If you’re in Phnom Penh someone is bound to tell you to go explore the local markets. They might tell you to go to the Russian Market, where you can find cheap handicrafts, pirated brand name clothes, and a lot of used and new motorcycle parts. They might suggest the “New” or “Central” Market where you can find great deals on jewelry and some higher end handicrafts like an all silver crab with moving joints. Go to these markets but save time to visit the best one. The old market, situated only a block from Riverside is easily one of the best markets you will find in South East Asia. You won’t find many tourists, nor all that many handicrafts, but what you will find is a huge, chaotic market where every day Khmer life goes on.
As you walk down the winding paths, you might get lost. The paths are not straight, this isn’t a Wal-Mart superstore, the market grew up organically for over a hundred years. As you walk through the steamed filled corridors you’ll notice that plastic tarps keep off the rain and sun away while vendors hawk their wares from ancient wooden tables. Welcome to the real Cambodia. In the old market you can have the nighttime sky hand painted across your fingernails for 1$, you can buy feather light Cambodian shirts for $2, and you can pick up blessed statue of Buddha for $3.
The people in the old market are honest and will not try to overcharge you, but even so, the culture expects that you will haggle. Cut whatever price you were given by half and work your way up. If you don’t speak Khmer, don’t worry, you are going to have a great time speaking with your hands and communicating through laughter.
Just outside of the market you can find a great food street. Small restaurants and food stalls on the roadside sell great Cambodian dishes from roast cow to sweet and sour noodles for 2$ a plate and some of the best fresh fruit shakes you will ever drink for $1. WARNING, tell them, “do not put Durian in my shake,” or say “No Durian” while pinching your noise. Of course if you want to try durian, let them add it in and enjoy your culinary adventure.
After you are full, take a right and head down the road. Just 2 blocks away you will find a scattering of local bars and one English-ran bar “The Empire”. Have a drink if you want, but make sure to ask about the drunken monkey. Around lunchtime he wanders over to the bars and joins the locals, he chugs beers, sips shots and begs people to light up left over cigarettes for him. I’m sure this isn’t great for his health, but it’s not the craziest things monkeys do in Phnom Penh.
Life in Phnom Penh is relaxed and slow, hours will slide by as you enjoy the atmosphere. Explore this never-ending city of smiles all you can, but by midday head to Riverside. On the long Broadway you are bound to find dozens of people playing Tot Sey (shuttlecock) and Sepak Takraw (cane ball).
In shuttlecock you play with a very expressive badminton birdie. The birdie is usually plastic chips, aluminum chips cut form soda cans or flattened bottle caps strung to red, yellow and green feathers. Join people as they kick, slap and bounce the birdie around. The goal is to keep it from hitting the ground anyway you can. Don’t worry if you’re not any good, the Cambodians will be thrilled to have you join them.
Cane ball is the extreme version of soccer. Teams kick a tiny woven ball of cane to each other. The teams want to score by getting it through the Goal, but they do it very differently than in soccer. Instead of keeping the ball on the ground, most lift the ball with their feet and hurl it down the broadway toward their teammate who catches it with his chest and then as it falls he will bounce it off his knees and feet until someone takes it, or he power kicks it to the goal. Both are great sports to join, although cane ball is probably the most exhausting sport you will ever play.