I’ve had a thing about markets since I crawled out of bed at 3am on a crisp Perth morning and headed to the city’s main produce market as part of a year 11 economics excursion. That lesson was about supply and demand. But I loved seeing the buying and selling, the energy, the sheer quantities of produce that arrived and the huge variety on offer. And that it all took place in the soft light of dawn and early morning.
So markets are always high on my to do list when I visit new places, especially the produce markets. In Siem Reap, local markets can be found every few kilometres, tucked away in side streets, down winding lanes, behind stately buildings or on the side of busy roads. And they are the heart and soul of the community. This is where most people do their shopping. And Psar Leu (psar means market in Khmer), located on Road six, a few kilometres east of town, is the biggest of them all.
Of course, the local markets in Asia are not nearly as sterile, shall we say, as the produce market in Perth. As you pick your way between the dust or the muddy potholes – depending on the weather – you have to watch out for motorbikes and bicycles, and stall vendors pushing small carts – even in the narrowest and most crowded lanes. This woman is selling some kind of fuel for cooking fires.
We try and buy our fruit and vegetables from this market and haggle over prices – I’ve been shown the stalls with the best prices. It can be hectic and full on and I never leave with everything I need. But on this trip I went to take photos and observe and I took Paireak, one of our local tuk tuk drivers with me to explain and interpret. And there is so much going on.
Women sit cross-legged on tables, big cleavers in each hand, flying at speed as they chop chunks of meat into mince. Others sit on small tables, stools or mats behind their wares, chopping, peeling or organising their produce. Or sometimes just sleeping.
The crowded space is lined on either side with stall sellers of all sorts. Fruit and vegetables are laid out in woven baskets creating a rainbow of colour. Pumpkins, bananas, limes, rambutans, onions, chillis, sweet potato, garlic, bananas, pineapples, green oranges and green mangoes are next to stalls of fresh meat and chickens, spices or a hardware stall selling brooms and buckets and pots.
Weaving through the muddy lanes where the recent rain is mixing with blood and entrails and who-knows-what else, it is hard to take in all the colour, sounds and action – it is so busy – and this is after the early morning chaos.
Every time I go to Psar Leu I see something different. This time it was frogs. Paireak pointed them out in baskets in among the fish and meat sellers. At first glance they looked like all the other meat stacked ready for sale. And then one moved. They were all white and fleshy. They’d been skinned. ALIVE! Oh my God, I wanted to throw up. They were clambering about the bloody tray. I could see the heart beat of one poor creature.
For the love of Buddha, I just don’t understand this kind of thing. And the longer I live in a Buddhist country, among Buddhist people, the more I think the Western conception of Buddhism is somewhat altruistic. In all the Buddhist countries we’ve visited we’ve not yet met a vegetarian among them. Apparently it is a different kind of Buddhism.
Paireak, looked at me in bemusement as I expressed my shock and horror at the poor skinned frogs flailing and flapping about. He just didn’t seem to get that it was an issue. I’ve since asked a Khmer chef about this and a Khmer friend and they were both shocked that the frog’s heads and feet hadn’t been chopped off and claimed to have not seen this before.
A bit further along a young woman is selling banana sticky rice. This delicious treat consists of grilled bananas wrapped in sticky rice, cooked in coconut milk. The whole lot is wrapped in banana leaf and grilled over hot coals. A must try if you find yourself in this part of the world.
Nearby, fish flap about in tiny puddles of water, some even leaping out of the tubs. A few stalls down other fish are being scaled and chopped. Whole, plucked chooks with yellow feet are laid out side-by-side on tables and pigs heads and trotters hang from hooks in between big slabs of meat. Things are very real at the local markets.
In another section women squat or sit on mats, live chickens tied at the feet plopped in front of them, baking in the heat and dust. Animal rights have not reached this part of the world.
Across the road a mechanical workshop for motorbikes is set up, it’s dark and dingy interior crammed with parts and bits and a small work bench is set up out the front.
On the outskirts of the market a shop sells oil and parts.
Inside and under cover the claustrophobic aisles are lined with everything from clothes to tailors, jewellery and crockery, hair products, cleaning products and just about anything you will need for the home or garden.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve visited this market and I still haven’t seen everything. This is a market for the locals – you don’t see so many tourists, although a few stop by for a look. On a stinking hot day it can be unbearably uncomfortable, especially when the dust and grime gets under your skin and into your pores and the ripe aromas of meat and fish waft through on the vaguest of breezes.
Despite this, I highly recommend a trip to Psar Leu. You might not like what you see but you are experiencing the heart and soul of life in this country. It’s as real as it gets.