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Phnom Penh Markets & Shopping – Cambodia travel #2

Here we are for more Phnom Penh travel tips from my long weekend there (and from lots and lots of research before that). Head to “Phnom Penh Travel Tips- Part 1″ to read about nightlife and the famous Foreign Correspondent Club, my recommended accommodation and how tuk tuks work. Today I am reporting on markets and shopping in Phnom Penh. 

Shopping in Phnom Penh: Central Market and Street 240

As every Asian city, Cambodia’s capital boasts many lively markets divided into a wet and dry section, turning into eating venues at meal times (which in Asian terms is pretty much all of the time). The best known markets in Phnom Penh are the Olympic Market, the Central Market and the Russian Market. Our group visited all three, but I suspect most tourists spending a weekend in the city will have less time, so I thought to write down my impressions to help you with the choice, depending on your priorities (convenience, goods) and time constraints.

phnom penh markets1

I am normally not big on shopping – that does not mean I don’t love markets. I normally go, like most tourists in South East Asia, more on a photographic safari than on a shopping spree. And whilst I try to be discreet when photographing people (nobody likes to be treated like a lion in a zoo, right?) I sometimes wonder if our very presence annoys the vendors. It is quite clear that most foreigners will not buy anything there, especially in the wet market part, except maybe the occasional drink or snack if feeling brave (non – bottled water is commonly used for ice and refrigeration is all but optional). In the dry market and the general good sections, most of the stuff seems generic – read: “made in China”- if occasionally cute. If you travel a bit throughout Asia, you will see exactly the same vaguely “oriental-looking” junk being sold in “local” markets from Melaka to Bangkok to Siem Reap to Jakarta – and I suspect in London, NYC or Sydney Chinatowns, I don’t want to spoil the fun for you but I personally wouldn’t bother weighing down my luggage on any of the cheap trinkets and only buy things I feel I couldn’t buy elsewhere.

what to buy in phnom penh

Shopping experience or photo safari?

In Phnom Pehn, the markets seem to be crowded throughout the day, meat of all types is sold alongside fish and dry goods and spice, and the vendors are eager to peddle their goods -expect an assault on all of your senses. However, in Cambodia, as I mentioned already about tuk tuk drivers, people seemed to be very relaxed and happy and not pushy even in markets, which to me really added to the enjoyment of my Phnom Penh visit.

Phnom Penh Central Market

The Central Market, hosted in an Art Deco building restored in the ’90s with help from France, was my favourite. The golden light filtering from the graceful dome was just incredible, and I found that it was quite an architectural feat that the “hub and spoke” structure did maintain the temperature inside quite tolerable in spite of the scorching heat of the afternoon. The Phnom Penh Central Market is renowned for its gems and jewellery, hosted right under the dome, and I enjoyed looking at all the sparkle and glitz.

phnom penh central market

The wet section was almost closing down when we arrived, but it was all the more interesting as the food stalls were firing up for supper, with dozens of small carts serving interesting looking local food. Personally I was so stuffed from lunch that I only managed an ice coffee, which came with a free chaser of…tea. In the heat and after much walking, the additional caffeine was really welcome.

central market phnom penh

Olympic Market

Although I did not personally go, some of my fellow travellers headed to the Olympic Market (also known as the  Silk market) and found it interesting- you can see pictures from Danielle of Living in Sin below and read her post here. So if you are into sewing, DYI or  just would like to bring back some textile souvenir, definitely consider making a stop.

olympic market

Russian Market

phnom penh russian market

The Russian market, I suspect, is popular with tourists just because is slightly more central than the “official” Central Market and close to the bulk of the hotels and guesthouses. Although it is atmospheric enough with its narrow, packed alleys, I was not particularly impressed, and the low cover of metal and tarpaulin made me feel a bit claustrophobic. You’ll find the usual array of wet and dry goods, a few interesting specialised stalls (cue one selling only eggs in every size and colours) and more than a fair share of souvenir tat. If you have time for only one market in Phnom Penh, I would definitely say make it the Central Market.

Fashion and Souvenir Shops in Phnom Penh

For more traditional “shopping in a shop”, then the place to be seems to be Street 240 and the surrounding area.

As I mentioned already in my nightlife tips the area is a bit of an expat enclave; here you can find trendy drinking holes like “Bar.Sito” and organic-cafe’-cum-art-gallery “The 240″.  But from what I could see, the Phnom Penh expat community is a lot more intergrated with the place than, say, in Singapore, probably because most of it is composed of NGOs and charity workers with a love and affinity for Cambodia. It is easy to feel the two sides of today’s Phnom Penh and the way they interact on Street 240, where there are many shops run by (hopefully real) charities and workers ‘cooperatives selling textiles and souvenirs in a “fusion” style that is appealing to Western travelers whilst retaining some of the traditional feel.

street 240 phnom penh

I especially liked a boutique called Daisy, offering a range of very stylish clothes and tasteful accessories in a modern, linear style with just a touch of exotic decoration, which I found quite distinctive and more appealing that the ubiquitous “wannabe gipsy” style usually sold in Cambodia. I bought a gorgeous long dress in a silky material with a blossom pattern and a fabric and lace handbag for less than USD 100.

Next post: my pick of the best places to dine in Phnom Penh


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  1. Thanks for the link! It was fun shopping there…. maybe shown by the sheer amount of things I bought!

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