There is a mosaic of crushed river clams on the sidewalks and streets of Phnom Penh. Hatted peddlers traverse the city pushing blue carts spread with clams tossed in chili, garlic, salt, sugar and sometimes lemongrass.
There is a congregation of clam sellers that park their cart on a side street in the slum where I live. In the morning the sellers can be found sprinkling spices on a line of trays. In the evenings the trays are parked again on the street. A collection of half-dressed children chew and suck on leftover bivalves.
During the day the clam sellers push their carts along the streets. The sidewalks are too uneven, with upended tiles.
Instead sidewalks are used for impromptu food stands with stubby tables and foot-high plastic stools. Sidewalks are for hammocks slung between trees. And sidewalks are for barbershops – long lines of barbershops: a chair, a mirror propped against a wall, a table holding scissors and razors, an awning against the sun. Halos of black hair clippings accumulate on the sidewalk tiles.
But the real business of the city happens in the markets.
The markets of Phnom Penh are crowded, low-slung affairs with dim lighting and narrow alleys between the sellers. There is Russian Market, named for a time when Russians dominated the foreign demographic. The market now hosts few Russians, but many tourists and trinkets to entice them. There is the French-colonial Central Market, painted egg-yolk yellow with a grand central hall filled with jewelry sellers and extending branches of clothes shops, pillow stands, cooking equipment, cleaning supplies and curled and pinned wigs of fake, styled hair.
Hole-in-the wall hair stands are everywhere in the markets of Phnom Penh. Lines and lines of women being shampooed, only an aisle or two away from mattress shops, soup stands, or meat stalls with intestines strung up like tinsel.
I have woken early to accompany my roommate on the dorm’s daily shopping expedition at our local market. Bong Trabiek market used to be a lake, now it is a maze of half-erected food stalls with narrow aisles of broken tiles and mud.
Slabs of meat and collections of hanging pig hooves. Troughs of flopping silver fish. The most exuberant ones successfully fling themselves out into the muddy walkway where they writhe until the seller notices and throws them back in the trough. The process repeats.
We amass onions, eggs, peppers, chilies, two chickens. I lean back to avoid a man carrying an entire pig carcass, its body cleaved in two with one bloody half draped over each of the man’s shoulders.
Where in other countries I might venture into the markets for the delicious aromas and enticing platters of food, I have found that the food here is not what draws me to the markets.
Guidebooks proclaim that Cambodian cuisine is subtly elegant – and it is if you can pay for the subtlety. The food lacks the spicy kick of Thailand or the platters of fresh spring rolls and greens common in Vietnamese cooking. There is slow steamed fish in coconut – Amok, and sautéed beef – Lok Lak. But food prices have continued to increase at a rate faster then the rate of income. Khmer meals, for those without wealth, center around heaping bowls of rice and a small piece of protein – perhaps a fingerling of dried fish or a couple cubes of meat. Perhaps this is yet another residue of years of civil war and genocide, perhaps it is a sign of an imbalanced economy.
I head to markets for different reasons. My favorite market is a hot twenty-minute walk up Monivong road. BKK market – a microcosm of a market on a manageable scale.
But if one wants to take on the market of all markets, one must head to Orssay.
Orssay is three floors tall, possible four – it is hard to tell with all the stairways and warrens of stalls. One walks through vast blocks of sections at Orssay. You are surrounded by only moto parts, then only by raw meat, then plastic bags of rice, then glittering red and gold Chinese New Year decorations, then drapes of silk, then hanging garlands of dried fish, silvery fish, chalky white salted fish.
Stands are small and square and sellers string hammocks up and sleep suspended among their goods.
Orssay is a market for getting lost in. It is for pointing at and trying multi-colored jellies bathed in watered down coconut milk. It is for navigating between muddy puddles between buckets of squirming fish and bubbling lobsters.