Shopping for what you need on a day to day basis is the norm here in Cambodia. And the place to head to engage in this daily activity has to be the local market.
When I lived in Phnom Penh my local market terrified me. It was a small, dark place, with low ceilings and narrow walkways which seemed to close in on you the deeper in to the maze you went. And as the market closed in around me so the air supply lessened becoming hotter and more stagnant by the second. My first ever visit to said market ended with me turning abruptly to my friend Totie and ordering her to “Get me out of Here!” in a manner that left her in no doubt of my seriousness in this respect
Needless to say, I didn’t go there much after that! But then again I didn’t really need to as Phnom Penh is home to a number of really great organic greengrocers (there were at least 4 within a ten minute walk of my home) whose prices are not that different to those you pay in the market and worth the premium in my mind just to avoid that claustrophobic hell.
Outside of the capital, most towns and cities here have a main (or central) market and Kampot is no exception. My first visit was on a weekend jaunt to Kampot with my friends Phirum & Dina when we stopped at the market on route to a waterfall based picnic to collect provisions. My first impressions weren’t favourable. A narrow, dark alleyway drew us inward into the chaotic labyrinth that lay within. The ceilings were low, the floor muddy, wet and uneven, the heat was oppressive, the air stagnant and the smell vaguely repugnant. But on we went, Phirum on a mission to find the exact delicious snacks needed to make the picnic perfect.
And boy was I glad she was on that mission, because it led me to the discovery of an aspect of food heaven I never dreamed I’d encounter here in Cambodia – pickled onions – and taught me that, whatever my fears surrounding the layout and environment of the market it was a place I wanted to explore more.
The market is split into sections with specific areas for fabric, clothing, tailoring, gold, household goods, shoes, pickled stuff, meat, fish, veg & fruit (sure there are more but you get the picture) meaning that wherever you enter the market you are faced with stall after stall selling exactly the same stuff at exactly the same price – and in true Cambodian style, not bothering their boots one bit if you choose their stall or the one next to them to make your purchase.
There are many entrances into the market on all of the four sides, but I always enter at one of two points, when I’m on my bike it’s the entrance near the official bike park, when I walk from home it’s the nearest corner. However, no matter how hard I try (though to be honest with you I’ve long since given up trying) I have never managed to find the same point to exit from. The market is so disorientating to me that standing in the middle of it (or where I imagine the middle to be which is the gold (bling bling) section) I have absolutely no concept of which is north, south, east or west and which way to head to get whatever it is I need. And so instead I wander aimlessly along, sometimes intuitively deciding when to turn right or left, other decisions being made on the basis of my positive or negative feeling towards a walkway, smell or sight.
I find myself wandering through stalls laden with bolt after bolt of fabric before abruptly happening upon fish flailing about in metal bowls on the floor. My nose tells me when I’m reaching the pickle section and the sight of copious tubs of pink pickled shrimp interspersed with lumps of fish paste and bowls of juicy pickled spring onions confirms my olfactory skills to be on point. The sound of grinding indicates that the coconut stall is not far away, sewing machines whirring a hint that tailors are nearby, giggling chitter chatter a sure sign that I’ve found the beauty parlours. Pigs heads gaze forlornly at me as I stroll past stall upon stall of red, bloody meat, bright yellow chickens plucked to within an inch of their lives, offal slung lazily over hooks and into buckets and once more I’m blinded by a vision of bling as I turn back to centre to the gold quarter where the jewellers work and the money changers squat waiting for the next customer to come along.
Everywhere people are bustling along, unlike me, knowing for certain where they’re headed, some sporting lists carefully written in notebooks purchased specifically for that purpose, others laden with bags and baskets stuffed with purchases already made, many heading to one of the many eateries dotted about the market to indulge in a communal breakfast of ban chaa (pork & veggie stuffed pancakes), kway teow (noodle soup), or a regular breakfast favourite here – pork and rice, whilst slurping on bitter, rich coffee laced with copious amounts of sugar and sweet milk.
Transactions take patience, long conversations ensue as buyer and seller negotiate, discussing the intricacies of the product and god knows what else besides, all the time either unaware or uncaring of what’s going on around them. Talking to the butcher with a cow’s intestines hanging in front of your face – no problem! Blocking a two foot wide walkway whilst you examine the peppercorns like for forever – ah well! Weighing in your gold whilst the woman to your right guts fish and the one to your left picks her nose – #whatever!
I occasionally stop to buy stuff, fruit and veg, household goods, pickles and peppers, bread and coffee. There’s no structure to my purchasing, I don’t have my preferred sellers – to be honest I can’t because I’d never find them – instead I choose the one who has the nicest smile or friendliest hello on the day, finding myself turned off by those who refuse to speak Khmer to me even when I try my best and tell them I do understand (although I often don’t help myself by immediately failing to understand what comes out their mouths immediately after I assert my ability otherwise).
And at some undefined point in my adventure, I’ll decide it’s time to head home. Unlike in Phnom Penh it’s never the result of a mild panic attack, fear and loathing or suchlike but could be fuelled by an inability to cope with my sweatiness any longer, the impending loss of circulation courtesy of knotted plastic bags hanging from my various fingers, a need for the loo or any of a million other reasons the reaction is always the same. I glance around to see where I can see light and that’s where I head weaving my way out into the glaring sunlight and, once my eyes have readjusted, working out where the bloody hell I am and heading home.
Photos from my latest visit to the market: