Stunning historical building
The stunning butter-coloured art-deco ziggurat that is Phsar Thmei is the most unlikely of buildings in Phnom Penh, and within you’ll find everything from jewellery to avocados and deep fried crickets to white goods—just be prepared to negotiate hard as the prices are higher here than at any other market in the city.
Designed by Jean Desbois and completed in 1937 under the oversight of French architect Louis Chauchon and Russian-born engineer Wladimir Kandaouroff, at the time of completion the market was said to be the largest in Southeast Asia. Constructed on the site of what was originally a shallow lake, the area was drained and filled in to make way for the market—the market remains flood-prone to this day.
From above, it like a squat four-legged octopus, but the four legs of Phsar Thmei are said to represent the four rivers which meet in front of Phnom Penh—the Tonle Sap, the Bassac and the Upper and Lower Mekong. We were also told they are in honour of the four faces you can see on the statues at the Bayon, but we like the river version better.
Bombed heavily during the Franco Thai War (1940–1941), the market was rebuilt after the end of World War Two and then underwent a vast multi--million dollar renovation between 2009 and 2011 funded by the French Development Agency.
A huge dome with four wings, it’s an amazingly cool place to seek refuge in the middle of the day and is also a fascinating market to wander through. The area of the market under the dome is given over to gold and watch merchants, while the wings hold consumer electronics—generally low quality—along with household goods and clothing.
Just outside the walls is a sprawling wet market which is a lot cleaner than the nearby Phsar Chas (Old Market). On the eastern side of the market a range of tourist stalls sell photocopied books, maps and kramas and further out still is the fresh flower section. Do watch out for wandering hands as pickpocketing remains a major issue here.
Phsar Thmei is a good spot for sightseeing, but not really for shopping, as the vendors often start with such inflated prices it is not even worth bargaining. To our mind, it feels a little sterile compared to the raw hustle and bustle of the Russian Market, but it is a lot more comfortable, cool, and, if you are staying in the area, convenient, than some of the other markets in town.
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.
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