Shoppers walk through the jewellery section under the Central Market's 45-metre diameter domeImage: Robert Carmichael
Face of change
May 31, 2011
Phnom Penh’s Central Market has been an iconic fixture since it opened in 1937. Last week it was officially inaugurated for a second time after a 6 million dollar renovation program - its first in nearly 75 years.
The Central Market has played a key role in Phnom Penh’s economic life since this art-deco style building opened in 1937. Its design is easily visualized: Picture a yellow central dome with four arms branching off at right angles to it.
More than 3,000 vendors sell their goods here, making this a place where Cambodians and tourists alike can buy pretty much anything they need: food and clothing, stationery, electronics, jewellery, cosmetics, even wigs.
When the Central Market was built, its 45-metre diameter dome was the sixth-largest in the world. The market symbolized a new era for Phnom Penh, but in the intervening years Cambodia moved through difficult times. Civil war culminated in the Khmer Rouge’s rule and ruin of the country. More civil war followed.
Eventually, just over a decade ago, Cambodia finally found peace. It was around that time that City Hall and the French government’s development agency Agence Française de Développement (AFD) started talking about renovating the market.
Eric Beugnot is AFD’s country head. He says work started in earnest in January 2009 and wrapped up earlier this month. Beugnot says the key motivation was the importance of the Central Market to the city’s economic life. He says there are more than 3,000 merchants in the market. "It is a central place and it is important to recreate as some economic environment to stimulate the economy in the centre of this town, this capital." He believes it will have other positive side effects like attracting tourism, which is "one of the four pillars of economic development of Cambodia."
The renovation marks the first time any work has been done on the market since it was built in 1937. The main building has had a facelift; there is a new drainage system to cope with the torrential rains of this tropical climate; and there is improved sanitation.
The municipality has widened and tarred the road that circles the market. In short, it looks much better than it did when I first arrived in Phnom Penh ten years ago. But the biggest change is for the hundreds of vendors who for decades clustered around the building’s perimeter, selling their goods from beneath leaky tarpaulins and faded umbrellas.
Old and green
Now a wave-shaped concrete roof protects them from the tropical rains - a huge improvement, says Srey Mao, a 28-year-old vendor of fake designer wallets and handbags. She is happy her stock no longer gets rained on, and that business is up. She says most of the stallholders at the Central Market like the renovations, as it is attracting potential customers: "We have had some customers visit because they heard it was being renovated and they wanted to come and see it. And even those who haven’t come to see it will do so soon, because people are interested in the renovations."
The Central Market’s economic importance meant it remained opened during renovation work. That meant work had to be undertaken in stages - hundreds of vendors at a time had to move out for months while contractors carried out repairs. AFD’s Eric Beugnot says the biggest challenge was convincing vendors they would get their stall space back.
But now that the work is finished, Beugnot says he is particularly taken with the market’s design. The steel and concrete building has no air-conditioning. Instead, it relies on airflow and newly-installed fans to keep it cool in the hot season when temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius. In that way, he says, the Central Market, which will turn 75 next year, is a model for today’s architects looking to create greener structures.