The Olympic market in Phnom Penh, how it reflects on SE Asia’s economy, a lost Cambodian reunited, Halloween, and poker

I apologize for what was yet another brief intermission – the government’s web filters in Vietnam (which block me from writing) are strong in places and weak in others.  I had access in Mui Ne and Nha Trang but no access in Quang Ngai and Hoi An, which is why you haven’t hear from me in about six days. We arrived in Hue tonight and I’m back on board.  If you haven’t already guessed these blog entries are roughly 8-10 days behind where I actually am in the trip.

Last I wrote, we had just finished a nice stay in Kampot – let me catch you up. This post is a bit wordy so if you want to read it give yourself at least 10 minutes.

After our nice break in relaxed Kampot we went back to a much faster-paced Phnom Penh.

Despite the city’s assurances I did consider not consider it to be charming it all.  It is not dangerous but it is rough and lacks the Cambodian hospitality that we came to know so well in Siem Reap (e.g., Hon, our tuk-tuk driver) and Kampot.  But it does have the “dogs can be anywhere” allowance, particularly in bars, which Ben loves.

Cambodia’s capital has several large markets, the largest and most well-known of which is the Russian Market.  It is called the Russian Market because Russians started coming to it back in the 1960s to buy nice items at a discount price.  Nowadays it is the most touristy of all Phnom Penh’s markets.  Consequently, the prices have become inflated and haggling difficult.

So instead of the Russian Market, our first day back we went to the local “Olympic” market instead.  It is truly a local market – we were basically the only non-Cambodians there.  The Olympic market is housed in a massive building that looks quite plain from the outside.

The inside of the building was a bustling metropolis –  stall after stall selling nearly identical goods.  And there were thousands of them.  This is possible because each stall is very small and crammed in between two other stalls selling the exact same stuff.  The stalls in this building were packed like sardines in every direction, more so than anywhere I’ve seen in SE Asia.

The building is roughly organized into “sections”.  If you want shirts or dresses, go to the northwest corner of the second floor where there are roughly 500 clothing stalls.

Need some bling? Jewelry can be found on the Third floor on the south side.  Lotions? Second floor bordering the central atrium.

Each stall is manned by one or two people who sit there for 12 hours a day, though I’m really hoping different people split it into shifts because there is very little moving air in the building and it is hot.  Stall neighbors know each other well – they chat together to pass the time and most sellers bring in their own lunch, including their own pots and pans to make soup and noodles while they watch their stall.

Because the Olympic market is a local market there is not as much aggressive pushing as you encounter on the streets or in other markets.  The vendors sit idly and if you want something you let them know.  Haggling seemed more difficult at this market than other markets I’ve been to.  Maybe it was because the market was local but these vendors seemed to stick to their first offer – even the walkaway technique did not work once.

The cluster of hundreds of vendors selling the exact same wares is a bizarre spectacle and a microcosm of what you see all over SE Asia but particularly in Cambodia, which I will use as an example.  Let me start from the beginning and expand.  Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and the government has not spent much money on rebuilding its infrastructure.  There is very little venture capital, no incentive to innovate (such as the patent system in the U.S.), and simply no money to start down that path yet.  For different reasons, the same can be said about most SE Asian countries.

The infrastructure cannot yet support the wide diversification of goods and services that we know and enjoy in the U.S.  Without incentive or money to innovate and take risks, the safest rule to survive is “do what you know has worked before”.  Thus, if one idea or business venture has success, 100 copycats will immediately spring up.  This explains why you see the markets like the Olympic Market with hundreds of vendors selling the exact same thing, why you see sixty restaurants on three consecutive blocks with identical menus, and why you see travel agencies set up every five feet offering the same exact tours. The ultimate winner, of course, is the consumer.  With so many vendors selling the same good or service prices are driven to an absurdly low level – this is the least expensive place I’ve ever traveled.

But its not just businesses that are in the habit of playing copycat– every families’ apartment or sheet-metal-roof hut in Cambodia (and SE Asia) doubles as a general store, travel agency, restaurant, and guest house.  You can walk up and arrange a bus ticket or get a meal from a woman on her front step while four feet away, you see mom’s kids sitting on the rug eating rice for dinner.   And you see it all over.  These families have no furniture and no silverware – they just sit on the rug and share a meal together, four feet from their store/home front.   In spite of all of what many in the U.S. would consider a very poor standard of living, these people are generally and genuinely happy. They have food to eat, a roof over their head, and each other.  You can see it in their smile, and they’re probably happier than many of those same people in the U.S. that would consider this to be a poor way of living.

But don’t count Cambodia out when it comes to its economic place in the world.  It is on the up and up and investors around the world are licking their chops.  I’ve already mentioned several expats that have come to start businesses but its not just individuals that see the opportunity in Cambodia.  China has given over one billion dollars to Cambodia in loans, ostensibly with no strings attached.  But guess who will want the first place in line when Cambodia’s government opens the country up to more outside investors as Cambodia’s infrastructure goes stronger?  But I digress.

Exploring Olympic market proved to be hot and exhausting so afterwards we went right outside the market to find some food to eat.  Ben’s main problem with eating over here is that he has no idea what any of the street food is and is too afraid to take a risk on the unknown.  He misses his McDonalds.  This problem is exacerbated when you are in an area that speaks no English such as the Olympic market.  That is why Ben and I, while pausing next to one of the food carts outside of Olympic market, were surprised to hear a Cambodian woman approach us and say “does anything look good to you?”  I introduced myself and told her how shocked I was to hear English spoken here and she laughed.  She told me her name was Roseand was from the east coast.  I was surprised to hear she was from the east coast and had an English name because the woman was clearly Cambodian, so I asked her why this was.

At the age of nine she had been separated from her family during a particularly violent and chaotic incident of the Khmer Rouge.  For her safety she was taken by the U.S. army back to the United States where she was adopted and given her English name, Rose.  Back in Cambodia, her Cambodian mother, father, and three sisters had looked for her for weeks before finally giving up hope and presuming her dead.  Similarly, Rose presumed her family to be dead.

For the next thirty years, Rose was raised by her adopted family and lived her new life in the United States.  Fast forward to three years ago when a stronger semblance of stability began to manifest in Cambodia.  Knowing it was a long shot and that they might be dead, Rose hired an investigator to see if any of her family had survived.  As it turned out all three of her sisters were alive and well, working a food stall together at the Olympic market in Phnom Penh.

After presuming her dead for 30 years, the three sisters were overjoyed to hear that their lost sister was alive.  Since finding them Rose has been back to visit her sisters in Phnom Penh three times, this being her third time.  Her sisters are the only ones that call her by her true Cambodian name, Sovann.  On reuniting with them for the first time, hearing her sisters call her by her true name for the first time in thirty years brought tears to her eyes.

Unbeknownst to Ben and I, Rose informed me that when we had paused to inspect the curious eats in Rose’s sisters’ stall, one of her sisters had told Rose (in Cambodian) “hey, speak English to those American guys and get them to eat at our stall.”  After hearing all of this I had to laugh and of course, oblige her with a meal at her sisters’ stall.  With Rose’s guidance, we got some noodle soup, a chicken dish, some pork feet,  and some tea to wash it down.

She said she was impressed with us because most Americans wouldn’t dare venture into this market, let alone try this type of Cambodian fare.  After finishing lunch, Ben had Rose walk with him down the row of food stalls and identify each foreign delicacy for him in English. Before we left, I asked her for a picture and told her I would write her story in my blog.



That night the date was October 31st  so Ben and I hoped to find a Halloween party, expat or otherwise, in Phnom Penh.  Halloween is one my favorite holidays.  After failing to find anything that could resemble a costume at Olympic Market, we engineered a few “costumes” with a couple sides of an Oreo box, some floss, and a black marker.

Our costumes were a semi-hit – as we walked to our first stop, Mao’s Club, lots of people laughed out loud, some even exclaiming “Costume!” with a grin.  I’m guessing they didn’t get the true humor of our “costumes” but they enjoyed it nonetheless. Despite being a self-proclaimed “Halloween Party” at Mao’s Club Ben and I had the closest thing on to what could be considered a “costume” – everyone else there, all Cambodians, was just dressed in bar attired.

Being the only white people there, Ben and I turned some heads when we walked in – it is rare that I am one of the tallest guys at a bar so this was a welcome change.  And as far as language barrier goes, for me it’s a plus.  Much easier to make small talk when its impossible to make, if that makes sense.  After meeting a few people at the Club, they invited us to come with them to Pontoon, Phnom Penh’s biggest club.  We rode over with them in their car and on arrival Ben and I were frisked and asked to hand over our room key, whose wire hanger key chain was deemed a “dangerous weapon”.

Pontoon was a much bigger Halloween affair than Mao’s had been – at least here there some expats dressed up in true “costume”.  We had a great time but didn’t leave the club until about 4 a.m.  Though we had planned to head to Saigon the next day, the late night left us feeling rough and behind schedule, so we opted for one more day in Phnom Penh to relax (and nap).

That night I went to Phnom Penh’s and SE Asia’s biggest casino, Nagaworld.  They had one of my favorite games in the world – 1/2 NL Texas Holdem.  The game had a diverse mix of players, UK expats, a Korean entrepreneur, an Aussie, a student from the University of Minnesota studying abroad, and several local players.  Despite the diversity of players, NL Holdem is the same game no matter where you play it and no matter who you play it with.  And it’s a game I’m confident at playing.  I had a winning night, though a few too many Angkor beers led to a late night misplay that decreased my winnings.  But hey, a win is still a win.

By the time we left Phnom Penh, I had come around on the city. It rubbed me wrong the first couple days but by the end, I left feeling ok about it. A few days and familiarity can do wonders with ones opinion of a place.

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