One of the first things you’ll discover in Cambodia’s capital is incredibly low prices. But shopping in Phnom Penh has its unique opportunities and challenges. It’s vastly different to what you may have experienced while visiting neighbouring countries.
Let’s get you prepared for an unforgettable shopping adventure. While Phnom Penh has a couple of large shopping malls and many big brand stores, it’s the markets and their surrounding factory outlets where you’ll get the best deals.
Before you embark from your hotel in the city, there are a few important things you may not be accustomed to during your travels.
It’s all about cash in Cambodia unless you’re in one of the few larger shopping centres. Cambodia is a dual-currency country, where only Cambodian Riel and U.S. dollars are welcome.
Make sure you’re cashed up, but try not to carry more than a couple of hundred dollars at any given time. Phnom Penh is relatively safe and Cambodians generally have a passionate hatred of theft, but there isn’t a major city in the world that’s free of petty thieves. Better safe than sorry.
Traveling by tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh
If you’re skipping from one retail hot-spot to the next during a busy day of bargain hunting, you’re probably going to be enjoying the most common form of taxi – the tuk-tuk. You’ll be surprised how expensive they can become if you’re paying for individual rides, which are usually around $2 per trip.
Always negotiate a price before you climb in, and if you’re planning to shop for a number of hours, it may better to agree on an hourly price and stick to a single driver. A friendly tuk-tuk driver with good English will also come in handy when you need a translator or advice. Ideally you’ll find one driver for the duration of your stay. That’s a win/win for both parties.
Best markets for tourists
The markets are a must, even if it’s just to get a taste of Cambodian culture. In each Phnom Penh suburb, there’s a thriving retail centre at its heart. In most cases, both tourists and locals are shopping at these lively markets so it’s a great introduction to life in Cambodia.
If you’re staying at a hotel in the center of Phnom Penh, the iconic Central Market is only minutes away. It’s the king of the city’s markets and has a distinctive design, similar to a wheel, with lanes of stalls spreading from the hub like spokes.
Full exploration of this market can take hours, depending how easily distracted you are. When it comes to diversity, Central Market is the winner. Imagine anything and there’s a good chance you’ll find it there.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best market in town. Many tourists prefer the Russian Markets aka Tuol Tom Poung Market. It may be smaller but many of the souvenirs or curios you’re looking for will be found at its edges, conveniently positioned in a few lanes of stalls.
Another market that targets tourists is at BKK1 aka Bonky Kong, which attracts many international visitors. Tourists and expats frequent the many coffee shops, restaurants and bars in this area, so the Bonky Kong market has adapted in order to cash in on the gentrification of the area.
Check out the factory outlets located nearby
If you start to get a feeling of deja vu while browsing the stalls, it’s because you’re in the areas aimed at tourists. Like many street markets in Bangkok, you’ll find multiple stalls selling the same goods. But if you investigate the whole market you’ll find more variety, primarily intended for locals. Just be aware that if you’re looking for clothes, large sizes are very difficult to find.
Branching away from each market’s main block, you’ll see streets lined with outlets, primarily for clothing, which can offer some of the best shopping experiences. Cambodia has a thriving rag trade so it’s worth hopping from one shop to the next to see if any of the locally made designs catch your eye.
Always take a close look at the quality though. What may seem like a bargain could simply end up being a complete waste of money, so check the material and stitching, and always try the clothes on.
Mind your manners!
You’ll soon discover how relaxed and friendly Cambodians are, but there are a couple of very distinctive cultural traits to respect while shopping, especially in the markets.
Firstly, Cambodians are very proud, so ridiculously low offers rarely get a positive response. If you’re expecting stall owners to chase you down the aisle begging for a second chance at your outlandish offer, think again. In fact, haggling is tough to do unless you speak Khmer. Yes, you’ll get a discount, but it’s more likely stall owners will set a reasonable price and try to stick to it.
The most important thing to remember is aggression gets you nowhere. It’s rare to see public displays of anger in Phnom Penh, and that’s one of its most likeable qualities. So take our word for it – you’re not going to change the culture with an angry outburst over the price of a wood carving.
Anger is generally not met with anger. You’ll find yourself in an awkward situation where you’re having a one-way argument, surrounded by a bunch of bemused and embarrassed locals.
Cambodians love a good laugh. You generally get what you give, so smiles and humility will help make your shopping spree enjoyable. Phnom Penh may not be an upmarket retail mecca but it’s certainly a great place to unearth hidden gems and find incredibly cheap bargains.