Dec 22 2012
Despite its English-language name, the one thing you can’t buy at Phnom Penh’s Phsar Toul Tom Poung is a Russian. But for almost everything else, this warren of stalls has it covered. The market became popular with foreigners in the 1980s when most of its visitors were Soviets, hence the name. Since then, it’s become a regular on the Phnom Penh to-do list. It may be busy, hot and impossibly difficult to navigate, but the selection of items on sale makes it the perfect one-stop for presents and souvenirs.
Located in the south of the city off Monivong Boulevard and Mao Tse Tung, the market is about a 15-minute tuk tuk ride from riverside. Before you dive in to the bustle of stalls, it’s worth noting which entrance you are using, especially if you hope to meet your driver again. Look for an easily recognisable landmark such as one of the big shops outside the market, or the fruit and vegetable stalls. That way, if you exit in a different direction, you can walk around the outside of the market until you get your bearings.
Inside the market, you are almost guaranteed to get lost, unless you have an uncanny sense of direction. Aisles piled high with clothes, shoes and handbags are distracting and disorientating. You may think you’ve seen that stall selling silk scarves before, but it’s difficult to be sure. As a general rule of thumb, the eastern side of the market is mostly clothing, while the northern side sells tools, household goods and indispensable items for motorcycle repair. The other two sides are a mixture of jewellery, watches, antiques, pseudo antiques, luggage, pirated DVDs and crafts. In the middle of the market is a central food area – if you can stand the heat, stay in this kitchen for super strong iced coffee, noodle soup, gloopy sweets and snacks.
To get the most out of your shopping experience, use the money change kiosks outside to convert big US dollar notes into riel — it’s easier to bargain when you’re not waving $50 notes around. Find a stall that has a few items you are interested in as it’s simpler to get a discount on multiple purchases.
Be suspicious of “genuine” antiques, gemstones and luxury watch brands — better to pay a price you are happy with because you like something rather than because of untested provenance. Clothing brands, however, may well be genuine, due to the large number of garment factories in Cambodia. Items which have small defects and are rejected for export often find their way onto market stalls, so it’s possible to pick up Gap, Banana Republic, Calvin Klein and Zara at knock down prices. We’re not sure about those Lexus boxer shorts, though …
For a marathon shopping trip, regular breaks are imperative to keep up your strength. If you can find an exit, the streets running away from the market square are bristling with coffee shops and bakeries serving weary shoppers, or you can pick up a sugar cane juice and relax under a streetside umbrella.
Opposite the market, larger shops sell similar goods at higher prices but with the benefit of air-con and changing rooms, a welcome respite from sweaty try-ons under a sarong. Once you are cooled and watered, you can dive back in for just one more necklace, notebook or, perhaps the best find of all, a watch featuring the portrait of Cambodia’s Prime Minister.
Phsar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market)
Intersection of Streets 440 and 155
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.