Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cambodia Trip '08 – Day 03: Shopping at the Russian & Central Markets, Phnom Penh

After the sobering experience at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, we moved on that morning to the nearby Russian Market to do our bit in contributing to the local economy. It was a bit hard trying to figure out the direction of where we were heading as after awhile, the roads in Phnom Penh looked undistinguishable from one another. It was a heady mix of old, new and in stages of being constructed buildings that with the lack of a striking landmark to orientate oneself to, it was a challenge to figure out where we were. I guess that if I were travelling on myself in this city, taking a tuk tuk around town would definitely be a good option once you have agreed on the fare before hand with the driver.

(L: External of Russian Market, R: Statues for sale at the market)

(Interior scenes of Russian Market)

After a fairly short drive, we arrive at the Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung) which didn’t really look all that different from the local markets at home. Having picked up a free city guide in the hotel earlier in the morning, I knew that the market was divided into section according to the type of item sold. My souvenir shopping list included some T-Shirts and dress material so I looked them up and found out which section of the market I should be going to. My travel guide book also recommended to do most of the souvenir shopping in Phnom Penh here as according to the book the prices for the same items here were lower compared to the more touristy Central Market. With that fact in mind, I proceeded into the bowels of the market with my travelling companion in tow.

The Russian Market was a covered market and thanks to the height of the stalls, the interior did not get as stuffy as I expected of a covered market. The interior was fairly well illuminated which allowed visitors to see the mind numbing variety of items for sale here. The whole area actually reminded me of the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu in terms of layout and organization but at much a larger scale. From knick knacks to clothing to household items and more, everything was available for sale at an agreeable price. It was quite challenging trying not to get lost or distracted within the market but we some perseverance, we managed to sort ourselves within it after the initial sensory bombardment.

After walking around for a bit, we chanced on a group of ladies from our group who were looking at Cambodian dress material for sale. Knowing that we would be able to get a better price if we combined our shopping list and buy in bulk instead of individually. Having decided that, we told the shopkeeper the number of items that we wanted to buy and asked for her best price for each item. We then haggled for better pricing based on the price quoted to us. Once an agreeable price had been reached then we proceeded to make our selection of her items. It was during selecting what we wanted to buy that the ladies decided to press the price further to the point that they actually walked away without buying anything when the shop keeper could not meet their demands. Sufficed to say that the exercise in haggling turned sour very quickly.

I am a firm believer that haggling is an art to be practiced when one goes out to shop when travelling. There is no need to winners or losers while haggling since by definition it is a process to come to a mutually agreeable price for a service or item. The buyer should have an informed idea what the item to be purchase is worth to them and see if the asking price from the seller can be brought down to that level. Once you have agreed on a price then there should be no more need to haggle it lower especially when it’s done with threats of abandoning the deal altogether if the seller was not willing to lower their prices even lower. If the lower price was the goal, it should have been the haggling target in the first place.

The incident left a bitter taste in my mouth especially when it does add up to the image of the exploitative tourist. Having experience the same thing in Indonesia the last time I was there, I had a fairly good idea how much these people depend on the small margin that they make selling these items to support their own livelihoods. What we as tourist haggle away from the asking prices, represent the shrinking net income they have to bring back at the end of the day. I could not simply walk away from the agreed price even when the rest did so I told the lady that I would take the number of Cambodian dress material that I originally wanted for the price that we already agreed on. I also decided as well to go haggling on my own even knowing that I might not get a better price since I was not buying as much individually as compared to buying in a group.

(Our drinks at the Market. Just look at the height of the condensed milk already in the iced tea when they served it)

After buying a few more items on my shopping list, my travelling companion and I decided that we had enough of shopping and decided to head out to the pre agreed gathering point. Seeing that no one else was there, we decided to stop at a nearby small café for iced drinks considering it was a blazingly hot that day. We each had iced tea with milk and ice lemon tea, both of which came in a frighteningly vivid orange color, all the while forgetting that Cambodia was known better for her coffees. Despite making the wrong choice, we enjoyed our drinks under the shade until it was time for us to move on to the next destination on our shopping excursion that morning.

(Snake whisky, anyone?)

From the Russian Market, we were taken to a more upmarket souvenir shop which specialized in genuine Cambodian gems and jewelry. Since the two were not very high in my shopping list, I spent the time enjoying the cool air conditioning and free welcoming tea drink while browsing the other items in the shop. Other than the jewelry, the shop carried many other handicraft items that were clearly of a higher quality than the ones that I saw earlier at the Russian market. Commensurate with the higher quality, the prices were also higher than they were at the market but we were still able to haggle a bit for a better price. I ended up buying two nicely made wooden name card holders as I did not see them before at the market.

(External scenes of the Central Market, Phnom Penh)

Our last destination was the Central Market (Psar Thmei) which was located just a few blocks from the hotel where we were staying. This market was definitely one of the most distinctive market buildings I have ever seen thanks to it’s Art Deco inspired architectural style and high rounded dome roof. Like the Russian Market, this market was also divided into sections according to the type of item being sold. Thanks to the layout of the market, each section take up one of the 4 spokes that came out from the central dome. The same organization was even followed by the shops that were using the open areas of the market as their trading places.

(Desserts and sweetmeats at Central Market)

(Interior scenes at the Central Market)

Walking into the Central Market, one could not feel being in awe of the architecture and the sense of history of this building. Beautifully maintained and blessfully air-conditioned, I immediately noted this market as my most favorite market that I have been in ever. It was not as cramped as the Russian Market but I have to say that the selections were not as varied. By this time I had already bought all that I wanted so I was more content to walk around to enjoy the ambiance and pickup the last of the items on my list. After walking the insides of the market, we decided to walk outside looking for cheap bunches of key chains (didn’t find any that were in the price range) and ended up at the very colorful fresh flowers section of the market.

(Flowers for sale at the Central Market Fresh Flower Section)

After taking a few pictures of the flowers for sale, it was time for us to walk back to were our minivan was parked. To do that we realized that we had to cross a very wide and busy road since it was parked on the other side. Up to that point, we had never had to cross any roads before and this seemingly unruly and chaotic flow of traffic in front of the Central Market was our first trial. It turns out that it was not as difficult as we thought once we figured out how the locals cross it. We just needed to judge our timing correctly against the flow of traffic and make sure that the incoming traffic can see you clearly as you cross the street. They would know give way to you if you don’t make sudden changes like sprinting across the street while crossing.

Safely on the other side, we went on to wait for the rest before the minivan proceeded to a nearby Malaysian own restaurant where we went for lunch. The food was similar to the one that we had the day before and the owner was on the premises to welcome our group. After the filling lunch, we retire to our hotel to rest up for a bit before our afternoon program.

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