Phnom Penh still has plenty of local markets, which are all well patronized not just by locals but by some adventurous ex-pats as well.
When we lived in Phnom Penh, we had one market just two blocks from our place, and once in a while, when I couldn't find something in the grocery store or wanted a taste of something new, I ventured out there.
Shopping in Phnom Penh's Traditional Markets
As soon as my husband left for work, I walked to the market. Ignoring the offers of tuk-tuk drivers, I headed for a leisurely walk. You won't miss the street because suddenly you see the surge in traffic and all transport slow down—rows and rows of motorbikes parked on one side.
Shoppers flocked the rows of well-laid-out produce spilling halfway into the streets. The shoppers varied. Some were on their way to the office and buying some local delicacies to bring with them. Many were homemakers out for their daily marketing. Older women as well, who often cook for the family, came every day.
Farmers bringing their products and selling them directly to customers or the storekeepers were there early.
As I went through the narrow alleyways leading inside, more rows of low tables followed each other with various products for sale. A lady cutting pork pieces, another cooking River fish on the homemade barbecue, fanning the embers of the coals, happily called on customers.
Women waiting for cooked fish or shrimp they've ordered crowd the barbecue. So if you don't want to cook or you don't have a barbecue, the market offers many choices of broiled meat and seafood. For a fee, you can ask them to barbecue whatever you bring.
I stopped by my tomato vendor and got a kilo of small tomatoes, slightly less than a dollar. Then, I saw ripe papaya and bought one.
I then bought squash and waited for the lady selling sweet potatoes as she was busy serving customers, many of whom were buying cooked sweet potatoes. I saw, however, that she had raw ones, so I asked her to pass me some from which I chose the ones I liked. She promptly weighed it, bagged it, and placed it in my cloth bag.
By this time, I could hardly carry what I had bought, so I stopped at the barbecue to smell the cooking fish. It reminded me of some of my beautiful memories on the beach when as a child, our parents and the other children in our place would have picnics on the beach and barbecue newly caught fish or seafood. I started to ask for prices, and another customer, an old lady, spoke in Khmer, but her sign language responded to me.
While waiting, we both started a conversation using signs. I placed my things down and took my camera as some of the scenes were worth a picture. The lady was laughing and enjoying my weirdness, so I faced her and asked for a photo of her. She obliged with her pretty smile. Other shoppers joined us in our laughter, and I left happy. I know next time where to go if I want pleasant company.
With my papaya (2kilos), a kilo of small tomatoes, squash(2 kilos), barbecued fish (3inches by 2, which cost $2.50), and two good size sweet potatoes, I spent about $6. Without the fish, I would have paid less. I had so much fun, too. I resolved to even explore inside the next time I visited. It looked fascinating.
6 Popular Traditional Markets in Phnom Penh
Aside from that market, there are several other traditional markets in Phnom Penh which are equally fun and fascinating. Here they are:
1. Central Market
Having the freshest and most variety in the food section, I would go to the Central Market, where I bought my supply of shrimp, seafood, and fish. The vendors already knew me, and when I returned from months in Canada, they always remarked on how long they hadn't seen me.
Buying fish here was easy as the stall owners cleaned it for me, and I could choose the steak pieces I liked from the whole mackerel. They put this on ice and were still as fresh as possible when I reached home.
In this market were so many jewelry stalls under the giant dome of the art deco building, a legacy from the French.
Although the designs were quite conservative, the prices were excellent. Be patient in looking for the ones that may appeal to you. The sellers did not mind our browsing and constant requests to see some of their jewels. There were also plenty of stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, fake sunglasses, and watches.
2. Kandal MarketThis market is close to the riverside, so when you are walking along the riverside, follow the trail of women carrying market bags, and you will find this market. It offers everything from foodstuff to fake sunglasses and watches.
Most farmers bring their fresh produce here as a bigger crowd of restaurant owners come and buy here. It is also close to the temple, so most women visit the temple and come here afterward. The locals heavily patronize this, so you'll have a good taste here of the Phnom Penh culture.
3. Russian Market or Toul Tompong
This market is the favorite of foreigners, and as the Russians at the time were the majority of foreigners visiting when Cambodia was a strongly Communist country, this got to be called the Russian market.
The locals call it Toul Tompong. It is now popular with foreigners who roam the market, try out food stalls, and buy fake CDs and souvenirs.
This market also has a wide selection of souvenirs, from silk and silk products to carvings and woven items. There are also rows upon rows of clothes, some overruns from foreign factories, shoes, swimwear, underwear, and children's clothes.
Try out the food stall. You can choose the food you want to try as you can see it prepared there. Just sit in one of the stalls and point at the one you love to try. I'll tell you; you will have lots of fun.
4. Olympic MarketI used to visit this market as it had so many fabrics to choose from and sewing accessories. But for many locals, especially the younger ones, this market is lovely.
Here, you'll find the latest in fashion, mainly from Korea and Hong Kong. The prices might surprise you, but these are imported items. You can also find Cambodian silk products and jewelry here. The place is a bit confusing so have markers when you venture into the different stalls.
5. ORussey MarketThis market is bustling. It can be overwhelming for many foreigners. But, if you desire to be with the locals, this is the place to go. I found pots here and baskets and mats locally made.
6. BKK or Boeung Keng Kang MarketMany ex-pats live close to this area, so they shop for daily fresh needs here, from vegetables to fruits, but this market also carries many other items.
Tips for Exploring the Local Markets in Phnom Penh
Go and explore. Once you have gotten over your first bouts of squeamishness, the experience in these local markets is well worth it. You can start with the Central and Russian markets as many foreigners go there, and they're easier to navigate.
There are even now several air-conditioned stores just close to the gates of the old market, and the prices here are reasonable and the goods of better quality. But nothing beats the experience inside these local markets. Try it.