Aug 28 2012
The quickest way to be immersed in Cambodian life is to dive into a market that is not aimed at tourists. Before you take the plunge, though, ask if you are ready for a taste of unadulturated daily activity, with the sights, sounds and smells of a traditional market. Phnom Penh‘s Phsar Chas (Old Market) is not at all designed to cater to casual bystanders, especially if they are tall or a touch squeamish.
Phsar Chas is a rabbit warren of stalls wedged between Street 13, Street 110 and Street 108, two blocks back from the river. There’s been a market here since French colonial times and everything from motorcycle maintenance to facials is catered for. Unless you’re looking for an “I Survived Cambodia” T-shirt, in which case you need a different market.
Starting at the riverside end, the outside fruit stalls are photogenic and easy on the most sensitive stomach, unless it’s durian season. In which case, stand well back and admire the care that goes into selecting and dissecting a ripe fruit. Around the perimeter closest to the park you’ll find stationery stalls, and on the south side is everything you might need in the way of shrine accessories and luggage. Use the money changers opposite to break your dollars into more manageable riel as prices tend to be in local currency here.
Duck inside (and please do duck, as a crack on the head from a corrugated iron shutter really hurts!) and you will feel almost instantly lost. The Old Market is one of the smallest in town, but it brings to mind the Tardis or Mary Poppins’ handbag. After four years of shopping here, I still make wrong turns and fail to find stalls I’ve visited a numerous times before. The best strategy is undoubtably to give up on all hope of finding the same exit and to trust that you will escape somewhere, sometime.
With that settled, you can enjoy the variety the market has to offer. There are stalls supplying housewares, toiletries, costume jewellery, haberdashery items, cosmetics, bling shoes, pillow cases and boxes of biscuits. Fortune tellers congregate near the coffee stalls to the south, with cards at the ready. Top marks if you spot the excellent Chuck Berry lookalike. Take care where you are planting your feet — the floor is uneven, with a system of makeshift drainage for when it rains.
Somewhere before the southwest corner of the market you’ll find the food stalls, vending noodle soup, pork and rice and noodles onto white tiled counters. If you can take the heat, stay in the kitchen for some tasty and cheap eating. In the opposite corner, just after the avenue of hair extensions swinging from beautician kiosks, is where the fresh meat section begins. For those of a sensitive disposition, this is your cue to aim for the light through the sarong and wedding outfit stalls in the north.
If you’re ready for the wet market, carry on past the sacks of dry goods and rice into the uncovered western end of Phsar Chas. For sightseeing rather than shopping, you might want to avoid the times between 07:30 and 09:30am and around 17:00, when this area is particularly busy.
The assortment of fresh meat is overwhelming, and some is very fresh indeed (as in, still alive). Fish make a final bid for freedom, leaping out of their big tin containers. Crabs with elastic bands around their claws are impeded in sideways movement. Stalls display skinned frogs, bright blue river prawns packed in ice, huge slabs of beef with chickens and ducks hanging above, plucked but with head and legs intact. There’s more fruit and vegetables to puzzle over, stacked on tarpaulins or crates. How to tell the difference between a ball aubergine and a gourd? How do you cook with banana flowers or lotus stems?
Opposite the wet market entrance on Street 110 are umbrellas shading huge pots of rice and bowls of fried fish, prahok, omelettes and soup, bought by the bag. Not advisable if your stomach doesn’t easily forgive you for taking it off-piste, this has to be the cheapest takeaway in town.
The main market closes up around 16:30, with hatches battened down and the warren eerily deserted, but the wet market continues for a couple of hours. After dark, spit-roasted chicken and whole fish baked in salt make an appearance, occupying the shrine stall side until 22:00. Everything gets quiet for a few hours before dawn heralds another day in the life of a Cambodian market.
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