Despite the name, the one thing you can’t buy at Phnom Penh’s Russian Market 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 who lived in the area, hence the name. Since then, it’s become a regular on the Phnom Penh to-do list because, while it may be big, busy, hot and confusing to navigate, it’s also bursting with a huge profusion of goodies.
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.
If you’re taking a moto or a tuk tuk there, you’ll most likely arrive on the eastern side, which is jammed with stalls vaunting clothes — that are not all size 2 — shoes, DVDs, souvenirs and jewellery. As you dig deeper into the warren, household stuff starts to appear, including some fantastic lamps, wood carvings, fabrics, kitchenware and more.
Diving further in again, you’ll find yourself ankle-deep in the wet market. if you can stand the heat, stay in this kitchen for super strong iced coffee, noodle soup, gloopy sweets and tasty snacks. And if you’re looking for a drill, then keep heading westwards as that’s where you’ll find the hardware and essentials for your kitchen in case you should decide to chuck it all in and move to Phnom Penh.
Inside the market, you are almost guaranteed to get lost, unless you have an uncanny sense of direction. Though recently re-organised to create more space, 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 you battle through, whopping people with your bags of $1.50 T-shirts, it’s good to remember that “sum toh” means “excuse me” in Khmer — a useful little phrase. It’s a little bit better now, but still full of busy shoppers on the hunt for amazing bargains, provided they’re happy not to enquire too deeply about where they came from.
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. Drop in to Tini on nearby Street 450 for a coffee and a dash of air-con, or if you’re hungrier, Alma does great affordable Mexican.
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.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 21st November, 2015.