From Kindle restocking to kramas
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th January, 2019
In a city awash with chic cafes and hipster bars it should come as no surprise that the shopping in Phnom Penh is none too shabby. Be it high fashion, low-key flip flops, gourmet pepper or just a gift for Grandma, the city can deliver on many of your souvenir and shopping needs.
In street-facing shops with marked prices, bargaining is not expected (not, in many cases, welcomed). If you are buying a range of goods with marked prices, it is considered ok to perhaps ask for a small discount off the marked prices, but walking into a boutique and offering $3 for a ceramic bowl with a $12 marked price is not cool.
In markets it is a different matter. At both Phsar Thmei and the Russian Market, especially when buying souvenirs, bargaining is often expected. You will need to drive a harder bargain at Phsar Thmei than at the Russian Market as the starting prices at the former are often ridiculously high—we were offered a t-shirt for $10 Vs $3 at the Russian Market for example.
Do keep in mind though, that bargaining is supposed to have an element of fun to it, and the purpose of bargaining is not to see the vendor lose money, rather that you both get a price you are relatively satisfied with. Shopping early can sometimes get you better prices as many vendors believe closing the very first sale of the day will bring them good luck for the rest of the day.
Lastly, if you make an offer and the vendor accepts it, it is considered very bad form to then refuse to buy it. Only start haggling down for goods you actually would like to buy.
For tourist tat the above mentioned Phsar Thmei and the Russian Market are the two primary outlets for everything from fishermen pants to lacquerware bowls. You will generally get better prices at the Russian Market and the range is far larger than at Phsar Thmei. Go early (to either) before it gets too hot and crowded, In wet season both can have flooding issues.
If you are not after souvenirs but instead perhaps 500 blank notebooks or a dozen pairs of sandals, ORussey Market is the place. Downtown Phnom Penh’s primary wholesale market, prices do not get much lower than here, especially for bulk purchases, but the range of goods that could qualify as souvenirs is pretty limited.
For fresh produce, we’re thinking fruit here rather than a side of beef, but you can get the latter too, both Phsar Kandal and Phsar Chas are excellent choices. Go in the morning for the best selection of fresh produce and don’t hesitate to ask to taste a sample before buying.
Your Kindle run out of batteries? Looking for a better range of Cambodia specific books than are available in your home country? Then you’re in luck as Phnom Penh has a few good bookstores.
For coffee table books, best sellers and a comprehensive Southeast Asia section, Monument Books on Norodom is a full service modern bookstore selling new books at not unreasonable prices. This is also a good spot for just browsing to get ideas of what to buy for your Kindle.
For second hand books, two long-running outlets are D’s Books on Street 240 (not far from the Shop) and Bohr’s Books on Sothearos Blvd. Both buy, sell and exchange and have vast collections of second-hand books and photocopied books (better than they sound) along with a small collection of souvenirs, postcards and so on.
Bohr’s Books: 5 Samdech Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (012) 929 148 Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00 https://bohrbooks.business.site/
D’s Books: 79 Street 240, Phnom Penh. T: (012) 726 355 Mo–Su: 09:00–21:00 https://www.facebook.com/ds.books.shops
Monument Books: 111 Norodom Blvd, Phnom Penh. T: (012) 731 333 Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00 https://www.facebook.com/monumentbooks
Set just around the corner from Tuol Sleng is the aptly named Beautiful Shoes, who fitted us year–in year–out with terrific leather sandals when we lived in Phnom Penh. We were delighted to see they were still going strong when we last passed through in January 2019. They can do shoes, boots, belts, handbags and wallets, but made to measure shoes, hand cobbled and designed by the customer, are the main deal here. Figure on around $20–$30 for sandals through to shoes—yes more expensive than flip flops, but a lot nicer too! The bad news? An order can take a week or more to be filled so visit when you first arrive. While Beautiful Shoes is our favourite, there are a whole bunch of cobblers in the immediate area, so do shop around.
Beautiful Shoes: Behind Tuol Sleng, Street 143, Phnom Penh T: (011) 848 438
Aside from the above mentioned markets, there are two streets convenient to the tourist part of the city which are worth a wander, Street 240 and Street 178. Both are home to a range of higher-end shops and boutiques and while you will generally pay more at any of the following stores than at say the Russian Market, you will almost certainly be getting a higher quality good, and often in the process, supporting an organisation doing good work in the country.
Mekong Quilts is a part of the Mekong+ social enterprise project which now employs over 200 women at a variety of locations in Vietnam and in Svay Rieng province in Cambodia. They sell beautiful bedding, pillow cases, basketware and other hand-made goods. Some of the products, especially the quilts, are just lovely. The store sells goods from both Cambodia and Vietnam, so travellers who have already been to northern Vietnam will recognise some of the hues of deep blue in the pillow cases as being from that part of the world. Prices are not cheap (think pillow cases $35 a pop), but you’re supporting a worthy cause—you’ll need a big backpack for the quilts! Goods are also available for purchase online.
Mekong Quilts: 47-49 Street 240, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 219 607 https://mekongquilts.com/
Just up the road from Mekong Quilts, Rajana Handicrafts was founded in 1995, employing young Cambodians out of the refugee camps in Thailand, becoming a non-profit social enterprise in 2002. This boutique is a terrific one-stop-shop for your souvenir needs, with everything from pottery from Kompong Chhnang through to wall hangings, pillows, spices, scarfs and other clothing. There is no hard sell (we had to wake up the sales person to buy our two small bowls) and there are goods at just about all price levels—ideal for budget shoppers who want a step above the Russian Market (they have a second branch near there at 61C Street 450).
Rajana Handicrafts: 55 Street 240. Phnom Penh. T: (023) 990 213. http://www.rajanacrafts.org/
Sticking on Street 240, if you’re looking for something lovely to wear for a special night out, Bliss Spa has an attached boutique which could fit the bill—be sure to fit in some time at their spa while you are in the area.
Bliss: 29 Street 240, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 215 754 http://blissspacambodia.com/
On the subject of a fine piece of cloth for an even finer night out, about six blocks back off the river on Street 178 you’ll find Ambre. Set in a colonial period mansion, this high-end boutique run by Romyda Keth is best described in their own words: “Romyda continues to cater to her client base—active women who know they’re beautiful and want to exude elegance in every situation.” Stunning clothes—bring your credit card.
Ambre: 37 Street 178, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 217 395 http://www.romydaketh.net/
Still on Street 178, but closer to the river, facing the National Museum you’ll pass a number of painting outlets which may appeal if you’re looking for a hand painted memory from Cambodia. Closer still to the river, Khmer Artisanry sells just lovely Khmer silk and cotton products, all naturally died and locally made. Prices are not unreasonable for the standard.
Khmer Artisanry: 41 Street 178, Phnom Penh. T: (023) 997 979 http://www.khmerartisanry.com/
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Phnom Penh