Last we left off, Ricky and I had just had a very head-spinning, soul-crushing time at the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields of Cambodia. We left the latter in a daze in search of our loyal tuktuk driver, Mr. Kenny, so that we could complete our day of touring with a visit to the Russian Market.
After looking around for a moment we saw him napping peacefully in his tuktuk, flies hovering in a lethargic buzz. He must have heard us coming though because he woke up quite quickly and greeted us happily, smiling wide as he praised the market we’d soon arrive at as we puttered off. The contrast of his happiness with our recent harrowing experience made it quite surreal, but we were rather starving by that time so needless to say a market with prospects of a late lunch were quite tempting.
Except as we drew near, Mr. Kenny slowed in concern and looked at us with something between panicked/apologetic eyes. It seemed, unluckily for us, the Russian Market was closed.
Similar to the Ben Thanh Market though, venders still set up stalls on the outside so we told Mr. Kenny we’d look around anyway.
Although very similar to Ho Chi Minh’s famous vendor-happy hub, there were some distinct differences from the start. Maybe it was just our sobered moods, but the brusqueness and energy of Vietnam was noticeably absent. Here, perhaps subdued by the midday heat or maybe, on the broader scale, by a slow recovery of a crippling history, vendors stayed quietly behind their stalls and viewed customers with narrowed eyes.
They fanned themselves slowly and the ever-present flies landed busily on their wares – particularly in the meat and fish section. These smelled extremely pungent; not necessarily rotten, but a rank odour of dirt and blood mixed with seafood and stale water. I made a mental note to not buy anything from a food stall unless I saw there was a high turnover of local customers.
But a quick bite to eat we were not to find there. As much as we circled the outdoor area of the market, not a bowl of curry or a stick of roasted meat did we see.
Taking a quick look at some pants though not buying any (the locals were very begrudging to do any bargains – a huge contrast to Vietnam where they literally called you back across the market to strike a deal), we bought some canvas art for souvenirs, and met back up with Mr. Kenny shortly.
He looked surprised and somewhat uncomfortable to see us back so soon – the latter it seemed being sheepishness that he’d suggested the place when it wasn’t at its prime. Instead we asked him if he wouldn’t take us to the Central Market instead, the one I’d originally wanted to go to.
He didn’t seem too keen to take us (it was pretty late by this time since we’d taken forever at the Killing Fields). In the end though, he agreed after we promised to spend only an hour there. Our rumbling bellies praised the gods. Away we tuktuked!
Again, however, it was closed.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Mr. Kenny, though of course it was far from his fault. We assured him it was okay and promised to be back within the hour.
Bigger than the Russian Market, that hour was a perfect amount of time to wander. Fortune shone upon us when we found there a food sector after a short ways. Eyeing what the local next to our aluminum counter seats was having, we requested the same. Minutes later we were served a steaming bowl of curry each.
To take a brief minute to indulge the senses, Cambodian curry is amazing. Ricky and I had no idea what Cambodian food was like before we got there – aside from a quick episode of Rick Stein’s Eastern Food Odyssey to inform us – and so were happily surprised.
Served as a sauce-heavy dish of more watery consistency than a traditional indian curry, the rice quickly soaks it up to make satisfying mouthfuls. The flavours then explode in your mouth with harmony yet distinction, such as popping several flavours of Skittles in your mouth at once (random simile, I know, but on this trip we ate a lot of Skittles and it’s the best comparison I can think of). There’s the salty/savoury of the meat, then the perfect tone of spicy that evens out just before the point of obliterating your taste buds, and finally the irresistible sweetness of the fresh coconut milk.
Along with this meal, we also each had a Sting – a strawberry energy drink that will forever haunt my deepest food fantasies, so sweet was its taste. I’ve only found this at one World Food Store in Korea since coming back, but it was a huge markup – $3 for a half-can. Worth it though.
Anyway when we exeunted from the food section fully fed and watered, we had dessert by drinking in the sights of bright clothing, dusty plastic covers over shoes, and tiptoeing carefully over the muddy puddles seeping from the flower quarter.
A little more nervous about theft in Cambodia, we were too chicken to take out our cameras much on the street, thus there are few pictures to show. And by that I mean there are no pictures to show. Except this one of a duck rotisserie.
We did later come back to the market when it was fully open and it was quite a sight to see then. Back when it opened in the 1930’s it was (claimed to be) the largest market in Southeast Asia. Walking into the splendour of the cathedral ceilinged space glimmering with glass caskets of gold, silver, and jade jewelry, one couldn’t help but feel as though one were trespassing upon the grandeur of decades gone.
Shopping here was actually almost more pleasant than in Ho Chi Minh because the vendors weren’t nearly so aggressive. We were left to our own devices and happily browsed to our heart’s content. That said, the prices were often a lot steeper than what we’d been led to believe.
For instance, a “silver” jewelry box set was selling for $40/complete set or $15/individual piece where we’d been told the norm was $1-5. Not sure if this is just our poor haggling skills or a miser’s eye, but it did mean that we did much more looking than buying. Better for our budgets anyway seeing as we’d crossed the halfway mark of our trip and were finding ourselves rather shorter of money than we’d’ve liked.
As our hour came to a close, we worked our way back through the labyrinthine aisles to find Mr. Kenny who was reclined and smoking a cigarette. He at once leaped to attention, all smiles, and drove us back to our hostel.
When we at last parted ways, we gave him a full $40 instead of our previously agreed-upon $33 since we were very grateful of his accepting to take us an extra place and wait all that time. Not to mention on the way to the Genocide Museum he’d driven past the monument of independence and waited for us as we took pictures.
He looked apoplectic with joy and we shook hands and said goodbye.
In all I’d say that if you have enough time in Phnom Penh, do both the Russian Market and the Central Market. Though we didn’t see the former at its full potential, the latter is, historically and architecturally speaking, a sight to see.
We didn’t have long to spend in Phnom Penh though; it was off to Otres Beach for our tropical portion of vacation. We arranged with our concierge to book our bus tickets to Sihanoukville and packed our bags for the next morning.
But that is a story for Wednesday.
Until next time!