Market life in Phnom Penh

This morning, in preparation for Khmer New Year celebrations (when it is apparently tradition to throw water and talcum powder over your fellow countrymen or alternatively, over unsuspecting tourists who are brave enough to venture out into the streets), we waterproofed our valuables and cameras in some freezer bags Kotoe had brought over from Japan. Kotoe also wore her bikini, due to the fact that it’s very quick drying, should we come under attack from any Khmer-induced terrential downpours!

We left our guesthouse and managed to walk to the end of the lakeside without the remotest sign of any water attacks, and then we walked down Monivong Boulevard and across to Wat Phnom and witnessed nothing out of the ordinary. Finally we entered Wat Phnom (where the majority of the New Year celebrations in Phnom Penh are supposed to take place) and the only water being thrown around was on to the resident elephants, to cool them down as they transported passengers around the base of the temple.

Disappointed that we’d avoided a water fight (not only would it have been a lot of fun but it also would have been a great way to keep cool in the stifling April heat), we took a seat at RS Bar on the riverfront and watched a pair of child book vendors develop large smiles on their faces as they sold three of their $4 books to a couple of young British tourists on the adjacent table. We must have spent well over an hour quenching our thirst and observing life along the riverfront, before making a trip to the local market.

We bought papaya and mango and enjoyed an iced coffee and some sweet potato with the locals, and then continued on through the market, keeping our eyes open for some good photo opportunities. The atmosphere was that of urgency, anticipation and good spirits, of people preparing for a forthcoming event of great importance. Maybe celebrations began later on in the day?

As we walked through the market, the floor was a carpet of fruit and vegetable scraps, of polystyrene egg cartons, and of feathers and rice. There was a lady making fruit shakes, slicing papaya whilst chatting to passers-by and being over enthusiastic with the sweet milk and crushed ice. A young girl was peeling cooked sweet potato, revealing the soft mustard colour flesh beneath the sharp knife edge. A scruffy looking boy was balancing a bamboo tray containing lotus flowers upon his head, weaving his way cleverly through the crowds. A man on a motorbike was attempting to drive through the market, chickens hanging from either side of his vehicle, appearing limp and lifeless save for the eyes which blinked at me as I passed, as if to say, “ha ha! You thought I was dead!”. There was an old toothless woman with an interesting face selling green mangos and bananas, a couple of giggly girls selling shiny brown pebbles (which was noticeably out of place amidst all the food), the biggest shrimps I’ve ever seen, and catfish, still writhing around in a centimetre of water on the bottom of an old washing up bowl.

We decided to buy our dinner at the market : a barbequed catfish and a beansprout and chilli accompaniment, a similar eggplant dish to the one I ate at La Dolce Vita last night, and the vital ingredient – a large bag of sticky rice (total cost 3500RIEL – approximately $0.85). We proceeded to tuck into our purchases back at the guesthouse, together with a mango shake, which one of the staff had made for us with one of the mangos we’d picked up at the market earlier on today.
Back at the guesthouse, we also asked the staff about the New Year celebrations – or distinct lack of them. We were subsequently informed that, contrary to our previous beliefs, Khmer New Year celebrations actually begin tomorrow, on the morning of the full moon, and that Wat Phnom will definitely be a more ‘interesting’ experience if we return tomorrow. Indeed we will . . . .
Photo is of an elephant cooling down at Wat phnom, Phnom Penh.

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