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“Psar Thmey” – Focal point in Phnom Penh

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

© Frank P. Schneidewind

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.

The Wild Guys conquer Cambodia

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

© Frank P. Schneidewind


This trip with my Austrian friends started more like a nightmare. The ordered chauffeur for a planned 6 AM departure at our starting point near Bangkok, did leave us waiting and overslept his alarm clock. So he told us, when he finally showed up two hours late! 6 friends were about to disembark on an eventful trip to Cambodia, 5 of them have never seen the place before, I acted as the organizer and guide.

We made it to Had Lek, the southernmost border crossing point from Trat in Thailand to Koh Kong in Cambodia. Our arrival there was in the afternoon, around 2 PM. Surrounded by touts, we kept our luggage together on one cart. Four guys guarding our belongings and I went with one guy ahead to organize our late trip to Phnom Penh. Six big guys do not fit into one shared taxi. So we had to scout for a minivan or two regular cars. Two styrofoam coolers contained crushed ice and drinks in cans. One for Chang beer and one for Coca-Cola. Harry was a beer addict and was constantly seen gulping another can down. This lasted into the trip, until the trays of Chang were finished, long before the ice had a chance to melt.

The border crossing took a while, as most in our group did not come prepared with a visa for Cambodia. Only Nicy and myself hat bought the visa beforehand at the Bangkok embassy for 20 $ a piece. The rip off fee here was 1.200 Baht, a common procedure to extort money from tourists at the borders. Twice the amount and a waste of at least 20 minutes per person. Our luggage remained on the pushcart meanwhile. Harry was beer-happy and Günther and Georg kept him silent. The processing of the visa took at least another 90 minutes, before we ventured on into Cambodia. Günther and Georg are the employers of Harry in real life, Martin was an old friend of them and Nicy (Hole-in-one) another former employee and friend. Nicy was the only one I really knew well from countless trips in Asia, Europe, the USA and Mexico together.

The next task was a bit tricky, as we had to find two cars for our projected transport to Phnom Penh. We had a few hours of daylight left and surely did not want to get stuck in the sleazy brothel town Koh Kong, which was about 5 km south from the border. Touts at the border made it impossible to talk directly with any drivers. That would have equaled a hefty surcharge (tout-commission). So we resorted to hire a pickup truck with small benches (songtheauw in Thailand) for the short ride away from the tout hot-spot and went to Koh Kong City in order to locate a possible tout-free taxi to transport us at the regular rate. In tout matters, any type of evasive action is the preferential treatment!

The taxi hiring was indeed a smooth process, as we spotted some taxis waiting on the roadside before hitting town, just after crossing the toll bridge. Two cars that wanted to return to Phnom Penh today for a combined 50 $, a great deal if compared to the border fees. At the border one taxi was offered for 50 $ and a minivan for 90 $.

The drive took a long time as not all bridges were in place. Ferry crossings gave us time to stretch our legs as the daylight hours came to an end. Above pic shows Nicy and Martin, dealing with some kid selling snacks at a river bank.

Below you see intoxicated Harry, clinging to Georg to avoid falling into the dirt with on of his last cans of Chang.

We made it and arrived at the Angkor Int'l Hotel around 9 PM, a bit exhausted from the long trip. We got a good nights sleep, because we all planned to start into the real journey on two wheels each on the following day, very early in the morning. After a quick breakfast, we took motodups (motorcycle taxis) for 2.000 Riel each (0.50 $) to Lucky! Lucky!, one of the leading dirt bike rental places in town.

We all ended up with two wheels for the next few days and did some exploration of the outlying areas around Phnom Penh, returning nightly for our beds, a shower and some minor fun in the city.

Our first cruise did lead us to Wat Phnom, the temple with the huge clock on the lawn, that gave the city its name. From here, we followed over the Japanese Friendship Bridge across the Tonle Sap River and explored the wastelands to the Northeast between the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap excessively.

From left to right: Martin, Günther, myself, Georg, Nicy and Harry. Each one rode a dirt bike on this day. We made a stop at some fairytale resort in the middle of nowhere, where by coincidence, a true VIP wedding reception of Cambodian movie stars took place. Everybody was dressed in a rather festive outfit, but they did not consider the foreign bikers under-dressed for the occasion and invited us to partake.

Nicy's butt was mega sore from the dirt bikes saddle, he and Harry traded down on the third day to a small motorbike, Asian style. Looked kinds cool, the huge 120 kg frame of Nicy on a small bike. But that is nothing, compared to our trail rides way back in Arizona and New Mexico, when he followed our Appaloosa equipped gang (full sized horses) on a donkey's back! :P

We explored our hearts out in all possible directions, went down the Mekong towards Vietnam, to the Killing fields at Ek Cheung and a lot of other places. Everything went smooth and we shared the fun of exploring history loaded territories.

The police back then had to be briefed on certain travel plans, because the military zones with their live fire exercises had to be avoided and also areas of congested traffic outside of town. Phnom Penh was cool, but once outside city limits (especially to the south, near Vietnam) things could get a bit iffy.

Nicy and Harry still trailed with their mini mopeds, which were chosen by all of in the next destination in a couple of days (Sihanoukville).

The infamous concentration camp S 21 was a last stop on our agenda in the capital. Our final meal at the Foreign Correspondents Club on the evening before our departure to the coast, was also the good bye for our friend Martin, who had to attend urgent family matters back home in Vienna.

So us 5 road warriors left descended on the coastal town of Sihanoukville for the last leg of this journey. The GST bus ferried us the 200+ km in 3 hours time. Too bad we didn't have a camera on hand, when the hired tuktuk started overloaded with us and all luggage on board at the Angkor Int'l hotel with a full blown wheelie. The ride was uneventful and really cheap (3 $). We camped out in style for the remaining nights at a posh hotel near the lion's roundabout. The Golden Sands offered our crew great amenities, luxurious rooms, a pool and a breakfast buffet.

The setting here was a real contrast to what we experienced outside the gated compound and even at our previous residence in the capital.

We geared up for more off roading and beach biking at the Golden Sands, five little bikes were rented quick. I admit, that I chose to wear long sleeves, because of the merciless sun.

Back then, Occaheuteal Beach at our doorstep showed almost no developments, except for a handful of huts to the northernmost section, selling beer, booze and snacks. A great, empty and fine sand beach was ours to cover. 3 to 4 miles of it. Interested readers can check the pictures in another report, this is exactly the same beach, where I tought my oldest boy how to operate a motorcycle.

The hill between Occaheuteal and Otres beach to the south did have a dirt track back then, which is constantly being upgraded since. The only business on the entire Otres beach, was this young lady's "resort".

Nicy fell in love with the hammock by the surf, after the little lady had replaced the tie-downs for him. Our Austrian heavyweight did break the original set-up and crash landed on his butt.;)

The subsequent set-up was sturdier by far and even survived Nicy's snoring by the surf.

Sreypel, most Cambodian girls are called Srey…(something) as I found out earlier. Offered a huge, juicy pineapple fruit for one $. We shared it and loved the great taste. Sreypel was the little girl's older sister and she came helping the young sister to serve us.

Harry found out, that Angkor Beer is easier to obtain here than Chang and gulped a six-pack in 30 minutes. He skipped a real breakfast and mentioned he liked a liquid one now.

Harry retired in the afternoon, but us guys decided to let him sleep 'n snore right there. We had more to explore and picked him up a few hours later. The farmers in the back country here keep pet animals in an objectionable fashion, as the picture below shows.

We had an important task to execute on the following day. Visiting some de-miners (minesweepers) in a remote area near Ream Naval Base in Ream National Park in the morning.

And returning to Sihanoukville that afternoon to deliver some goods to the amputee's hospital there.

We have hauled some surgical supplies, which were donated by a friend, who is a surgeon in Germany. Scalpels and cat-gut plus antibiotics and other supplies. These are hard to come by in this neck of the woods, where demand for this material is huge..

Three bikeloads were dropped with the surgeon on duty there.

He was surprised and very appreciated the German surgeon's donation, that we hauled to him.

I knew too well, how badly modern sterile equipment is needed for their daily tasks here. Many landmine-victims here owe their limited mobility and sometimes life to the surgeons here, with very limited funding, resources and such. Make sure to visit them, when in Sihanoukville. They are within the hospital compound on Ekkareach Street between the roundabout and the 90° turn to the north on your right hand side.

The very next day saw our departure from Cambodia. We took the bullet-boat at lunchtime to Koh Kong. One departure daily was the rule and surely, we occupied the boats top. Sitting in a stinking diesel fume-filled cabin on vinyl seating with limited breathing opportunities wasn't our cup of tea and singalong Cambodian karaoke entertainment did not tickle our fancy either.

The "Wild Guys" episode one came to an end and may have a sequel with a more sober or restrained Harry. He was a bit too wild to handle at times and his unusual fuel consumption (he considers beer his sole fuel!) made things a little awkward at times for others. Nicy had always been a great travel companion and Günther was a really cool fellow. Too bad, that he spends most of his time on his yacht in the Mediterranean Sea, while Georg is tied up at their business, managing headquarters. Martin blended in well and helped effectively, keeping Harry out of trouble. I am quite sure that they returned with a heap of new impressions. Cambodia offers so much to see.