Phnom Penh is a treasure trove of curios, souvenirs, silks, arts and handicrafts, ranging from cheap knock-offs to sophisticated silverwork. With a rapidly growing variety and range of shops in addition to several large markets, every type of shopping experience can be found. Test your haggling skills at Phsar Thmei (Central Market) and Phsar Toul Thom Pong (Russian Market) or treat yourself to high quality contemporary Asian art and boutique fashions around Street 240. Whatever you are after, you can be sure to find it in Phnom Penh.
Traditional Cambodian souvenirs include gemstones, hand-crafted silver and lacquerware, hand-woven silks and the iconic Krama – the chequered scarf that defines the Khmer. Buddhist and Angkorian-theme carvings are plentiful, although be careful to only buy modern versions as any true remaining historical relics are forbidden from being exported and also rob Cambodia of its proud history.
The Phnom Penh market encounter is a unique shopping experience which is full of entertainment and excitement. Savvy bargainers revel in the atmosphere, but newcomers can easily be taken advantage of if they are unfamiliar with prices and processes. Cheeky Khmers will be happy to rip you off, known locally as ‘having you head shaved’. Never pay the first price offered – it’s merely starting point for a game of haggle which is almost compulsory and rarely serious. Vendors will usually hand you a calculator for you to enter a price, which will be cried over with mock tears and handed back for with next round of offers.
Ultimately, it is up to you to pay what you think is fair and never be afraid to walk away; you may often be called back. Buy from a seller you like, and remember to keep things in perspective – one or two dollars is hardly worth fighting for and can feed a family for a day. Markets are great for cheap t-shirts, watches, sunglasses and general clothing, although the quality is inversely proportionate to the price.
For more upmarket shopping, head to ‘Art Street’ (Street 178, next to the National Museum) and Street 240 behind the Royal Palace. The former houses dozens of fine art galleries that all offer shipping services while the latter is Phnom Penh’s boutique shopping district, featuring custom tailored Khmer silk fashions and sumptuous home decor.
What to buy
Cambodia, notably in the mining-rich area fertile west of the country, is a land rich in gemstones. Sparkling rubies and sapphires can be found for bargain prices at listed jewellers across the city, and a range of gems have also begun to appear on stalls at the markets. A notorious market for scams and overpricing, serious shoppers should research their products and dealers thoroughly before buying. Sitdown Jeweller (Sisowath Quay) is the oldest and most respected.
One of the most popular Cambodian souvenirs is the silver areca (betel) nut container, which can be found in the shapes of standard bowls, fruit, vegetables and even animals. These ceremonial containers are a staple of everyday life for most Khmers and make excellent, lightweight, gifts. Traditionally they hold areca nut, which is chewed on as a mild stimulant mainly by rural folk, whose red-stained teeth are a dead giveaway. Khmer Royal Souvenir and Le Rits Boutique are highly praised.
Cambodian silk is world-famous and highly prized among global collectors. Threads are dyed and hand-loomed into stunning patterns using the traditional ikat method, which produces both fine and raw silks that are usually made into clothing, sarongs, fashion accessories and hand-crafted table-wear. The riverfront area features a number of quality stores but silk can be found all over the city, cheapest at the Russian Market. The Caring for Young Khmer NGO retail outlet, Rajana and Daughters of Cambodia all sell beautiful silk ware while supporting excellent causes.
Carvings and Statues
Wood, brass and stone carvings depicting Hindu gods and Buddhas are a staple of any Asian shopping experience. Replicas of Angkor icons, notably the popular Jayavarman VII bust, are elegant and graceful art works which best represent Cambodian artistry. Such pieces are heavy and best shipped home. Despite claims to the contrary, real antiques have long gone and only replicas are for sale. Lotus Pond and Rehab Craft Cambodia offer fine works.
Street 178 or ‘Art Street’ is the epicentre of Cambodia’s thriving art scene, as a generation of young talent finally develops. Here can be found both contemporary and traditional Southeast Asian pieces, notably at Meta House, Java Cafe & Gallery and the award-winning Reyum Gallery which all host regular exhibitions in addition to quality retail services.
Where to Buy
Central Market (Psah Thmei)
The iconic yellow-domed Central Market, (Phsar Thmei) is worth exploring if only for the architecture, although as a shopping destination it has long been an institution for locals and visitors. A huge range of souvenir t-shirts line the central walkway, while inside the different areas house everything from handicrafts to silver ware, silks and kramas, watches and jewellery. Money-changers and ever-present motos are scattered around the fringes.
Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung)
Phnom Penh’s biggest collection of souvenirs, army surplus curios, trinkets and even gem sellers are all found at the Russian Market to the west of the CBD. The southern features carvings, handicrafts and electronic goods. The eastern portion features every bootlegged CD, DVD and VCD available. An excellent place to buy fabrics to take to your tailor, the Russian Market is surrounded by a mind-blowing array of food stalls where anything that moves can be eaten.
Phnom Penh’s growing expatriate community and well-heeled locals gravitate to Street 240, where wine bars, chocolate shops and designer clothing stores compliment fine dining establishments and western bookshops. Almost all shops on this street accept all major credit cards and ship worldwide.