What to buy at Phnom Penh markets and souvenir shops
Markets (Phsar) Shopping
Phsars, literally "markets" are where Cambodians purchase anything from fresh fish and vegetables, tools for home improvements, jungle knifes for field expeditions, bibelots for friends and relatives, to CDs, DVDs and books. Phsars usually offer better deals than individual shops and shopping centres, although the latter would have the upper hand for electronics. Phsars tend to specialise in specific types of goods (garments, textiles, shoes, bags, watches, food etc) but usually offer a wide range of products. Those who have no taste for bartering and haggling are better off shopping at commercial centres where there is less variation in prices... It is best to shop at sun rise (6 or 7 am): shopkeepers believe that the first customers are to be treated fairly as they are good omen for the rest of the day. Foreigners tend to be charged higher prices than Cambodians, but it will probably not more than a few dollars. Unlike in other Southeast Asian countries, the starting price is customarily in the range of 10-20% of the going price. Thus, if a salesperson asks for ten dollars, his/her minimum price is closer to seven dollars than it is to five.
Go for: Clothes, souvenirs, food, grilled seafood
Phsah Thmei is known in Khmer as the "New Market", and in English and French as the "Central Market". Phsar Thmei is sometimes called by Phnom Penhers, "Phsar Neak Mean", which means the "Market of the Rich People". Phsar Thmei is first and foremost a living and fully functional historical marketplace, completed in 1937 and currently being restored to its former glory. At the time, the yellow Art Deco dome was among the five largest in the world, and the market and its four vast hallways the largest in Southeast Asia. The central design principle of Phsar Thmei was to shield visitors from the monsoon rains and scorching heat, while ensuring proper ventilation. Phsar Thmei is a perfect example of early Southeast Asian environmental architecture, a beautifully preserved Art Deco building that is well worth a visit. The ambient temperatures stay relatively mild without the need for air conditioners or fans. Nowadays, passive environmental designs adapted to climate change have to be painstakingly rediscovered by modern architects accustomed to the electric air conditioning.
Phsar Thmei is popular with tourists and city slickers alike. But true enough, there are more beggars and veteran amputees waiting for the generosity of foreigners than anywhere else. You will want to load up on cheap trinkets for friends and family from the 2,700 stalls. Bargain if you are ruthless: US $2-3 for a t-shirt, US $4-6 for a pair of sandals, US $10 for khaki trousers, US $10 for a backpack etc. If you really need a Swish watch or a gold necklace, it is wiser to make your purchases from one of the jewelry stores located in the neighbourhood of Phsar Thmei rather than from a market stall. Although the prices and the glittery wares are the main attraction under the central cupola, you would not be able to tell copies from the real goods. After five o'clock in the afternoon, enjoy in the company of city slickers and other locals, grilled seafood in the shadow of the yellow cupola.
Phsar Tuol Tom Pong
Go for: Clothes and seamstresses, bags, shoes, souvenirs, CDs
Known by foreigners as the "Russian Market", Phsar Tuol Tom Pong received its moniker during the UNTAC era, when the government decided that Russian peacekeepers would only shop there because of security concerns. The market is a gold mine for the latest CDs, DVDs, computer games and other music tapes. By latest, we mean, before it comes out at your local video store back in Europe. Name it, you get it. The best thing is to have a list ready and to give it in advance to one of the old ladies. Pick up your order a few days later. We like the old ladies better, they understand customer service. Don't look like a fool by arguing prices. CDs and DVDs are traded at fair value. Shoes, handbags, trousers, shirts, skirts and even a few winter jackets are up for sale here. Close to the centre of the market, there is a hallway where seamstresses can put the finishing touches and customise your latest purchases with pearls, stars and much more. There are a few stalls for real silver animals, more expensive than at Phsar Thmei, but their silver content may be somewhat higher. Look out for our favourite look alike Asian brands, including "samesonite", "suny", "nasional" etc. And of course load up on a collection of traditional multihued kramas.
Ta Prohm Silk
#49BEo Street 178, National Museum, Phnom Penh
Go for: Khmer silk and textiles
Scarves, pillows, cases for pillows, computers, phones and spectacles, curtains, table runners, dresses, skirts, shirts are just a few of the colourful and fanciful handwowen silks and cottons on offerings at this genuinely friendly shop for handicapped craftspeople. Small but loaded to the brim, the shop is conveniently located a stone's throw from the National Museum.
The Mat Shop
#5Eo Street 108, Close to Quay Sisowath, Phnom Penh
Go for: Colourful bags, mats and runners made of reeds
Reed and rush weavers practise a traditional Khmer craft. Kandal Province, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is the home of entire villages, along the Mekong River, dedicated to mat making. The raw materials are cut up and sown at the Mat Shop to take the shape of handbags, backpacks, boxes, pillow or pencil cases, computer carriers, or attaché cases with fanciful patterns and colours offered at reasonable prices with courteous service.
#138 Street 143, Tuol Sleng, Phnom Penh
Go for: Custom made and tailored shoes, sandals, boots
Beautiful Shoes has been around this area of Tuol Sleng a good twenty years. The family run business established itself as one of the first cobblers returning to Phnom Penh after the war. The adjacent shoe shops are relatives of the original owner, although most people still shop at Beautiful Shoes. It is somewhat bemusing for us to see foreign ladies getting excited about having their feet measured, choosing leathers and colours, as well as heels and soles. From what we understand, hand made tailored shoes are only for the wealthy in their countries. A pair of hand made shoes will cost anywhere between $10 to $30 depending on sizes and leathers. Beautiful Shoes' cobblers can produce any shoes, except for high performance athletic designs. They have a catalogue of the latest en vogue models straight from fashion magazines. The hardworking craftsmen can also duplicate your old pairs or any photographs you may bring along.