Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Downtown market in Phnom Penh: an assault on the senses
This place has the air of a Hong Kong action flick.

It’s dark, cramped, hot and steamy. Countless shop stalls are crowded together, one after the other in a dimly lit maze. As I walk narrow passageways, I have to keep ducking down to avoid striking my head on overhead beams. A lady vendor I pass points to my head, and then to the low ceiling. She smiles, and her neighbor laughs at me: a tall, out of place foreigner.

I'm in Kandal Market, a Khmer market in downtown Phnom Penh. This is no tourist market either, it’s locals that throng here. Not surprisingly I'm getting curious looks, as few foreigners venture into this maze. Unlike Americans, most Khmers stay away from supermarkets. They find their food cheaper, and fresher, in neighborhood markets like these.

For a westerner, a walk through this Southeast Asian market is an assault on the senses. The biggest assault is the smell. With rotted food on the ground, poor drainage, and little ventilation, it takes some getting used to if you want to walk through it without holding holding your nose. The odors are even worse after it rains.

The colors on the other hand, are the most pleasant. Despite the lack of hygiene, these are still the freshest fruits and vegetables in the city. After properly washing and cooking your purchases at home, this can be one of the best meals you’ve ever had at such a cheap price.

Dark market interior, with makeshift roof
The stalls are beyond cramped, they're packed together in claustrophic conditions. Still you have to admit, there's a real energy about it, you can almost feel it in the air. With the tight quarters, some fear pickpockets, but that’s reasonably rare. Armed robbery is even more rare. For one thing, most of the shoppers, and the shopkeepers, are women. They all look out for each other as well.

There is no single rooftop covering this market. Overhead the roof is as chaotic as the layout of booths below. It’s a patchwork of corrugated metal, plastic sheeting, and different colored tarps stretched every which way. Some gaps are filled with cardboard. Old tires lie atop some sections to keep them in place.

A strange sight in the market are miniature beauty salons. These have a chair or two, or sometimes just a stool. Like ladies anywhere, Khmer women want to look good. For women that can’t afford a real beauty salon, they come here, to these tiny beauty booths.

Walking on, I pass a line of seamstress booths. It's rather dim; there are no electric lights. Somehow even in this dim light they are able to make dresses. Their sewing machines are not electric either, but powered by old fashioned foot pedals. These skilled ladies make dresses as though this is 100 years in the past.

I pass a foursome of ladies seated around a tiny table, playing cards. One is simultaneously having a pedicure done. I recognize these ladies from their work in the food stalls, and with lunchtime over, they have some time to relax.

There is plenty of clothing for sale, mobile phones, and pirated music, but most shoppers are here for the food. As this is Cambodia, you'll find food here you'll never see in your local supermarket. There are freshly fried bananas, and fried frogs. Some regions of Cambodia are known for fried spiders, but I don't see any today. There's fresh fish from the Mekong, and saltwater fish brought from the coast. Another passageway sells incense and fresh flowers, next to a fortune teller.

Some stalls sell durian. For those not familiar with it, durian is the most 'aromatic' fruit in Southeast Asia, and not in a good way. You can usually smell durian before you see it, even when it’s still growing on the tree. It has a rather nasty ammonia like smell. Cut it open, and it gets even worse. It took me years to gather up the courage to finally taste durian for myself. Surprisingly, that horrid smell does not match the taste, which is reasonably pleasant.

Live chickens for sale, tied together by their feet
There is also live poultry for sale. Several stalls sell chicken, available three ways: cooked whole, plucked but not cooked, and live. At one stall, a chicken butcher is cutting the chickens necks, and draining their blood. Beside him, another vendor takes groups of the freshly slaughtered chickens by the feet, and puts them in large pots of boiling water for a couple minutes. This makes it easier to pluck their feathers.

I've spent time on farms before, but I've never seen live chickens treated like this. I’m surprised to see numerous live chickens not in cages, but lying in piles on the ground or on tables, lumped together. At first I wonder why they don’t get up and walk away, until I see that all the chickens are bound around their ankles, three of them tied together. Unfortunately, it’s the lack of hygiene and unsafe handling practices in Asian markets much like this, that led to the spread of bird flu to humans.

Further on, tiny restaurants and food stalls are packed tightly together. Customers sit on small plastic chairs around metal topped tables. Cooking over electric burners, charcoal stoves, and even over open fires, they serve up Khmer food, such as fried rice, plantains and chicken. With conditions so cramped here, the market is a bit of a firetrap, as some Southeast Asian markets are. Years back in Hanoi, there had been a market fire disaster in 1994 that killed five people.

Not long ago, some Cambodian markets sold weapons. AK-47s, pistols, even grenade launchers were available with the right connections. Fortunately, those booths have been closed. With increased police enforcement, (corrupt as they are) and with successful disarmament programs, most weapons are finally off the market.

Heading home, I find piles of garbage from the market covering nearly the width of a nearby street! There's only a narrow path through the middle to walk through, as the city has yet to implement timely trash collection. Much of the garbage dumped here is organic, and the stench is overpowering. A Khmer with a deadened sense of smell is standing in the middle, picking up trash with a pitchfork. He tosses it high into a commercial garbage bin, which isn't big enough. Not 20 feet away from this mess, an ice vendor cuts through a large block of ice, and sells it to a customer. (Now I know why I was sick after drinking an iced drink in a cheap local restaurant.)

Walking by these markets at night is eerie, as there's little light. One night I saw how local market security works: to keep their sales items safe from theft, some vendors pull a tarp over their tables, and sleep on top of their goods. The usual scavengers also slink about: RATS! Rodents are common around the market at night, and with so much discarded food around, rats grow big here. I've seen some as big as cats. Worse, at night they have a nasty habit of running right in front of your path, or around your feet, as you walk by their hiding places.

Hoping to keep rodents as far from me as possible, I developed my own rat alarm to warn them away. Whenever I walked by the market in the evening, or down narrow alleys, I simply clapped my hands loudly. After doing this, I often saw rats scurrying away ahead of me, before I became uncomfortably close. I swear by this method.

1 comment:

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