Cambodia: Russian Market sales take a nose-dive

Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, the usually overcrowded, hot and hard to navigate market is now a ghost of its former self. Since the impact of COVID-19 and the lack of tourists the market has been hit hard and market owners pockets are empty, yet their shops are full of unsold antiques, silks, silvery jewelry and countless elephant printed ‘We love Cambodia’ merchandise’.

Locally known as Phsar Tuol Tompoung it is the one market all tourists usually head to at least once during a trip to Phnom Penh. The market is situated in the south of the city off Monivong Boulevard and Mao Tse Tung. It became famous in the 1980s with tourists when the majority of its visitors were Soviets who lived in the area.

The Russian Market is known to be the go to place to shop for souvenirs and discounted name-brand clothing. Although no guarantee on the authenticity of everything, tourists spend countless amounts of their travel funds on sports clothes and genuine articles made in local factories.

The market is a very tourist influenced market. Unlike other markets in the city that see a large number of locals wandering around and spending, the Russian Market heavily relies on the borders being open and foreigners flocking in. One of the owners of a fabric and antiques store just sat waiting for tourists aimlessly. Chuon Sokhom, when asked how business had been, said: “Before all of this we could make $500 a day, the market would be full of travellers. Now I am lucky to make $50 a day. The only way I can see this situation getting better is when there is a cure found for the terrible COVID-19. It has wrecked everything.”

Tourism chiefs are hoping officials will drop the $3,000 Coronavirus deposit scheme soon. Travellers entering the country have to make a down-payment for potential medical costs and a possible funeral. They argue that this will deter tourism. But with more cases of COVID-19 being recorded it is unclear whether the government will take that into consideration.

Not only is it the shops selling souvenirs feeling the impact of this pandemic: Food and drink stalls sit vacant also. Some of the food stands are filled up with locals having lunch but other vendors usually relying on tourists sit empty. Sotheary owner of a drink stand selling milkshakes said: “We have seen our drinks sales drop around 80 percent and it’s easy to understand why. We had no tourists here. Every day the place would be full of foreign customers and everybody made money. Now this place isn’t the same anymore. I just wish all of this would end and things go back to normal.”

Outside of the once rammed market also sit tuktuk drivers. Tourists would once spill out with bags full of goodies and need rides back to their hostels and hotels. Local driver Kong said: “This is devastating us all. This used to be a very busy market with enough business to go around for all of us. I don’t get a lot of work at the moment, I have never seen the place so quiet.”

For those looking for souvenirs, “real designer clothes” at a huge discount and some remarkably fantastic food, you’re in the right place. As factories for such big name Western brands such as Levi’s, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren are located in Phnom Penh, stock that is deemed unfit to be shipped abroad from some flaw are then sold at the Russian Market.

Stick to the eastern side of the market for clothing; the northern side sells a utilitarian mix of tools and household goods and the other two sides are a mixture of jewelry and watches, antiques and not so antiques, pirated videos and various crafts. The middle of the market is the jackpot–-it’s a veritable Mecca of jet-fuel-grade iced coffee, noodle shops and snacks of both the savoury and sweet persuasion.

Practical Info Phnom Penh Russian Market is open from 7am to 5pm daily and is about five kilometres from Wat Phnom on the corner of Streets 440 and 163. Entry is free, but be sure to take small bills (in riels) to make negotiating prices easier.