The bustling local markets of Cambodia are a must for all those who love hunting for something unique and interesting, with the added thrill of being able to haggle hard over a purchase.
All the main tourist destinations have their fair share of dawn-til-dusk trade centres, and many are established city landmarks, which every moto, tuk-tuk or taxi driver will know.
Unlike the Westernised shopping malls that have sprung up over the years, these bazaars are open air and thus not air-conditioned. So expect for things to get a little sweaty on occasions, especially during the heat of the midday sun. Stalls can still offer you some respite with electric fans, but why not purchase a nice hand fan to use while you browse.
Each market is divided up into various sections, such as garments, footwear, souvenirs, household and electrical items, jewelry, stationary, and, of course, food. This naturally makes it easier to hone in on what you’re looking for, as well as set up some quick price comparisons between neighbouring sellers.
The kaleidoscopic colours of the fresh fruit and vegetables stalls make them fantastic for photography, but be wary of the nearby fish and meat section, which can throw up some less than appetising sights and smells to those not accustomed to them.
Most of the vendors in the markets more popular with tourists have a decent standard of English, so you should have little trouble engaging them in some friendly bargaining. It’s all part of the game, and should be done in good spirit with lots of smiles.
Should you find your energy levels sapping, grab a refreshing drink or a revitalizing snack – some sellers walk around the markets serving these out to locals as well as tourists. Favourites include sugar cane juice and iced coffee, spicy papaya salad and rice cakes, or if you’re feeling adventurous, a bag full of deep fried insects.
For the larger markets, it can be worth taking good note of which side you entered, as the rabbit warren of narrow alleyways inside can be somewhat disorientating.
An increase in tourism numbers has given rise to various night markets catering to the nocturnal souvenir searcher. As well as enjoying the cooler temperatures after the sun has gone down, you can also enjoy various live performances – from music to circus skills – at the onsite stages.
The global trend of container markets has also landed in Cambodia, with a handful already in operation and proving a hit with locals, and several more under planning and construction.
The Kingdom’s most iconic local markets
Phnom Penh’s Central Market (Psar Thmei, which actually translates as “New Market”) features a stunning Art Deco-style building as its centrepiece. Looking at a map of the capital, your eyes are naturally drawn to its location, being the focal point of Kampuchea Krom and Charles de Gaulle Boulevards, as well as Street 63 (Preah Trasak Paem St).
The area was originally a swamp called Boeung Decho, which was drained in 1935 to make way for the project. Designed by French architect Louis Chauchon, construction was completed two years later. After decades of neglect, the French Development Agency stepped in to help return the market to its former glory, completing renovations in 2011.
Phnom Penh’s Psar Toul Tom Poung got its nickname of “Russian Market” because of its popularity with Russian expatriates in the 1980s. This should not be confused with another large local market in the capital called Psar O’Russei.
Nowadays, tourists of all nationalities flock to enjoy squeezing their way through the tiny aisles of this bona fide bargain-hunter’s paradise. The market is a few blocks south of Mao Tse Tung Blvd and west of Norodom Blvd, and is a customary stop to break up the day trip between Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) and Choeung Ek Genocide Centre (“the Killing Fields”).
Siem Reap’s Old Market (Psar Chas) is full of character, colour and peculiar items. It’s a veritable hive of activity, especially at the food section in the early morning when restaurant staff purchase their fresh produce for the day. Scour the tight corridors for all manner of great souvenirs, such as Khmer art and crafts, jewelry, bags, trinkets, carvings and statues, and of course, mountains and mountains of clothes.
The pioneer for after hours shopping in Cambodia was Siem Reap’s Angkor Night Market, which first opened its doors in early 2007. From 12 noon to 12 midnight all week, you can peruse more than 200 stall housed inside Khmer-style huts stocked with traditional Cambodian handmade products including clothing, silks, art, jewelry, wood and stone carvings and other handicrafts – often produced by orphans and locals living with a disability.
Sihanoukville’s Upper Market (Psar Leu) is by far the biggest trade hub of any destination on the south coast of Cambodia. All the usual commercial items are for sale, and you’ll find some quality Thai products for sale at a cheaper price than inland. For fans of seafood, visit the food section and order up a freshly steamed batch of crabs, shrimp and more. It’s located in the heart of the downtown area, around 200 metres from Ekareach Street.