Group of people sitting on blue plastic stools in a market
Cambodia,  Street photography,  Travel galleries

Gallery: Psar Thmei, Phnom Penh’s Central Market

There’s little I enjoy more when travelling than a visit to a local market. Large or small there is always plenty to see, and therefore to photograph. And you can gain great insights into the way of life in the country. What do local people eat? How do they dress? How indeed do they shop?

Phnom Penh’s Central Market, properly known as Psar Thmei (the ‘new market’), delivered on all counts. It was built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style as part of French plans to expand and modernise the city. Today it sits in the middle of a busy intersection in the heart of the city, so even crossing the road to get to it is an adventure.

You mustn’t try to wait for a break in the traffic or you will still be standing there at bedtime! Instead take a deep breath and step out slowly into the steady stream of vehicles. Don’t try to hurry; take your time so drivers can easily see you, and they will part around you. Or so we were told, and it seemed to have worked as we were still in one piece when we reached the far side of the road!

At the heart of the building is a huge central dome, 26 metres high, which is claimed by some sources to be one of the ten largest domes in the world. This central area is full of glitzy jewellery stands selling gold and silver as well as ornaments made from semi-precious stones alongside cheaper items.

From this central dome four wings extend, and beyond them the building is surrounded by a maze of stalls under green awnings, which lend an unusual colour cast to the goods on display. These are a mixture of those aimed at local shoppers (food stalls, cheap clothing, electrical goods, toys, hairdressers etc.) and at tourists (crafts, souvenirs, and clothing more aimed at their tastes).

Some of the photos in the gallery below I took with permission; for others I was ‘shooting from the hip’.

Busy street and angular domed building

Crossing the road to the Central Market in Phnom Penh

Stalls either side of a shaded passage

One of the entrances to the market

Domed ceiling above market stalls in a blue light
Domed ceiling with small windows and a blue clock tower

Jewellery stalls and clock under the central dome

Food sellers near one of the entrances

Table with piles of fried insects

Local delicacies: fried crickets and cocoons

Stall with dresses and seated woman seller

Fashion stall

Head and bust mannequin with wig and orange blouse
Mannequin of a boy dressed in formal suit

Fashion stall mannequins

Three men sitting on stools mending shoes

The shoe repair stall

Seated man with sandal and tools

Repairing sandals

Two small children crouched on a mat

A stallholder’s children

Three women standing by a kiosk

Time for a chat

Woman in a wooden seat holding a plastic bag

When shopping is done

I visited Phnom Penh in February 2020, just before the pandemic put a stop to travel for a while

34 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m with you on this one Sarah – I do like a market … even the small local market here in our own town! Sometimes, I will buy a coffee and croissant and find a place to sit down – great for people watching! Now, coming back to your post … By just crossing that road, I would have been exhausted and it will be a definite NO to the crickets and their friends.
    Love your pictures, it really captures the vibe of the market!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much, I’m glad you enjoyed your virtual market visit – and no need for you to cross the road 😆 Actually it wasn’t as bad as it looks. The secret is not to stop when you see vehicles approaching as they will be steering around and behind you and if you stop you could be just where they were planning to go to avoid the moving you!!

  • restlessjo

    Although I love looking at your photographs, Sarah, I’m never at home or comfortable in a market, but I do completely agree with Margaret that shrink-wrapped goods benefit nobody.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for the nice words about the photos Jo 🙂 I’m surprised you don’t feel comfortable in a market – do you mean ANY market or just ones as ‘alien’ as this? Don’t you have good markets in Portugal? I’m sure I’ve seen them, and the produce is so good there they must be great places to shop, without a shrink-wrap in sight!

  • Rose

    I love the exhilaration of observing new people and cultures, but I tend to get a bit overwhelmed in busy markets – too many people and too many things. It’s probably because I haven’t traveled enough to really be able to center myself, and maneuver in these settings.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 😊 Visiting a market in a foreign country is so different from regular grocery shopping at home! I come not to buy but to soak up the atmosphere and take photos – lots of photos!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We weren’t tempted to try these but we did sample them at a stall recommended as safe by our guide – an interesting experience but not one I’d want to repeat too often!

  • margaret21

    This reminds me so much of markets in South Korea. I do hope the market tradition continues for many years. In SK, the children of market traders and food stalls and restaurants were being educated to rise beyond what their parents do, and who can blame them? But it’ll be sad to see this vibrant part of city life disappear.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I think that’s a trend everywhere. It’s hard to criticise parents who want a better life for their children but it’s also hard to see traditions watered down or disappear. But i’ve sometimes felt there’s a temptation for us as tourists to want people to cling on to traditions for our benefit, almost as spectators, rather than see them have access to the modern life improvements that we ourselves enjoy.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          An equally fair point! I would always support the continuation of a thriving market, whether at home or abroad. My remark was a more general one. I think we all, me included, risk romanticising the relatively simple lives of other people. We’re inclined to resent, to some extent at least, what we see as global homogenisation but which to them is an opportunity to make their tough lives easier.

          • margaret21

            Yes, it’s a hard one. Nobody should be denied literacy or a good education, but if all it leads to is, say, life in a call centre, life may not be much better.

  • CliffClaven

    It looks different now. I was in Phnom Penh nearly 30 years ago, just a few months after the UNTAC mission to restore democracy and supervise elections in Cambodia. There was no street lighting in Phnom Penh and getting around involved hopping on the back of a motorbike at a dollar a ride. The Central Market was guarded by young men who looked barely old enough for the Kalashnikovs they cradled. The Tuol Sleng prison was the most harrowing site I have visited.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Oh yes, like you we always get drawn into markets, and as you say they are a great indicator of local life. This looks a fabulous one too. We should have been in Phnom Penh in April ‘20…and we’re starting to hope we will finally get there maybe next year. Will definitely had to this market if/when we do.

  • maristravels

    We used to think that all towns and cities were beginning to look alike what with chain stores, hotel groups etc., but what is more ubiquitous than even those is the use of the mobile phone, well illustrated in your photograph. We are all equal now in our use of this intrusive piece of technology. Great market scenes.

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