Kampong Cham Market: Uncovering Authentic Cambodia

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Last Updated on June 11, 2012 by Christine Kaaloa


Marketplaces can be interesting places to explore. I’m talking of the markets, that locals go to for grocery shopping, commonplace items, food and the daily jaunt.  These kinds of marketplaces can have layers. It can hold secret clues to a culture’s sensibilities and household heart.

On the surface, you’ll be greeted by the local palette of fresh produce and meats. But wander through deeper and you may discover secret clues to a culture’s sensibilities, quirks, household heart and  local flavor.

What do you do when you have only two hours in a place?

Kampong Cham.  What can you sightsee in a ‘coin-toss’ town you don’t know much about?

With only two hours and no map to sightsee the town with, I had to be satisfied with seeing only a part of the town. I certainly didn’t feel confident enough to stray too far from the bus station. The giant Buddha, the Wat Pra Tohm Nah Day DohWat Nokor or  the riverbank as advertised in the guidebooks… I had to be content with seeing  from a photo I took as the bus entered town.

cambodia Entering Kampong Cham (above);

So I explored the streets a little. You might guess how it went…

Humdrum.  Uninspiring.

Kampong Cham is a surprisingly well-kept and maintained town. Despite some aging, French colonial styled buildings felt as old as the 1960’s and 70’s and the town was definitely finding slow-but-sure upgrades through contemporary billboard signage, a ‘Stop & Go’ type of gas station convenience mart, fresh coats of paint and sidewalk re-bricking maintenance.

If Kampong Cham had a unique charm, its Khmer quirks weren’t obvious. If I wanted a more authentic feel of the place, I’d need to explore it on a deeper level.

So I went to look for Kampong Cham Marketplace.

kampong cham

Town’s water fountain center with billboard for mobile phone credit  in the backkhmer  local cafe
cambodiansHanging out for a chess game  at a tire dealer shop  men retiling a sidewalk Men re-tiling the sidewalkkamphong cham          Old architecture (above); (below) some kind of doctor or healer store.
khmer shop

What do you prefer: authentic or tourist safe?

I’ll be honest, I can’t always appreciate ‘authentic culture‘, when I first spot it. Even when it’s something I’m consciously searching for.

The ‘traveler’ in me, seeks to explore and understand the culture and often hunts for peculiar local oddities. Meanwhile, my ‘touristy’ self prefers safe convenience– to shop at easy-to-find cheesy souvenir shops and to dine at nice food stalls and cafes with safe, recognizable foods I can eat. I’m always battling a constant tug o’war of my two faces.


The market took me a while to find…

The outer edge of it appeared as a street crammed with local houseware stores, dungeon-like food cafes and street food hawkers.  Things either, carried the look of ‘age’ or simple Khmer living… whatever that was! Furthermore, It was high noon and hot.

So my mind went into ‘whiny, whiny, whiny’ mode.

 …Why is it so hot? 

…How long do I have to walk in order to find the market?

Why do I always have to walk?

…I wish there was a nice touristy store somewhere….

kampong cham


But then, when I started to give the place a chance, discouragement gave way to traveler surprise. The quirks simple Khmer living began coming to life…

khmer food


Entering the marketplace

It dawned upon me later that what was welcoming me was market’s crusty and charmingly rough exterior.

It took me the next ten minutes and a circle around the block to find an entrance into its actual heart.

kampong cham market

Upon entry, it was your typical Southeast Asian local grocery store.

You’re immediately greeted by standard faire of produce sellers …along with meat dealers and chopped animal carcasses, attended by buzzing flies.   Shops were individually sectioned out and raised up on wooden stilts like perched living room floors.

But tucked deeper into the folds, came more interesting observation and distinct Khmer quirks.

kampong cham marketplace

kampong cham


How Khmer folk use a hammock

Southeast Asia isn’t without its share of creative hammock lifestyles. In Laos, I’ve seen hammocks strung up in tuk-tuks for drivers to kick back and lounge in. In Vietnam I was introduced to rest stations off of the highway roads, which were practically open-aired hammock hotels for tired drivers to take rest in. So far in Cambodia, I’ve only seen them tied up outside or underneath homes– the standard function for breezy outdoor naps.

But this was the first time I’d seen hammocks strung up in the shops, as owners reclined in wait of customers. Why not be comfortable while waiting out a hot day?


khmer hammocks

hammocks  hammock     
Khmer uses for a hammock


Mother and child with a produce section, eat lunch in their hammocks while taking a break from customers.   hammock hammocks in the meat and produce sections.hammock khmer


Going local and saving on astronomical costs

Marketplaces offer a colorful assortment of local services and products that your average tourist would not shop for and might in some cases, consider to be swap meet junk. Yet, these swap meet type markets are a town’s backbone and often the equivalent to a grocery store and multi-plex shopping mall in a bigger city like Phnom Penh.

khmer food seller

khmer food seller


Supermarkets in the Cambodia’s larger cities like Phnom Penh are far from cheap.  The ones I’ve visited seemed to place higher ticket prices on food, even produce! In some cases, the prices were higher than that in the U.S. and  I couldn’t imagine how a poor country like Cambodia could afford prices like that, even if it’s only the affluent population which buys it.

I suspect much of it has to do with the fact most of these foods are imported (here’s a link to the cost of living facts and  a sample of supermarket prices, albeit, they’re not as shocking as what I saw).

Anyways, the market had more sections to offer: 

A large section for clothing and home products,… aisles and aisles of cramped stores piled high with junk.


shopping clothes khmer

Khmer clothes shopping  IMG 7616

Herbal/witch doctor shop
Who-do voodoo. I guess Cambodia has it’s only superstitions and curing concoctions.

cambodian witch doctor medicine

     cambodian witch doctor medicinekhmer voodoo medicine             herbal remedies (above/below)voodoo    animal bonesvoodoo                        khmer voodoo medicine     voodoo


Beauty & Nail Salon areas (Read next post on Going local: Getting your glam on)
Shops and stations lined up in the back, all catering to hair styling and nails.

beauty salon

beauty salon

 Local markets may not always be the most exciting places to sightsee when you have only two hours in a town, but they do lend you a peek into the real Cambodia!

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14 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts about asian lifestyles.

  • There’s definately a great deal to find out about this topic. I like all of the points you made.

  • Kampong Cham is one of the most highly-populated provinces in Cambodia and most likely the province with the most fertile land as well. The soil is mostly red in colour.

    Read more here: http://www.tourismcambodia.org/provincial_guide/index.php?view=detail&prv=3

  • Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?
    There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Thank you

  • Elle from Solo Female Nomad
    June 17, 2012 7:19 am

    I completely agree that you can get a good idea of the country just by visiting the markets. There is something special and unique, however, about the South East Asian Markets!

  • I’ve got this thing whereby I notice similar smells in markets around the world.

    Philippines markets have a heavy Durian smell from the popularity of the fruit.

    European wet markets smell of herbs and sometimes cheese depending on them.

    Malaysian markets have the same meat smell of west African markets but not the same fish or chicken. Very unique.

    Now if only to find a good lowlight lens to capture everything!

    • @Dave: Good lowlight lens– yes. That and a wide one!
      Scent memory is a good intuit talent to have. I’m not sure about wet markets, but European markets definitely trigger the memory of cheese for me too. Malay markets… aren’t as distinct to me but it could be I closed my nose on account there was a lot of meat. =)

  • @christine yes we will cycle through Asia as well. I just remember my first french market in a Pakistani neighborhood of Paris. It was so much fun. My boyfried Roberto comes from Mexico and they thought he looked like a Pakistani himself so they tried to sell him a lot of stuff and we did not understand a word. But at least we knew all the ingrediences. In Mexico there are plenty of fruits offered that I have never seen before and here in Georgia we found the so-called Dry-Bridge-Market where they sell old soviet stuff, used trash cans, second hand belts, vases, spoons, army utensil, arts, a lot of things that travellers can unfortunately not carry. I am curious on getting to know the Tbilisi Green Markets as well!
    How long will you stay in SEA? It will probably take us quite a while to get there but maybe we will meet one day? Then you can explain me the cultural details on those markets 🙂

  • Great photos! And they’ve got the right idea with those hammocks.

  • Thank you for it… I love local markets!

    I especially enjoy taking pics of the meat on the table, while there are 40 Celsius degree and flies everywhere ; )

  • I just love markets! Have cycled through Europe and Eurasia (on the way to Central Asia now) and every time I see a market I want to stop! I want to smell the smell of fresh herbs and vegetables, grilled meat, too many people and spices. I want to watch the highly concentrated Dominoe / Backgammon / Okey / Card game players, I want to feel the energy of the seller advertising that HIS T-shirts are really the cheapest, I want to taste the fresh made food that I have no idea what it is made. I want to hear the shouting, the kids playing around, the animals and cooking.
    I really could spend hours on a market. You really took some great pictures there. Can’t wait go get to Cambodia myself.

    • @Annika: Lovely descriptions and wow, to have cycled everywhere! Also, your description just reminded me that French markets were my first love. They felt so characteristic of the lifestyle and at times, caricatures of what you think is “French”. Asian markets feel a little different because I know less about the culture and so I’m reaching more for understanding than I am just simply enjoying. Will you cycle through Asia?