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Markets And Memorials

Markets And Memorials

Markets And Memorials: A Walk Through Phnom Penh’s Secret Treasures


Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is a city on the mend. Once celebrated as the most beautiful city of French Indochina, its broad, leafy boulevards and bustling markets were closed down in a single day in April, 1975, when Pol Pot's grim Khmer Rouge soldiery expelled the entire population. The Khmer Rouge had little time for city dwellers – they called Phnom Penh “the Great Whore on the Mekong” – and true to their ideology they left the city empty until their overthrow in 1979. Since that time the city, and its people, have been making a slow comeback, and today the Cambodian capital is once again a busy, exciting and increasingly attractive city for the visitor to explore.

Although many attractions of Phnom Penh are congregated along the riverfront, there are many other interesting or worthwhile places to visit in the city. For example the meeting point of the Sap, Bassac and Mekong Rivers, the main markets including the most unusual Art Deco Central Market and the antique stalls and souvenir booths of Tuol Tom Pong Market. The last two destinations on this tour are horrific but essential viewing for those with an interest in Cambodia's recent history, for to visit Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek is a sobering reminder of the ‘Zero Years' of the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79).

Whilst Chham Pao Market may be visited in conjunction with viewing the Bassac, Phnom Penh has many more accessible markets for the visitor to see. Interestingly, the Khmer word for market, psar, is thought to be derived from the Arabic word bazaar, a reminder of the long presence of Arab and Indian traders in Southeast Asian waters. Most Cambodians still do their everyday shopping at the marketplace—though an increasing number of Western-style supermarkets are appearing around town—and a visit to several of Phnom Penh's markets is always a worthwhile experience. A point to remember is that bargaining is expected. One might try making a starting offer at least 50% lower than the initial asking price—the locals won't be offended, and you can always walk away to try your luck elsewhere.

Perhaps the longest-established market in Phnom Penh is the psar char, or Old Market, located near the riverfront at the junction of 108th and 13th Streets. It's a densely packed locale offering a wide selection of tapes, books, clothing, jewellery, dry goods and fresh vegetables. Unlike some of the markets, it stays open late into the evening. A short distance to the southwest, at the commercial heart of the capital, is the extraordinary psar thmay, literally ‘new market', but generally known in English as Central Market. This building, which was built in 1937 during the French colonial period, is built in Art Deco style and painted bright ochre. The design is cruciform, with four wings dominated by a central dome, and the overall effect has been likened to a Babylonian ziggurat. In and around the four wings, almost everything is for sale including electronic equipment, tapes, videos, stationery, clothing, timepieces of all sorts, bags and suitcases and a wide variety of dried and fresh foodstuffs. Beneath the central dome are many gold and silver shops selling skilfully crafted jewellery, as well as Khmer kramaa (scarves), antiques, pseudo-antiques, and other souvenir items.

Proceeding further to the southwest along Achar Hemcheay Boulevard, the visitor next comes to O Russei Market, which sprawls between 182nd and 166th Streets. Once again this place stocks a wide variety of rather upmarket goods, from luxury goods such as imported perfumes and liquor, through clothing and jewellery, to canned paté de fois gras. The market is inter-linked with a busy bus station, so watch out for reversing vehicles. Continuing down Achar Hemcheay, also known as Charles De Gaulle—many of Phnom Penh's streets and boulevards have two or even three names, reflecting the political loyalties of changing regimes over the decades—the visitor should turn east on Sihanouk Boulevard and approach the Russian Market, via 199th Street. This is another bus station-cum-bazaar, also known as the Olympic Market, but rather more downmarket than O Russei. Nearly everyone in the market is local, and the goods on display reflect their demand for fruit and vegetables, flowers, fresh meat, bicycle and motorbike parts, new and second hand clothing, etc.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting for the visitor after the Art Deco New Market, Tuol Tom Pong Market is situated in the southern part of town, beyond Issarak Boulevard (also known as Mao Tse-tung Boulevard) at the junction of 163rd and 432nd Streets. This is probably the best place in town to shop for genuine and imitation antiquities, Buddha figures, silk clothing, silver jewellery, silver ornaments, gems, and old bank notes from previous regimes. Interestingly, the bank notes for sale include those of the infamous Khmer Rouge, who had currency printed in China but then changed their minds, outlawed money and markets, blew up the central bank and ultimately never issued any notes to the public. Khmer Rouge money is readily recognised both by its pristine condition—it never circulated—and by the warlike themes apparent on the notes. Look for rocket-toting guerrillas, howitzers, machine guns and fierce-faced KR girl soldiers.

Whilst the riverside offers wonderful views over the junction of the Sap and Mekong Rivers, to really understand the unique confluence of waters at Phnom Penh the visitor should also see the Bassac River. This is best viewed from the Monivong Bridge south of the city centre, marking the start of Route 1 to Ho Chi Minh City. This can be combined with a visit to bustling Chham Pao Market, on the east side of the Monivong Bridge in Srok Mean Chey district. The confluence of the four rivers, known in Khmer as Chatomuk or ‘four faces', and in French as Quatres Bras or ‘four arms', is remarkable for a unique phenomenon, the reversal of the Sap River. From May to October, during the annual rainy season, the hugely increased volume of the Mekong forces the Sap River to back up, and finally reverse its course, flowing northwards to flood the Tonlé Sap with vast quantities of fresh water and rich sediment. During this period the Tonlé Sap more than doubles in size, from 3,000 sq km (1,886 sq miles) to as much as 8,000 sq km (5,031 sq miles). Then, in mid-October, as the level of the Mekong diminishes, the flow of the Sap is again reversed, carrying the surplus waters of the Tonlé Sap southwards to the Mekong and Bassac deltas. The time of the October reversal of the waters is celebrated as Bon Om Tuk, one of Cambodia's most important festivals. The annual flooding of the Tonlé Sap makes the lake an incredibly rich source of fish, whilst the farmland around the lakes benefits from an annual deluge of rich sediment.

Which brings us to the last, least likely and most disturbing part of this exploration. Not for the weak-hearted, just over 1 km from Tuol Tom Pong, to the north of Mao Tse-tung Boulevard, stands the former Tuol Sleng Prison, now Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crime (daily, 7-11.30 am, 2-5.30 pm). Here, during Pol Pot's years in power, around 20,000 people were interrogated under torture and subsequently murdered, generally together with their families. The former prison—once a school—is a chilling sight. The pictures of many of those killed stare out at the visitor in black and white from the museum walls. The primitive instruments of torture and execution are on display, as is a bust of Pol Pot. Many of the former classrooms were divided up in an incredibly primitive fashion into tiny breeze block cells. Everywhere there are crude shackles and cuffs. Initially those executed here were people the Khmer Rouge perceived as “class enemies” and supporters of the former regime, but soon the communist regime began to consume itself in a frenzy of paranoia. By the time Tuol Sleng was liberated in 1979, nearly all those suffering torture and execution were Khmer Rouge officials who had fallen from grace.

Finally, for those with the stomach for the experience after visiting Tuol Sleng, about 12km (7½ miles) south of town lie the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here victims of the Khmer Rouge, including many from Tuol Sleng, were taken for execution and burial in mass graves. Many of these have now been exhumed, and a stupa-shaped mausoleum has been erected to their memory. It's a disturbing experience to view row upon row of skulls, arranged in tiers in a tall plexi-glass case in the middle of the mausoleum. The easiest way to get there is by taxi from the vicinity of the Central Market, though motos waiting outside Tuol Sleng will also make the journey.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Pictures From History - © CPA Media