A Cambodian Market on Khmer New Year’s Eve

When I returned from my daily trip to the “Old Market” in Siem Ream, I accidentally dropped one of the large, plump red grapes I had bartered for on the kitchen floor. I picked it up and, out of habit, I started to throw it away. Then I laughed at myself, shrugged and tossed it back in my bag.

After all, my whole bag of fruit had come from piles of produce stacked on the ground.

Old Market, Siem Reap
A seafood stall at Old Market

That’s just the way goods are bought, bartered and sold here in Cambodia. Blankets stretched across the dust make up the fruit, vegetable and meat stalls, which are separated only by the small children of the different stall owners standing and waving.

Old Market, Siem Reap

Patrons jump gamely out of the way of scooters that creep through the market with baskets full of fresh fish, chicken and oranges bound for delivery to various restaurants.

Old Market Siem Reap

They squat next to blankets and barter over mounds of mangosteen, ignoring the tickle from sugar cane stalks that brush the back of legs as they zoom by from their precarious position stretched across a passing scooter.

Mangosteen at Old Market, Siem Reap
Piles of Mangosteen at Old Market

This particular visit to the market was an especially interesting tangle of sights and smells because the Khmer New Year is about to begin. Everything will shut down for three days as families, neighborhoods, and villages throw parties – and talcum powder. That’s right, a tradition here is to toss talcum powder and wash it off with good old-fashioned water fights using the brightly colored water guns for sale at every market.

An Old Market stall before Khmer New Year
Flowers and decorations for sale before the Khmer New Year begins

Also for sale at the market on this New Year’s Eve were sparkling stars and streamers that hung over the stalls and bumped against the fresh flowers meant to decorate the upcoming festivities.

We’ve all seen a grocery store on a pre-holiday with overflowing carts lining the aisle. It’s no different here. It’s just that the pile of fresh fish for sale is a bit taller, the heap of guts not for sale a bit more pungent, the scooters a bit more weighed down – and there are sparkling stars overseeing it all.

The scooters need to stop a bit more often – as they make their repeated delivery trips from market to restaurant – to fill up on petrol that is poured from recycled Pepsi bottles that are stored next to tables full of snails sparkling in the morning sun.

A gas station in Siem Reap
A table full of snails at a gas station. The petrol is in the Pepsi bottles behind the snails

And, of course, more sugar cane stalk is needed for mashing into the sweet and colorful sugar cane juice that is sipped at special meals. And the market noise is just a bit more elevated as everyone prepares for three days of celebrations.

Sugar Cane stalks become juice.
Mashing sugar cane stalks for the sweet, celebratory sugar cane juice
A Siem Reap Market
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