PHOM PENH — When I spent a few years in Cambodia, I lived for a year in a Phnom Penh neighbourhood called Russian Market. My apartment was a stone’s throw from the eponymous market itself. For lunch I often ventured into the dim, stuffy market for banh chao, a crispy rice pancake stuffed with meat and bean sprouts, and in the evenings I bought fruit and vegetables from the stands that opened in the late afternoons. It was big news when a coconut ice cream stand opened in the market’s parking lot; there weren’t many restaurants in the area, and ice cream was an exciting addition to the neighbourhood’s food offerings.
After two years away, I visited the neighbourhood last year and was amazed by how much had changed. After years as an up-and-coming neighbourhood, Russian Market has finally arrived. Often overlooked by tourists, the neighbourhood has become a favourite of Phnom Penh’s many expats thanks to the recent explosion of cafés, bars, spas and boutiques, anchored by the traditional Cambodian market at its core.
Cambodians call the neighbourhood Toul Tom Poung, which has nothing to do with Russians; the English moniker comes from the market’s history. In the 1980s, many Russian expatriates lived in the area and shopped at the market. Though the Russians moved on, the name stuck, and many Americans, Australians and other expats now call the area their home.
Above: The Russian market in Phnom Penh has some colourful vendors and inventory.
Megan, an American friend of mine who has lived in Phnom Penh for seven years, had recently moved into an apartment only a few blocks from the Russian Market and was familiar with all the new spots. She led me from cafés to spas to clothing boutiques as I said, over and over again, “I can’t believe how much it’s changed.”
Nothing exemplified the changes in the neighbourhood as well as did our evening at Long After Dark, where we met a few of Megan’s friends for dinner and drinks. Long After Dark was a chic whiskey bar, dimly-lit and atmospheric, with whiskey, craft beer, cocktails and a menu which included what one of Megan’s friends declared was the best veggie burger in Cambodia. The gorgeous wooden bar was packed with people, even on a Monday night.
On Tuesday, I ate breakfast at Brown Coffee, a Cambodian-owned chain for which I had a soft spot. Each of its 14 locations in Phnom Penh are polished and unique, offering good coffee and service in a slightly different atmosphere. This Brown was filled with natural light reaching in from the two storeys of floor-to-ceiling windows.
As one of the few cafes open on what was a major Cambodian holiday, it was near capacity. I managed to find a seat amid the Cambodian families, groups of young people and expats. The coffee shop vibrated with the pleasant hum of their conversation.
I enjoyed my breakfast of Eggs Benedict and lingered over my latte for a long time. Then it was time to finally visit the heart of the neighbourhood: the market itself.
Although the Russian Market is smaller than many others in of Phnom Penh, it swallowed me up as soon as I entered. I passed women selling fresh meat and vegetables, making my way to where I remembered fruit smoothies used to be sold. Either my memory was bad or the women making smoothies were on holiday, because I couldn’t find them. Neither did I see the man who used to make me banh chao.
Left: The Russian market really comes alive after the sun sets. Right: There's lots of exotic regional dishes available at the market.
I cut through the noodle stalls to the souvenir shops. The sheer amount of stuff can be overwhelming: vintage movie posters, Buddha statues made of wood, ceramic bowls and plates, proudly touristy T-shirts emblazoned with elephants and Angkor Wat, piles and piles of textiles in every colour, oil paintings of the Cambodian countryside and traditional apsara dancers. Even though half the stalls were closed, there were still an immense number of mementos to be had.
Fortunately, I knew what I wanted. Two years earlier, I had purchased a pink wallet made of a repurposed cement bag at this market, and I found the very same one with the same bold fish outlined in blue as two years earlier. I grinned as I opened it and looked through its pockets; I had been hanging on to my worn wallet longer than I should because I loved it so much. Now here was its exact replacement, as bright and lightweight as the original.
At the same stall, I rooted through a stack of Cambodian kramas to find one for my fiancé. The krama is a quintessentially Cambodian garment that serves as a scarf, bandanna, towel, or wrap. I chose one with a blue-purple gingham pattern, happily running the soft cotton through my fingertips. As I paid, I asked the vendor if she would be taking any time off for the holiday. “Yes, tomorrow I go to my home in Kandal province,” she said, referring to the province which surrounds Phnom Penh. “I go with my sister.” She gestured to a woman sitting nearby at her own shop which sold a variety of wooden and bronze Cambodian souvenirs.
“I’m her driver,” said her sister with a smile. “She needs me so she can hold her baby.”
I could imagine her, dressed in a white blouse and long skirt, carefully perched on the back of her sister’s motorbike, holding her child and an offering of rice to bring to the temple.
Disoriented, it took me a while to find the noodle stalls, where I had lunch for $1.50. I marvelled at the variety the neighbourhood offered; where else was it possible to have dinner at a whiskey bar with all the sophistication of a Toronto speakeasy one day and lunch for less than $2 at a local market the next?
That is the essence of the Russian Market, which remains one of the best places in Phnom Penh to engage with local culture while enjoying comforts on par with those offered anywhere else. •