One of the most easily identifiable landmarks in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, is the New Market or Psar Thom Thmey or simply Psar Thmey. Psar is market and Thom in Khmer means big or grand, so it’s the "New Grand Market". The market sits one block east of one of Phnom Penh’s main thoroughfares, Monivong Boulevard, towards the river occupying an entire city block and is distinctive even from space. On Google maps, it resembles a giant white cross on the cityscape.
The Psar Thmay is more commonly referred to in English as the Central Market. It was built in the 1930s during the French colonial period in magnificent Art Deco style. When it first opened it was said to be the biggest market in the whole of Asia. In keeping with many other colonial period buildings in the city, the market is painted bright ochre.
The Central Market serves as a landmark, a centre piece in a city which doesn’t really have a centre. It’s comforting to look down the city’s straight streets and boulevards and see its distinctive roof and wings gleaming in the sun. Around it swarms the traffic, like bees around a hive.
A few years ago it looked rather dilapidated, it’s facade the victim of the tropical heat. War and years of neglect had also taken their toll. Starting in 2009 it underwent a two year refurbishment, courtesy of the French Development Agency. The Agence Française de Développement spent $4.2 million on renovating the entire building inside and out.
The market building itself consists of four wings dominated by a central dome, probably not inconsistent with the utilitarian design of some penal institutions. Within the four wings and around the compound outside are on sale almost anything you can think of, including electronic equipment, clothing, watches, bags, suitcases, dried and fresh foodstuff, jewellery, clothes from cheap t-shirts to krama (Khmer scarves), pseudo-antique, books including photocopied travel guides and lots of souvenirs.
One side is lined with flower sellers. The store holders, mainly women, sit around on small plastic stools among the colour, fragrances and trimmings. The stalls under the main dome selling glasses can fill prescriptions for lenses from some optometrist off-site for a fraction the price of getting them done in the West. There are more Raybans than you can poke a stick at.
Tucked away among the stall holders are tailors who can turn out alterations on antiquated machinery for a song while you wait. The market comes with livestock. Once searching for warm weather footwear, the young woman serving me reached for a pair only to find the space was shared by a large rat, which appeared as startled as we were.
All roads lead to the market, well, not quite, but there are a few. Clockwise going from north to south there’s: Street 61, 67, 120, 126, Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, Neoyok Srey, Street 63, Calmette, Street 136, 130 and 53. Traffic enters and leaves at all points. There are zebra crossings, but as a pedestrian proceed with caution as few, if any, of the locals seem to know what these are for.
Basically, the market forms a giant traffic island albeit one with squared corners and attempts to bring some conformity to the city’s chaotic traffic. It almost succeeds but not quite, so while much of the traffic goes around in the preferred fashion, not all of the drivers do so all of the time. As there is angle parking and scores of motorbikes, tuk-tuks and pedestrians coming and going it pays to be aware of the unexpected. As the pavements surrounding the building are so low, traffic inevitably cuts corners, so you’re not even safe off the road.
Lines of parked motorcycles surround the building. To park you enter at one end of the line, receive a ticket and leave via the opposite end surrendering the ticket and 500 riel (about US 12 cents).
Near the bus station on the southwest corner are the traffic police, not so resplendent in their blue uniforms. As the traffic funnels into that corner, with a wave of their batons they pressgang drivers to the roadside for the collection of the day’s fines, which are usually pocketed. So brazen is this practice that they authorities have now “formalised” the process, introducing a policy whereby police are allowed to keep half the money levied from ticketing provided they surrender the other half to the Treasury. Though whether the half surrendered makes it as far as the public coffers is another matter.
Between Street 63 and Neoyok Srey is the Sorya Mall, Phnom Penh’s first Western-style shopping centre. With its distinctive gleaming dome “Sorya” was a talking point since it first opened in 2003. Not for its five floors of shopping or Nordic air-conditioning but for the escalators. It’s still not unusual to see locals approach these with some trepidation, only to about face at the last minute giggling. The novelty of moving stairs is still a bit much for some. Today Phnom Penh still has few building with escalators.
The streets surrounding the market are alive with activity. Lining 136 are appliance stores and gold merchants, with their distinctive red and yellow signage. Deliveries of whiteware to the capital’s burgeoning list of consumers usually take place from here by motorcycle. In one of those “how do they do that” moments, it’s not uncommon to see a fridge complete in its packaging being strapped to the back of diminutive Honda, dwarfing both rider and machine.
The gold merchants, mainly ethnic Chinese, come with other hardware. Brown-uniformed police officers and security guards in olive safari suits lounge about with Glocks and AK-47s on the lookout for any would-be smash-and-grab raiders.
Along the east side near Calmette and 130 are more gold merchant stores and moneychangers operating out of small stalls on the pavement. They have seemingly no security at all, unless it’s safety in numbers. Outside the gold shops are lines of sleek SUVs, the vehicle of choice in Cambodia for the well-to-do.
The side with Street 126 running along is full of mobile phone shops and computer retailers pushing laptops by the score. Further along is 120, in the northwest corner of the market is a taxi station for cars and trucks heading out of town to all points of the compass. It’s worth a look to see how many Cambodians can be squeezed into a four-door saloon; the drivers can be seen to share their seat with a passenger or two.
Construction of the original market building commenced in 1935 but took two years to finish. Before that the site was a lake. Phnom Penh is a city built on former waterways. A perennial problem for the city is that come the wet season it tries reverting to type. Flooding is a major issue, the streets and alleys awash with putrid, dirty water.
Photos of the market taken at that time reveal a building with a higher, more elliptical dome than is seen today. During the Franco-Thai War of 1940-41, the Royal Thai air force bombed Phnom Penh, damaging the market building. Japan brokered an armistice, which cemented their hold on Southeast Asia from where they went onto wreak havoc on British Malaya and Singapore.
For their part the Thais received the Cambodian provinces of Sisophon and Battambang, Cambodia’s rice bowl. For this Thailand’s nationalist leader, General Phibun, gained much domestic acclaim and had the success commemorated with the Victory Monument in Bangkok. Their success was short lived however, and in 1946 the Cambodians got these provinces back.
Entry to the Central Market is best from Street 63 or 61, less hassle. On the Street 61 entrance is the sunglasses shop and from the opposite Street 63 side is the pots and pans, and household items side. If you enter from the riverside entrance, near Street 130 or some of the other entrances, you run the gauntlet of t-shirt sellers, and amputees selling photocopied guide books. On the way out the moto riders and tuk tuk drivers accost you for business.
No doubt about it the Central Market is one for the tourists and some more well-to-do locals, and is dearer than the other tourist market, the Russian Market.
Ordinary Cambodians head for the more traditional settings of Kandal Market near Riverside or the Old Market near Street 118 (or numerous others about the city) , mainly for fresh food. Some produce there is not for the faint-hearted. Meat is displayed and trimmed on large wooden blocks. In the hot sun the smell (and sights) can be disturbing. Tourist restaurants also do their shopping in these, or similar markets. By day the flies buzz about and by night, the rodents abound. Often those same chopping blocks are left out overnight and are picked clean and used again the next day after a bowl of water is thrown over them.
My last trip to the market I went buy shorts. Despite being a frequent visitor the stall holder barked out the tourist price. When I showed no interest, the price came down. After checking the finish and design options, I couldn’t find a preferred colour. So I went to another stall I’d not been to before and got the colour, the price and right size all without any haggling, go figure.
The Phnom Penh Central Market is stunning, intriguing, interesting, fascinating and at times, infuriating and open for business from 7am until 5pm; bring your money.