Sunday, December 23, 2007

Day 7: To Market, To Market

Wat Phnom

Our morning started with a visit to Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh's most prominent temple. According to Cambodian tradition, a woman by the name of Lady Penh found some Buddhist statues floating in the river. To house these artefacts, she not only built a temple (wat) but also the hill (phnom) it sat on. Over time, a city grew around the hill and what else could they have named it but Phnom Penh.

Wat Phnom itself was more or less the typical modern Southeast Asian temple, purportedly Buddhist in essence but as always housing other deities. Why not cover all bases eh?

inside the vihear

educational murals covered the walls, some depicting the life of Buddha...

... others retelling the story of the Reamker, the Cambodian Ramayana

well, it costs money to run a temple...

outside, a shrine to Lady Penh

the pantheon

and just in case (one never knows)

We were early still so it was relatively quiet. Other than the odd devotee, there were two or three beggars stationed at the entrance to the temple. Even so, as we strolled around the leafy compound, the vendors started to arrive.

itinerant snack peddler

an opportunity to accumulate some good karma... or be scammed

One can buy the freedom of one of these birds. Rumour has it though that the birds have been trained to return to the security of their cage, once the do-gooders are gone. Therein lies a metaphor for the human condition...

well, cats were worshipped in earlier times, if not quite in this part of the world

Psar Thmei

Wat Phnom was but the appetizer for the day. We were ready for our main activity of the day - checking out Phnom Penh's markets. We're big on markets, HM for the shopping, me for the anthropological aspect.

We headed first for Psar Thmei, or Central Market. Like most buildings in Phnom Penh, the market had seen better days but its architectural innovativeness was still evident.

famous for its ziggurat shape

Inside, the market was unexpectedly cool, a result apparently of the dome-shaped design.

inside the market

We were at Psar Thmei more for a look-see than for serious shopping - we had been told that the Russian Market was a much better place to shop at, for its lower prices and better variety - and indeed there was plenty to see.

flowers for sale

vases galore

variant on a regional theme

buyer, beware - genuine gemstones or cut glass?

From the mundane to the kitschy, the goods on sale provided insight into contemporary life in Cambodia.

What time is it? Angkor time...

I can just see this one hanging inside a Cambodian home

winter jackets, for those Cambodian blizzards...

furry slippers to warm little toes

As for the food, the variety ranged from the almost familiar to the downright bizarre.

pickled olives

more kiam kanna

steamed rice cakes with fillings

those pumpkins looked a little stuffed

voila, they are stuffed!

dried fish

kueh kueh

gee, mooncakes!

so they're not round, they're still melons

some kind of chin chow, agar agar, definitely dessert material

desserts like these (see above)

duck eggs, chicken eggs and quail eggs

could be apom

Seafood is obviously an important part of the local diet. Little wonder too, given the number of waterways and water bodies criss crossing the country.

those prawns look good

groupers probably

snakehead fish?

local crabs

local shellfish

And as with other developing countries, particularly those that are still agrarian in nature, everyone's favourite cheap and easily available source of protein was on sale.


scorpions, we think

definitely giant cockroaches

locusts maybe?

ok, I give up - some kind of crunchy bug

Did we dare sample the goodies on sale? Let's just say the overall standard of hygiene did not look inspire confidence. We chickened out and opted to watch others eat instead.

some things looked possible - freshly fried png kueh (rice cakes)

then again, maybe not

Finally, the market was a good place to people watch.

ekeing out a living selling whatever was on hand

young craftsman in training

Rajana Arts Association

When we emerged from Psar Thmei, it was almost time for lunch. We hopped onto Uncle's tuk tuk and putt-ed to the Russian Market in the vicinity of which there were a number of cafes worth checking out.

outside the Russian Market

bananas on wheels

While searching for a cafe named Jars of Clay, we chanced upon an outlet of Rajana Association, yet another local NGO providing skills training and employment opportunities for the poor.

outside Rajana

who's who in Rajana

Like Artisans D'Angkor, its emphasis was Cambodian arts and crafts, but its products were less high art, more everyday. The shop carried products from clothes to cards, to costume jewellery and carvings. Everything felt less polished, compared to what Artisans D'Angkor produced. The quality was more like that of flea markets, produced by student entrepreneurs perhaps. Within the small shop, HM found a cotton t-shirt with a beautiful tree design to buy for just US$4.50.

Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay

We finally found Jars of Clay down another small lane and not a moment too soon.

inside Jars of Clay

Run by four women who had decided to that "doing it for themselves" was the way to go, this little cafe was a cool respite in the heat and glare of Phnom Penh. The space was very low key, small but cosy, with bright touches to make it sunny and cheerful. And the smell of baking permeated the air.

Ploughman's lunch - ham, cheddar cheese, pickled onions, chutney, butter, bread, half an apple

cinnamon roll

khmer coffee and laotian coffee

It was too hot to eat much, so we decided on some light finger food. The Ploughman's Lunch was just what we needed, cold and easy to eat, while the cinnamon roll was oh so soft and fluffy. The coffee was necessary, to perk us up. Laotian coffee was bitter compared to khmer coffee. All that came up to a mere US$6.50.

The Russian Market

Revived by the snack, we sallied forth into the narrow maze of stalls known as the Russian Market (named in the 1980s when most of the tourists were Russians who used to frequent the place). Where Psar Thmei was well laid out, with clearly defined areas, this was more haphazard, just rows and rows of stalls.

giving ye olde antiques a little, uh, helping hand

Chinese hu or flasks

The Russian Market definitely had a more interesting variety of goods, at least to us. While Psar Thmei had more of the usual touristy products like copy goods and cheap electronics, this place had a better selection of antiques, collectibles, and textiles.

we bought silk here

There was Cambodian silk in all forms. We bought silk blouses for the two Mums, household furnishings for my sister, and two different colours of fabric for HM. If we had so wanted, we could have had something custom-made there and then. There was a whole row of tailors just waiting for our business, but not having any precise ideas of what we wanted to turn the silk into, we shelved the idea.

Saville Row ala Cambodia

And after a little searching, we found a jeweller recommended by a trusted online source. Mrs Mony, we think, approved of our purchases that day - a yellow sapphire and diamond ring plus a pair of yellow sapphire ear studs. She had a humongous variation on the theme on her hand!

we made her happy

After a sweltering afternoon in the Russian Market, we decided to head back to the hotel, for some R and R.

back to our hotel with our spoils

Back to the Pavilion

At the hotel, we discovered that the girls had finished our laundry! So much for leaving it with them so that we would have less to carry to Sihanoukville. The bill for two pairs of pants, six t-shirts, and two sports bras came up to US$3.50, not cheap by Cambodian standards but a substantial contribution to the income of these young girls.

We spent the next hour or so relaxing and taking advantage of our private pool, before heading out to Street 240 for tea and some indulgence.

The Shop

We returned to The Shop where we had a slightly (but only slightly) less successful meal. But first we had the most divine drinks.

the signature banana, dates and molasses smoothie, and apple, carrot and ginger juice

pastrami on rye

fresh salmon pie

creamy mushroom soup, with croutons and cheese

Of the food, we both liked the soup, but HM thought the pie too fishy and too dry. I thought the pie was very good, but we both wondered why the pastrami was like ham. Still, the bread was excellent as usual.

Street 240

After tea, HM traipsed next door to Spa Bliss, Phnom Penh's premier spa, for a hot oil massage. Bliss started life as a boutique cum home decor store, like a Lim's slash Meng Kee slash Pure Earth hybrid. Several years ago, the owner decided to add a spa and the rest is history, as they say.


I decided to go for a walk. Street 240, some claim, is the heart of Phnom Penh's expatriate life, with its boutiques and restaurants, most of which are housed in lovely Peranakan style houses with their courtyards, skylights and ornate tiles.

a chi chi Asian-inspired home decor boutique

At the end of Street 240, I crossed Norodom Boulevard to Monument Books, just down the road from the Singapore Embassy. There, I bought a road map, to find out more about the roads from Kampot to Sihanoukville.

Down the other end of Street 240, I wandered over to the Palace, only to discover that the Palaice is not lit at night, perhaps because the King's portrait had been taken down.

By this time, HM had finished her treatment. Her verdict? The massage was way too gentle, perhaps because the masseuse seemed inexperienced. The space was lovely though, very "aesthetic", she said. At US$22, it wasn't too bad a deal.

Sisowath Quay and FCC Phnom Penh

On our last evening in Phnom Penh, it seemed like too nice a night to retire just yet. We ambled along Street 19, until our surroundings got noticeably darker and smellier. That's when we decided it was wiser to hop out to Sisowath Quay. At least there we only had to deal with the beggars and street children who were out in full force, it being a Friday night I presume.

We eventually ended up at FCC Phnom Penh, an institution in Phnon Penh's nightlife, for drinks.

coke light and a cranberry mojito

Seated on the balcony, we had a good view of the goings-on on the street below, touts approaching tourists, tuk tuk drivers hustling for business, raucous groups of foreigners having too much to drink...

watching the comings and goings on Sisowath Quay

hey, how patriotic

Before we called it a night, I persuaded HM to have a bite. After all, the FCC's burgers are famous in their own right.

beef burger, with onions, mushrooms and bacon

The burger was noteworthy - juicy and sinful!

All too soon, our time in Phnom Penh had come to an end. The next day, we would be heading for Sihanoukville.

No comments: