While in most cities the important landmarks are museums, libraries or national parks, in Phnom Penh it is the Central Market. Located at the heart of the capital city, the fully functioning market is in fact a historical building, having been built in 1937 by French builders in colonial Art Deco style. Its Khmer name is Phsar Thmei, which literally means “new market”, but locals have grown used to calling it Central Market, since it is at the center of Phnom Penh along Kampuchea Krom.
While people come here primarily to shop, the building itself is a top draw for tourists. In the 1930’s, Art Deco architecture was very popular. It also applied to painting, visual arts, graphic arts and interior design. It is characterized by symmetrical lines, as opposed to the earlier asymmetrical organic lines of the Art Nouveau style. A leading example of Art Deco architecture is the Chrysler Building’s spire in New York, while the Phnom Penh’s Central Market is perhaps the best Art Deco example existing in Southeast Asia today.
The Central Market has a magnificent central dome from which emanate four wings, as though it were a giant octopus with only four tentacles outstretched in equal length and with symmetric patterns. The whole structure is colored bright yellow, which makes it very distinct from the surrounding rusty brown buildings.
People will never run out of stores to buy from. Inside and around the four wings are an endless rows of shops and stalls selling everything that a buyer can think of, including clothes, shoes, bags, watches, secondhand clothes, bootleg DVDs, pieces of different jewelry, antiques, souvenir items, electronic equipments and gadgets, suitcases, books and so on. There are definitely more items here than at the Russian Market. One of the best buys is the Khmer scarf. There are also food stalls and tiny eateries where buyers can rest for a while from a very busy and humid shopping experience. The most popular foods are fish and seafood. And for more shopping, there are a number of money exchange counters to get Khmer money called riel, although most retailers prefer to get American dollars.
In addition to seeing the grand Art Deco architecture and the actual shopping, the third reason for visiting the Central Market is for the sheer experience of it. Phsar Thmei is definitely a tourist hot spot. At times the atmosphere is festive and it is so much fun just to see so many people going through the rows and rows of shops that don’t seem to end. While prices are already surprisingly cheap, it is still quite an experience trying to haggle and bargain for a lower price, especially for a western shopper who may not have experienced haggling in an Asian market before. The cheap souvenir T-shorts and bootleg DVDs are always a crowd pleaser.
Getting to Central Market is quite an experience itself since it is at the heart of Phnom Penh. One may even walk from the popular Sisowath Quay. What’s really fun for tourists is riding a tuk-tuk, as well as a cyclo, a bicycle version of the motorcycle-taxi. A tourist with bags of cheap shopping items riding on a bicycle taxi on his or her way back to the hotel is a picture of a satisfied shopper. Phsar Thmei is open every day from 5:00 AM to 5:00 PM.