Art Deco in... Phnom Penh?
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
-Henry Valentine Miller

 

aerial of Central Market, 1937 (photo credit: belleindochine.free.fr)

aerial of Central Market, 1937 (photo credit: belleindochine.free.fr)

Looking north from Preah Trasak Paem Street, I could see the bright, hulking figure in the distance: Phnom Penh's Central Market, or Psar Thmei.  This ochre-hued building is a sight to behold, not because its unusual shape and color set it apart from a monotonous urban setting, but because it was designed in the Art Deco style.  And let's just say that Art Deco in Southeast Asia is quite the rarity (Shanghai has a fair share of Art Deco, though).  According to Wikipedia, French architect Louis Chauchon designed and built the domed market in 1937.  Because Cambodia was a French colony at this time and because Art Deco was all the rage in France in the 1920s, the Central Market was designed with innovative technology in the Art Deco style.  I found Art Deco to be interesting in Cambodia, because most colonial architecture in Asia resembles traditional European styles (like Old Phuket Town).  But like Sino-Portuguese architecture, Cambodia's interpretation of Art Deco mixes European technology (the dome and structural integrity) with Asian elements (interior arches that resemble traditional gateways); it's a very unique blend of architecture.  Beyond the building, the large parcel of land on which the market sits was once a swamp used to contain rainwater runoff, valuable real estate that was quickly drained to accommodate Phnom Penh's growing population in the 1930s.  Fortunately, the building functions well in Cambodia's tropical climate with the dome and four stall extensions allowing maximum air ventilation, thus creating a light and airy interior.

where are the stalls?  photo source says it's from 1960s, so stalls may have been damaged in the Franco-Thai war in 1941 (photo credit: bokehcambodia)

where are the stalls?  photo source says it's from 1960s, so stalls may have been damaged in the Franco-Thai war in 1941 (photo credit: bokehcambodia)

In 2011, the French government financed Central Market's restoration, so I'm assuming the low-slung, mellow yellow building with thick tentacles originally looked like this.  Wikipedia says, "During the Franco-Thai war the market was bombed heavily by Thai aircraft, causing heavy damage, and it had to be temporarily closed. After the end of World War II the market was rebuilt in the modern style," so it's unclear what's original.  Regardless, of what the building looked liked, its massive size and unique design propelled it into Cambodia's collection of notable architecture in the 1930s.

Today, Phnom Penh's distinctive Central Market is more popular and crammed than ever.  The domed central part of the market is full of blue-lit glass cases and vendors selling gold, silver, coins, and knock-off jewelry.  The indoor stalls are crammed with clothes, electronics, accessories, antiques, and a million other tchotchkes while the outdoor space between them is filled-in with vendors of food and kitchenware.  Some vendors practically live in their stalls, raising their children and casually eating lunch with neighboring vendors.  Walking through the maze of stalls, I almost felt like an intruder on these people's lives, like I was in a tent city and not a marketplace.  So, while in this part of Cambodia, a trip to the otherworldly Central Market is definitely worth a visit, even if the merchandise is a bit overpriced.  (My camera was on its last legs in Cambodia, so I had trouble with lighting inside.)

 

Exterior

 

 

 

Interior