There is nothing like a visit to thriving city centre market to make you feel really connected with the local culture. While Bangkok has Chatuchak, Saigon has Ben Thanh, and Phnom Penh has the art deco Psar Thmei, what does Siem Reap have to compete with these mercantile icons? The answer is Psar Leu, a sprawling, covered workaday market where prices are low, the air is surprisingly fragrant, and where you don’t get asked for a dollar every time you try to take a photograph.
Most visitors to Siem Reap will schedule a stop at the conveniently located and pleasingly photogenic Old Market, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that many of the stalls here are purely for tourists and you will almost certainly be charged a premium for the privilege of shopping in this prime tourist location.
For the real thing you need to venture slightly further afield to Siem Reap’s Psar Leu or Higher Market, about three kilometres from Old Market on National Road 6, in the direction of Phnom Penh. Every tuk tuk driver knows where it is and the fare should cost you no more than $5 return, including waiting time. If you are up to it you can cycle and leave your mechanical steed in the shade of the covered supervised parking lot out front for a one-off fee of 500 riel.
The main entrance to the market is found in the centre of the facade facing onto National Road Six and is the best place to start. Come early and the place will be buzzing with locals going about the everyday business of shopping for their family or their restaurant.
Come on the day before a national holiday – as I did, right before the start of the Lunar New Year weekend – and you will also treated to a host of merchants taking full advantage of whatever holiday it happens to be. For Lunar New year the entrance was rammed with stalls draped in red and gold, selling all manner of sweets and pastries and a mouth-watering range of New Year cakes. I was quite relieved that the approaching year’s Chinese sign had not given rise to an explosion in themed stalls selling snakes and unthinkable edible serpentine specialties.
Once inside, the market is spacious and the labyrinthine passageways are relatively roomy – especially compared to the obstacle-course of the cramped corridors in the town’s Old Market. Here, the passages are wide enough not only for pedestrians, hawkers and beggars, but also cyclists and motorcyclists who weave effortlessly between the stalls and the shoppers.
The best way to explore the market is to wander casually among the stalls, but for those who prefer a little more planning, the stalls are grouped loosely by type of provision on sale. Before you go too far in, however, do check out the money changers’ stalls, not because you should change money — you can spend US dollars here but you will be given change in riel – but just for the novelty of seeing wads of pristine notes piled high in cheap aluminium and glass cabinets, rather than in the secure underground vaults we might be more familiar with.
Some of the first stalls in the market are where you will find cheap – and obviously not genuine – designer handbags, wallets and purses. If you veer off to the right you will find clothing stalls where you can buy shorts, shirts, T shirts, (fake) designer underwear, cardigans (for those chilly nights!), hoodies, jackets and jeans. Just don’t forget before you are tempted by a bargain pair of ladies’ jeans at $12 or a pair of men’s shorts for $10 (pre-haggle prices, of course) that your average Khmer is anything up to 50 percent smaller than your average Westerner.
On the left hand side as you enter the market proper are a handful of religious paraphernalia and incense emporia, followed quickly by dried goods and household products — handy if your guesthouse cleaner is not cutting the mustard. If you continue straight on from the entrance the market opens up into a cavernous roof above rows of jewellery stalls where it would be easy to spend a considerable amount of time “just looking” before you even think about bargaining with the vendors.
Beyond the jewellery you will eventually find the fresh produce area, where everyday fruits such as apples and oranges are stacked high next to rambutans, dragonfruit, papayas, mangoes, mangosteens and longans. Thankfully for those of a sensitive disposition, the meat and fish stalls are quite well hidden behind the fresh fruit and veg stalls whose delicious aromas do a good job of masking the less attractive odours that can make markets so unappealing.
From here you can exit the main market building onto a narrow street equally crammed full of produce and food stalls, some where you can buy snacks if you are feeling adventurous and the sight of all the food is making you feel peckish.
There are also a few “street food” stalls inside the market itself if you are really keen to eat like a local, with the locals. Although they are not concentrated in one specific area, some popular stalls lie either side of the central jewellery area where trade is usually brisk and you can enjoy some freshly made noodles and stir-fries on a tiny plastic chair before going back the way you came to your waiting tuk tuk or to retrieve your bicycle from the friendly guard.
One final tip: English is hardly spoken here so a pen and notepad might come in handy if you are planning on trying a bit of haggling. Khmer script may be totally different from our own when it comes to words, but thankfully numbers are written exactly the same.
By Simon Hare
Last updated on 20th January, 2016.