Long after sundown, a clip-clop clack-clack clip-clop echoes down the dimly lit streets of Phnom Penh, as noodle callers provide hot meals to hungry night owls across the city.
The roads are quiet compared to the pre-Covid hustle and bustle but for these late-night kuy teav vendors, the local need for noodles never waned.
“I usually go around in the small alleyways, knocking, calling out people to buy,” Hor Menghout explained, sitting on a quiet street in the capital’s Chbar Ambov neighbourhood. “Sometimes there are a lot [of customers], sometimes there’s less.”
Across the country, restaurants have been among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, with government-mandated curfews and brief but trying lockdowns pushing many to the edge. Yet there has hardly been a lull in the nation’s hunger for kuy teav, Cambodia’s rice-noodles served in steaming pork broth that have become a staple in Asian cookbooks.
Despite the unprecedented downturn in restaurant sales and the boom of delivery apps, the city’s noodle-calling traditions have marched on.
Cruising on a scooter fitted with a wood-fire stove, aluminum table top and bubbling cauldron, Sokha Menghong came to a stop and let Khov Vannak and Hor Menghout walk the maze of alleys and laneways snaking across Phnom Penh, clacking their bamboo instruments to draw out hungry customers.
Hailing from rural villages beyond the city’s sprawl, and none older than 20, the trio were encouraged by relatives to take up the noodle trade to supplement the money earned from their small farms.
Part of a larger, family-run business, they are one of five teams hired to serve kuy teav across the city. Their boss prepares the soup, services the small fleet of motorbikes and manages the 20 noodle sellers. Along with the roughly $10 they earn nightly from their share of the profits of each bowl, employees receive room and board at the family house outside the city.
“When I return at the end of the night, I count the money and give it to my boss, then he gives me my wage for the day,” Menghong said. “I receive my pay, I send some home and I keep some for myself.”
Their boss also provides them with the alcohol spray bottles and face masks that have become ubiquitous in Cambodia during the pandemic. But the liberal use of disinfectant and upgraded hygiene protocols weren’t the only changes to their routine.
Some customers preferred buying my noodles because I was right in front of their home”Hor Menghout, noodle vendor
“There were times I couldn’t earn much because I was afraid of the lockdown and coming in contact with the virus and spreading it to others,” Menghong said. “Or vice versa, because I sold my noodles everywhere.”
The rise of delivery apps on mobile phones during the pandemic has helped keep many restaurants afloat, but Menghong said they have done little to affect his sales.
“They do their delivery while I’m selling my noodles,” he said. “It is a different business.”
The impacts of the virus have turned the hospitality industry on its head over the last 18 months, and Menghong’s crew was not immune to government restrictions and the fear they induced in people throughout the nation. However, he believes their mobility gave the noodle sellers an advantage over other businesses.
“Some food stalls and restaurants were closed during the outbreak and some couldn’t serve dine-in,” Menghout said. “So, some customers preferred buying my noodles because I was right in front of their home.”
For Menghong, who has been serving Phnom Penh’s nightshift for the past three years, the kuy teav business continues to provide a taste of stability in uncertain times.
“I am happy [to be able to sell noodles] because some food stalls were closed,” he said. “But I could sell more noodles and earn a little bit of money for my family during a hard time.”
Additional reporting by Chanmakara Vorn.
Text by Stew Post. Photos and video by Anton L. Delgado