Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Central Market

Central Market

We had an unexpected opportunity today to visit Central Market, one of the large mostly open-air shopping areas in Phnom Penh. Our sponsor was taking her daughter there to buy supplies for an upcoming birthday party, and she invited us to tag along. We gratefully accepted the offer and headed out for an afternoon—okay, a couple of hours—of playing tourist while maybe learning something useful about where to do some shopping.

Jewelry vendors under the dome
Central Market was not really what I expected. I think I had in mind something more like the Khan el Khalili in Cairo, which was very much geared toward tourists. There were areas of it where actual Egyptians shopped for useful or necessary items, but the areas nearest the major roads were filled with shops that catered to westerners, selling kitschy pyramids and perfume bottles and carved camels, as well as the ever-popular scarves and wooden inlay boxes. So for Central Market, I had visions of kitschy temple models and Buddhas and who knows what else, plus the obligatory scarves and t-shirts. I was way off, although there was a little of what I expected.

Fresh food
Central Market, known in Khmer as Psar Thmay (literally “New Market”), contains vendors that sell just about anything you can think of—the vast majority of it useful. I saw more clothing booths than I care to remember, selling children’s clothes, casual and dressy clothes for both men and women, and even underwear and bras (and yes, the obligatory scarves and t-shirts, too). There were shoe vendors, electronics vendors, lots of jewelry vendors. A whole row of stalls sold fresh flowers, and an entire section was dedicated to fresh foods, including fruits, spices, and fish still swimming around in small tanks. That isn’t to say that there weren’t stalls dedicated to less pragmatic goods: we also saw paintings, Buddha figures, purses, wall hangings, even one stall of wigs.

One of the main entrances
The market itself is housed in and around a bright yellow colonial-style building. The entire complex takes up a whole city block, from what I could tell. Stalls lined the sidewalks facing the streets, and more stalls were set up inside a warren of small paths that wove throughout the block. There seemed to be four main entrances to the building itself, one on each side of the block. A wide pathway, lined with stalls on both sides, led to each entrance. The center part of the building—a dome—was filled with jewelry vendors. Four arms branched out from the dome, extending toward the corners of the city block, and these sections contained all sorts of vendors, mostly clothing and electronics, at least in the two arms that we investigated.

Our purchases
We did not intend to make any purchases today; we went mostly to see the place and learn what was available, not to buy anything unless we happened upon something that we knew we needed. However, I re-learned a valuable lesson that apparently I forgot during my summer in the States: if you stop too long to look at something, you really are signaling an intention to buy. I stopped to look at some cute wall hangings that I thought may look nice in Alexa’s room or in the playroom once we get it set up. I paused too long, then compounded my error by calling Jeff over to look. The lady working the booth promptly unhooked the hangings from their peg and handed them to me—all twenty or more of them. It was catch them or let them all fall onto the pavement. I tried to tell her that we were just looking today, just getting ideas, but she either didn’t understand or, equally likely, chose not to understand. I made my third mistake by asking her how much they cost, so I would know when we came back. She started out at $5 each. I thanked her for the information and repeated that we were just looking today. Suddenly, for me, there was a “special price”—$4 each. And a bag containing another 20 or 25 wall hangings appeared out of thin air and was dumped on the table she’d just set up for that very purpose. As I continued to tell her that we were just looking today, the price dropped all the way to $2 each, and Jeff announced that we should go ahead and buy a couple. We bought five. As we left, Jeff said quietly to me, “That’s the most effective bargaining I never meant to do.” He was right. I do wonder, if we’d stuck with our original intentions just a little while longer, if the price would have dropped all the way to $1 each, or even to two for a dollar.
Flower vendors

After our purchase, we walked around a little longer, but we didn’t want to stay very long. Alexa was sleepy when we left the house and fell asleep mere moments after we arrived at the market. It was a pleasant day, temperature-wise, but having a sleeping baby pressed to your body makes it get real hot real quick. Jeff bore the brunt of that discomfort, as I had brought the camera along and, most of the time, was either snapping pictures or holding it tightly in my hand to make sure the pickpockets had no chance at it. We made a quick trip across the street to try to get a SIM card for my mobile phone—no luck, as they have to make a photocopy of my passport and visa, and my diplomatic passport (which contains the visa) is with the Cambodian government right now so they can process my diplomatic ID. After that unsuccessful foray into the mobile phone shop, we called our sponsor to see how she was doing on her shopping. She had just purchased a pair of sunglasses that wouldn’t be ready for her for another 30 minutes (maybe one day I’ll understand what the delay was all about), so we decided to just take a tuk-tuk home.

All in all, it was a successful trip. I’m not at all nervous about going there again on my own, although I’d prefer to have an idea of what things should cost so I won’t be going into my deliberate negotiations blind. We didn’t intend to, but we did end up picking up some nice decorative items that also should help deaden the echoes in our house—tile floors with relatively small area rugs, plus extremely high ceilings, with nothing on the walls yet means that this place is an echo chamber right now. And we got out and saw some more of the city, rather than staying cooped up inside as is our habit on Jeff’s days off. We even arrived back home before the rain started. Yes, I’d call it successful on all fronts.

Written Saturday, 15 October 2011

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