No matter what country I’m in, markets are always where the action is. The sights, the sounds, the smells … there’s no better way to engage all of your senses and immerse yourself into a culture and its cuisine.
Last year, during a trip through Southeast Asia, I stopped in Cambodia for a few days, landing in the capital city of Phnom Penh. While I was there, I headed to one of the city’s largest and oldest markets, appropriately named, “The Old Market.” – Phsar Chas. – located on the Tonle Sap river at the southeast end of the old French Quarter.
Walking through The Old Market is like going back in time. I’m serious, the market hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. Walking through it was magical, and I took it all in, eyes wide and ears perked.
One of the things that’s so appealing about markets is that you can see what’s grown locally, what’s in season, and what types of animals the locals eat. Watch the video, and check out the incredible variety and the specialization of each vendor, including beef, pork, chicken, fish, and offal. Most importantly, take heed of your humble narrator’s cautionary tale of visiting a street market in Vietnam and “South East Asian Death,” aka, shellfish.
Dont Eat the Shellfish
Now pay attention here, friends: if you travel to Southeast Asia … Do. Not. Eat. Fucking. Shellfish. Ever. I know, I know, “but I love shellfish, and I ..” DON’T EAT FUCKING SHELLFISH IN SOUTHEAST ASIA! GOT IT?! Out and about in Tokyo? Go nuts. The Japanese don’t fuck around; they can actually render deadly poisonous fugu (puffer fish) edible with nary an ill effect other than the purging of the contents of your wallet. But here, you might as well just get down on your hands and knees, stick out your tongue, and lick the gutter for a couple of miles.
If you’ve ever had food poisoning, then you know what I’m talking about. Maybe. The Southeast Asia shellfish version definitely brought me closer to wanting to suck on a bullet than anything else I’ve ever experienced. I would gladly chomp on a few tide pods over shellfish in this region, so please, heed my warning.
What’s also obvious in the video is the quality of the produce, rivaling any market in Italy, France, and certainly my local Safeway. What I found interesting is that every single small restaurant in town – and even some of the hotels – purchase their meats and vegetables from this market, so you know it’s fresh.
One of the biggest hang-ups people have with third world markets is cleanliness and – the big one – lack of refrigeration, especially given Southeast Asia’s notorious heat and humidity. It’s a reasonable concern, but these vendors simply cannot afford refrigerators, and a few bags of ice and moving product quickly goes a long way to keeping the goods fresh. It’s been this way in Cambodia for thousands of years, and I don’t see things changing anytime soon.
Bottom line: If you want an authentic cultural experience in other parts of the globe, look for the open-air markets. Wander around. Taste the food. Touch, smell, and ask questions. I promise you’ll come home worldlier, more knowledgeable, and feeling like you’ve connected deeply with another culture.
If you liked this story, here’s another one you should check out: Taiwanese Pizza.