Happy haggling

The buzz and mayhem of the city’s covered markets are what makes Phnom Penh a mecca for shopaholics. No trip would be complete without hitting at least one of its “Psars”, so let’s check ‘em out.

Phnom Penh has for many years been a shopper’s paradise, where bargains have to be fought over and where, in the majority of cases, ‘locally made’ means put together round the corner, so beware of imitations.

The most prominent of the capital’s marketplaces is Psar Thmei, a unique Art Deco building also known as Central Market. The area was a originally a swamp called Boeung Decho, which was prone to flooding during the rainy season. This was drained in 1935, with construction beginning on a design from Louis Chauchon – reportedly the largest mall in Asia at the time – and supervised by fellow French architects Jean Desbois and Wladimir Kandaouroff. The project was completed two years later.

As one of the Kingdom’s best known landmarks, it gradually weathered over the years, and an offer by the French Development Agency to return the site to its former, pristine glory was welcomed. The work was pretty well finished in 2011 and the stallholders returned to continue flogging their fare – although the rental fees of their stalls has gone up, with goods prices rising accordingly. Not that many complain as they haggle over handicrafts anyway.

What would a trip to Cambodia be without a scarf or three in different colours, all lovingly made with pure silk or cotton? Souvenir t-shirts, too, are a must-buy, from simple designs with the Khmer alphabet and flag to Tin Tin and imagery of Angkor Wat. The central area is a wonder of design and engineering, with its domed core and four wings radiating outwards. Under the cupola, watches, precious and semi-precious stones, gold and silver jewellery dominate, accompanied by lines of stallholders selling clothing for Khmer tots, teens and twenty-somethings to barangs looking for presents for themselves or loved ones. Outside stalls have been updated from a rag-tag collection of haphazard corridors, specialising in everything from clothing to cooking utensils, electrical goods to fresh fish and crustaceans, to a more ordered assemblage of product areas.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that the road around the market and several of the feeder streets to its core will in the future be pedestrianised. Earlier interviews suggested that many stallholders were going to move to other markets where the rent was less steep, though the market is still busy and recent enquiries have painted a very different and more encouraging picture.

A slight oddity in the capital’s market scene is just a stone’s throw from the Sorya Shopping Centre, calling itself the Golden Sorya Mall. Originally focused on shoes and clothing for increasingly fashion-conscious Khmer youths, it has undergone a transformation over the years, and the majority of the space is now given over to bars and restaurants, many of which are open until very late at night. You might still find something of interest here, but probably not.

There have been few changes at the famous Russian Market since the movement of the many scruffy outside stalls, except for several merchants who have adorned their premises with fancy signage. Famous for its Aladdin’s cave of bootleg software, CDs and DVDs, plus just about everything a budding hipster would want to be seen with, it’s a steamy, clammy rabbit warren of colours and noise reminiscent of an Arabian souk. Its popularity, though, has enlivened the streets radiating off its four sides where bars, bistros and restaurants, ice cream shops and snackeries have reached out to the mostly heat-exhausted shoppers.

Orussey is another reliable standby with a vast selection of dry bulk foods, fruit, vegetables, fish and cut flowers in addition to kramas, t-shirts, sneakers, underwear and household electrical goods. If you fancy getting a bit sweaty while bagging yourself a great bargain, then head straight for there.

Other local markets include Psar Chas, which offers a stellar range of fruit, and Olympic, a predominantly wholesale market which has, among other items, fabrics of all hues and designs by the mile.

Boeung Keng Kang market, at the southern end of St. 57, where it intersects with St. 380, is popular among young Cambodians looking for fashion items at affordable prices, especially secondhand.