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 Doh, Wat 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.
Entering Kampong Cham (above);
So I explored the streets a little. You might guess how it went…
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.
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….
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Herbal/witch doctor shop
Who-do voodoo. I guess Cambodia has it’s only superstitions and curing concoctions.
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.
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!