The saying goes “A thousand roads lead to Rome” (Mille viae ducunt hominem per saecula Romam), but in Cambodia the roads lead to Phnom Penh. Better yet, they lead to the Central Market or Psar Thmey or near there. Built in 1937 by their colonial occupiers from France (French Indochina) in some art deco style, the huge market hall with the five arms, was once the biggest market in all of Asia. And truly said, there is still no one like it! Sure, other and newer markets are bigger and offer more, but this Central Market has it’s special charm. Located in the city’s center, it occupies a huge roundabout. It has limited parking facilities for cars, but motodups (motorcycle taxis), cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) and tuk-tuks (motorcycles with a drawn carriage) rule the roads here for the locals and foreigners alike.
The dome shaped hall with the five outstretched arms, has countless dealers under the roofs. The space in between the arms is filled with more stalls and dealers. Items on sale include most things under the sun nowadays and the selection is huge. No longer does this war-torn country (1959 to 1989!) rely heavily on imported foods and garments. The two peaceful decades since, witnessed a nation being reborn from dust and ruins. The country was a playball of various warring parties, both from within and also occupational forces. The Vietnamese invasion ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge, but the fighting didn’t stop then. Years after the UNTAC (UNITED NATIONS TRANSITIONAL AUTHORITY IN CAMBODIA) had left the country in the early 90s, the bloody fighting with rebel groups ceased gradually and a relative peace returned to the destroyed country.
The Psar Thmey had historically been a strategic location for the population of Cambodia and served its purpose acting as a major transport hub and logistical center again. The trade routes from the country’s only seaworthy port (Sihanoukville) and from the provinces further north, east and west met here. The fish from the Tonle Sap lake was the major source of protein for the entire population. The market began to act in accordance to its purpose even before the last shots were fired and electricity was restored.
Due to the architectural design, the temperatures inside the halls were prone to some natural ventilation. Shoppers, dealers and goods, were not exposed to the immense heat on sunny days and protected from downpours in Rainy Season as well. It was always comfortably cool inside and personal safety from gun-touting rebels was given by a tight network of armed forces on the perimeter road and in the entrances with automatic rifles.
The armed soldiers faded out a few years after the Millennium and a regular police force took over protecting the people and the valuables here. Central market was always also the focal point of crucial money exchanges and jewelry/watches and electronics for the wealthy people and tourists. Tourism really picked up, as more and more travelers ventured into this country to explore its natural beauty and ancient ruins. The Angkorian Khmer civilization had their capital in Angkor Wat, near the Northeastern shore of the huge Tonle Sap inland lake. They dominated much of Southeast Asia about a thousand years ago and can be viewed as the cradle for all regional civilizations, including the later Thai and Siamese efforts as a nation.
The capital was later moved to Phnom Penh and the Kingdom of Cambodia played only minor roles in the regional conflicts of past centuries. French colonial rule dominated once this entire region and a lot of territory was swapped between involved powers. 1953 saw the liberation from the French occupiers, as their influence and power dwindled and later vanished all over this area of the globe. French traces of influence here can still be seen in a few places, but their flag is reduced to symbols on memorial markers, showing their half-hearted involvement in restructuring a colony, whose riches they had harvested for much too long.
2011 witnessed the completion of a complete renovation of the Psar Thmey. New coats of paint covered the old structure and the walking surfaces have all been modernized too. All traces of previous fights were plastered up and the impressive hall became once again the centerpiece of all public activity in Phnom Penh. The bus terminals have been relocated earlier to a side road a few 100 m further West. Here the Soriya Bus Company and GST now start their inter-provincial routes.
The central clock towers over the middle section under the dome. Here is the spot, where shoppers indulge in Jade carvings, traditional precious metal ornamental jewelry and gemstones. Glass cabinets host an abundance of glitter and light, and friendly staff will help you with any purchases.
Everything is well-lit and clean. The roomy structure lets shoppers breathe with pleasure. It is so different to, lets say a Chatuchak (Bangkok) experience. No obstacles with every second step, and a clear and a very transparent layout. One can easily find a visited dealer again and although there are plenty of folks here daily, there is no dense crowd even in high season.
The dealers did not appear pushy to me and your negotiating skills determine the final price, as anywhere in Asia. There are no visible traps for foreigners and crime is not a concern here. The pickpockets and wallet snatchers, some travel-guides warn you about, are much more of a concern elsewhere. When I rested on a bench here, I was even offered a cup of cold drinking water. The Khmers are a friendly bunch!
All the glitz on display sparkles in the light. With prices really cheap, one can sense the main aspect of these offerings. Decorations for a bride or a festive outfit, hardly anyone would shop here for real rubies and true emeralds. Some dealers engage in precious stones as well, but it is recommended to do so only, if you’re a real knowledgeable expert in this field.
The Khmer artistry in regards of stone and wood-carvings is legendary. Chinese visitors see the Psar Thmey dome area as a major source for spiritual and religious figurines. They command fractions of the price as asked on Hong Kong’s or Shanghai’s high streets.
Another positive development here is the tidiness and cleanliness. Receptacles for trash are everywhere and emptied throughout the working hours (07:00 to 17:00 hours) by a group of service people. Beggars were omnipresent here in the past, but nowadays they are a lot less visible. Some are still in those outdoor areas between the main hall’s wings, but uniformed police keeps them at bay here.
Offerings include electronics and household goods as well, every market segment is dedicated to one type of product. T-Shirts and cotton garments plus young fashion and travel gear account for a vast percentage of goods sold. I ended up with a few batches of quality underwear and kids jumpsuits for my own toddler at ridiculously low prices, and filled my luggage up.
Textiles and garments reflect the latest fashions here, the local industry produces huge amounts for the markets of the world. Items are at times priced already for their export destinations with labels. Just ignore the Dollar and Euro price-tags and ask a friendly dealer about their asked price. Quotations are in Cambodian Riel or in US-$, the de-facto currency in the country. 4.000 Riel are roughly the equivalent of 1 US-$. Have your calculator ready and try your bargaining skills. The asked price is not the price that the dealer will sell the item to you, real prices are quite a bit lower than that.
All kinds of handicrafts and hand crafted items are relatively cheap here, plan to spend a few hours just scouting the exterior area under the roofs and tarps. You will be positively surprised.
The Khmer consider larger people not as aliens, so their shoe sizes for instance do include typical US or European dimensions. I found neat sandals in size 11 (46 Europe) for 14 $, that had a 29.99 $ price tag (from Wal-Mart! ) attached and was impressed by their quality. Needless to say, the Psar Thmey has been a source for my outfits on every trip prior to this city, but as selection grows, now the prices on textiles now reach closer to the familiar Bobae and Pratunam levels (Markets in BKK), but are still lower than there! . The vast factory premises on the outskirts of Phnom Penh are now the locations, where thousands of busy workers man sewing machines and produce garments for the world. Cheap labor and friendly government policies towards investors and expatriates plus a liberal Visa policy are big factors here and we don’t need to tell the Thais, where mistakes have been made and are being made. The Thai stores themselves are now full of cheap cotton garments, proudly made in Cambodia.
The entire area is safe to travel for tourists. The money exchangers around here are known for best rates and they accept a wide range of western currencies. Within walking distance are the passenger pier (Tonle Sap river), the Soriya Phnom Penh Bus Terminal (formerly Ho Wah Genting) and the GST Bus Terminal. The famous 51st Street (aka Rue Pasteur) with its bars and restaurants is a few minutes South of here. This is where you’ll find the famed “Heart of Darkness”, the cozy Swiss CAM Food lounge and the Walkabout Pub. Both later ones serving drinks and food around the clock 24 h! The Swiss dudes serve great burgers and have a large seating area and a pool table (free WiFi), you’ll find Daniel across the road from the “Heart of Darkness” Disco.
The Psar Thmey area is an ideal hub for travelers and well worth to let yourself sink into the depths of Phnom Penh fo a few days. Beware of too much of the local “Happy Pizza”, as their oregano substitute is considered an illegal drug elsewhere (marihuana).
Updated on August 23rd, 2013
All facts given are still as mentioned, not much has changed since the original report.