Travel Report: Central Market, Phnom Penh.
Central Market, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
September 2020. I really love the old French Art Deco buildings across Cambodia. From the shapely structures of Siem Reap and Battambang, to the crumbly, balcony-laden houses of Kampot and Kep, we had seen dozens of the country’s most impressive colonial creations.
One afternoon, in Phonm Penh, we mapped out a walking route to one of the capital’s most historic Art Deco delights. You certainly can’t miss the bright yellow Central Market, with its 26-metre dome. Locals refer to it as Phsar Thmei, which roughly translates as New Market.
Construction began in 1935 on the site of a huge swamp that city authorities had drained. Two big name French architects arrived to oversee the project, Jean Desbois and Louis Chauchon.
Two years later, in the summer of 1937, Phsar Thmei opened its doors as Asia’s largest indoor market. The building has seen its fair share of tough times over the decades. In 1941 an aircraft bomb caused heavy damage during the Franco-Thai War. Moreover, the complex bore the scars of both World War II and The Khmer Rouge dictatorship of the 1970s.
Central Market, Phnom Penh.
Finally, in 2009, Central Market underwent the $4 million renovation project responsible for the centre we see today. We entered via one of the four arm-like corridors that branch diagonally out of the central hall. With no tourists and little domestic foot traffic, it was a far cry from the frenetic buzz one would experience in normal times.
The market is home to dozens of jewellery shops, many of which are Chinese owned. But there wasn’t much happening at Lim Kim Huong Jewellery that day.
It was similarly dead at this store, crammed with watches and clocks. I was half tempted to ask the Khmer owner if she knew what time it was. Then thought better of it.
The domed main hall is absolutely gorgeous with its quartet of curved arches and blue clock tower. This handsome four-faced clock arrived in 2012 to replace an old 1930s clock that was beyond repair.
Its four sides are a nod to Phnom Penh’s nickname, The City of Four Faces. This is due to the fact that three rivers, The Mekong, Bassac and Tonle Sap, all meet at the city to create four distinctive characters.
Phsar Thmei’s overwhelmingly sleepy vibe prevailed throughout the main hall. In fact, vendors hardly lifted their heads to look at us. Rather, they snacked on noodles and played with their phones. For this man, the lack of customers was the perfect opportunity for an afternoon snooze.
With little interest in shopping, we made do with a leisurely stroll around the hall before exploring a number of Central Market’s narrow lanes. Clothes stalls seemed to dominate, though once again there were virtually no customers. “Just look” mumbled one man half heartedly. “Many size, cheap for you” said another with a hopeful smile.
In the narrow outer lane that runs all the way around the complex, we came across a large food section. There were numerous fruit and veg stalls and vendors peddling a full range of meats in addition to fresh fish. This was definitely the busiest part of the market, serving almost exclusively local customers.
We also came across a row of tailors and seamstresses. Each worker had a small space from which to operate their sewing machines and hang the various wares of the day. This reminded me of my own clothes and their various holes and tears.
Central Market, Phnom Penh.
We also passed a number of general stores, pharmacies, booths selling electronics and kitchenware stalls. There were even a few hairdressers thrown into mix, like the one pictured below. Space wise it was barely bigger than a cupboard, just enough room for the hairdresser, two active customers and one waiting spot on the wooden bench.
We enjoyed our brief but interesting stroll around Central Market. If you’re in the centre of Phnom Penh this is an essential sight that won’t take too much of your time. Unless, of course, you plan on an intense shopping expedition.
Located on Street 128, it opens daily between the hours of 06:30-17:30. Generally speaking, prices here are inflated for tourists. Whatever you’re buying, try to negotiate down to at least 50% of the original asking price.
For more info on my adventures in and around the city, have a leaf through my other reports from Phnom Penh.
Like these? Then why not have a look at my articles from across Cambodia.
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The market sure seems like a very lively place, well, apart from the vendor who was sleeping. I really loved that picture; its good for laughs at least.
Thanks for reading Divi! Central Market is well worth a look, just for the architecture.
Great read 👍🏾
Thanks for stopping by!
That clock stall – I love it! 🙂
The clock is indeed gorgeous. Thanks for dropping by Hannah!
Again, it’s great to compare your experiences with ours, visiting just a few months earlier. In February the market was buzzing, although even then the food stalls were by far the busiest. I really must get around to sharing more about that trip!
We almost missed this one due to time constraints and the fact that we had no interest in shopping. But we’ll worth seeing simply from an architectural viewpoint. There just isn’t enough time eh to get all these articles out?
Market visits are essential if you want to get to grips with local culture. They always offer some great photo opportunities too, even in COVID times.
Thanks for reading!
Nice post 👍
What a beautiful building, just stunning. Markets are always interesting and it must have been so different to explore this one when it was not busy. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Cheers Allan, it is a very pretty building and they did a great job with the recent renovation.
It’s amazing how empty it is! I am imagining how pre-covid the market would be nearly impossible to walk through.
Yeah I remember it being super busy back in 2015. Thanks for reading Lyssy!
How strange to see the market so empty of other people. I love markets like this and I wish there were more like them here. And that bright, intricate architecture was just incredible!
Glad you liked it Meg! It is weird without the crowds and you have to feel sorry for the vendors, who must have been under so much stress this past year. Thanks for reading!
I love to visit markets in other countries (or even in neighbouring towns – for now) … and normally ends up in the food department for a very long time 😉.
It’s a shame it was so quiet (thinking of the shop owners), but what a wonderful opportunity for you to take such great photo’s!
The Phnom Penh central market hall looks fabulous Leighton. I can’t get enough of art-deco architecture and the interior is sublime. Somewhere I definitely want to visit when we can. Hope you’re enjoying a heatwave too. We’ve brought our ‘office’ out onto the patio this afternoon! Marion
Thanks Marion, yes an intense heatwave here in Belgrade too. Thanks for dropping by!
If ever you needed evidence of how covid shut things down, this would be it. At least it made photography easier. That bright interior and all the colors look so lively in the absence of much life. Hard to imagine being a vendor and opening up each day for nothing. You didn’t even stop for a snack or a coffee?
I think, if memory serves me well, we picked up some drinks at a cafe and an item or two at a pharmacy. Thanks for reading!
Beautiful building and so typical of the French colonial style. The renovation had not taken place at the time of my visit, I had the chance to visit the open-air market, with meat and fish in the open air, like any vegetable, and the monks going around collecting their small share.
Sounds like it’s changed a lot. I can imagine it was pretty rough around the edges back then. Thanks for reading!
Such a beautiful building for a market. The architects out did themselves.
An Art Deco Delight! Thanks for reading John.
The Central Market reminds me of the ones I’ve browsed around in in Taipei, with its open-air, yet enclosed structure for hot summers as common in that part of the world. I’m not one for shopping, but I can appreciate the buzzing atmosphere when it’s peak hours, to take in the energy and find insight into a commonplace activity for locals. Thanks for sharing, Leighton!
Interesting Rebecca, I shall have to do some Taipei Googling to satisfy my curiosity. Cheers!
I’m so disappointed you didn’t ask the guy what time it was 😀 😀 😀 so funny!
Ha ha next time… thanks for reading!
We explored around Phnom Penh, with our cab driver but we didn’t visit the market. The market has so many items and a great place to stop for a snack.Thanks for sharing. Anita
Hey Anita, thanks for getting in touch! It’s a beautiful building and we can only hope that customers start returning soon in larger numbers.