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Cambodia: Phnom Penh’s Shopping Crossroads

One of Asia’s less discovered, and decidedly less polished gems, Phnom Penh stands at a crossroads between Asia’s past and present, yet its contrasts are never more apparent than when it’s time to go shopping.

With its motorists’ notorious disregard for pedestrians, navigating between the city’s bustling markets, air-conditioned shopping malls and scattered art galleries can be a challenge in itself.  However, the bargains are out there, and a new wave of boutiques is putting Phnom Penh firmly back on the shopping map.

First, though, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got enough money in your pocket.  Almost all transactions can be made in both US dollars and Cambodian riel.  A handful of shops accept credit cards, and often with a three per cent surcharge.  A good idea is to visit the ATM inside the Mekong Bank at 220 Sisowath Quay as it doesn’t charge for international cards, although it’s only open during business hours. 

The Riverfront district is a good place to start a shopping expedition, as it’s home to an appealing mix of international cafés, shops and some of the city’s best bar/restaurants, including the three-storey colonial-style Foreign Correspondents' Club. 

Walking along the Riverfront will take you to Central Market; a traditional market selling everything from flowers to video games.  Central Market is not short of 'copy' DVDs and CDs, although it’s worth remembering that they tend to have a 10-20 per cent failure rate if you’re planning to stock up. 

In general, handmade goods such as shoes and silks are of decent quality in Phnom Penh.  Popular tourist buys include silverware, traditional handicrafts and tailored clothes, with vendors usually open to some negotiation on prices.  If a new suit is on your shopping list, it’s worth taking a stand against overly insistent motodrop drivers on the hunt for commissions.

Whether you’re at the mall or the market, the vast majority of sunglasses you come across are unlikely to offer UV/polarized protection, but that may be a small price to pay for having a pair of 'Raybans' in every color of the rainbow.  Likewise, most wristwatches on offer are counterfeit, despite often coming with very convincing stories of their authenticity.  A shopkeeper at one souvenir shop outside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison) is known for spinning the endless yarn that the vintage Rolex and Patek Philippe watches she displays once belonged to her deceased husband.

While most of the electronic goods on sale in Phnom Penh may not survive the trip back home, the city is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy a Macbook or iPod. Premium Apple Resellers, iOne, set their prices in US dollars at the same rates as in the USA, without added tax. 

Off the track of normal tourist areas, the Russian Market sells genuine designer clothes at massively discounted prices.  Made in local factories, the only catch is that the items have minor production flaws such as stitching errors, and shoppers have to inspect each item closely before buying. 

Much higher-up on the scam-o-meter are the fake jewelry and syntactic gemstones awash in the Russian Market.  The golden rule is to never buy from a booth which cannot issue a certificate of warranty.

Catering to the city’s growing middle-class population and less colorful than the traditional markets, the soothing air-conditioning and fast food outlets at Phnom Penh’s Western-style malls can make them a sight for sore tourist eyes. Sorya Mall was joined by the shiny new City Mall in 2009.  Both have fully stocked supermarkets that can satisfy almost any Western craving.

The sale, purchase and export of Cambodian antiques is outlawed, yet a healthy trade in reproductions continues alongside a flourishing contemporary art scene.  Just north of the National Museum, Street 178 or Artist Street has a number of interesting boutiques for art-lovers with attractive prices.

As the real estate developers move in to Phnom Penh, the days may be numbered for the city’s classic skyline and dusty marketplaces, but for now it continues as a heavily-scented, frenetic microcosm of the Asian shopping experience.   

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