two days later, I get a bloated belly that gurgles all night and I can’t sleep. But many people have it much worse.) Here in Phnom Penh, some pizza is worth the cheating (such as last night’s Marinara with shrimp, fish, crab, tomato sauce, cheese and oregano).
I eat my pizza at the Veiyo Tonle, a riverside restaurant we have frequented since first living here in 1998. Through the years, we have watched owner Neth Lay build his business “step by step” as Cambodians routinely say. “Step by step” is a Cambodian way of life. We have seen Neth Lay struggle through months without tourists, through election years turned violent, through riots and mayhem. But this city evolves, in slow but critical ways. Eight years ago, the riverfront went dark after sunset — no lights, no sidewalks, no travelers strolling through the night. Only dust and squatters and a few patches of grass. Now: The area thrives with life, with Khmer families enjoying an evening walk and tourists deciding which intriguing restaurant, cafe, pub or bar to try tonight. (This is not to say the homeless no longer exist; they do, in as many disturbing numbers as years past. And this is not to say the beautification of Cambodia’s tourist zones means life is better for most Cambodians. It’s not. But these are topics for another day….)
The Veiyo Tonle has always been a favorite choice: 39 varieties of creative pizza, yes; but also down-home Khmer food so evocative of the herbs and spices used daily in countryside meals. Try the pickled lime soup with chicken. You will never forget the tart, pungent flavor of pickled lime.
But more than that: At the Veiyo Tonle, you can eat well, sip your drink and feel confident in what you’re doing. Your money will go toward the orphanage that Neth Lay established to help disadvantaged Khmer kids. When you eat at Veiyo Tonle, you’re supporting a nonprofit Khmer-operated business and you’re improving the lives of Cambodian orphans. Go there on a Saturday or Monday night, and watch those orphans perform traditional Khmer dance.
It’s more than enough to make you eat pizza again and again.