Before the completion of Phsar Thmei in 1937, the area on which the market now stands was occupied by a swamp fed by runoff water during the rainy season. For the French Protectorate of Cambodia, who was in charge of Phnom Penh at the time, having a swamp in the middle of their city was far from ideal. So they drained it and set about building a huge market, designed by Jean Desbois and supervised by French architect Louis Chauchon.
At the time of its construction, Phsar Thmei was said to be the largest market in Asia. But despite its grandeur, it nonetheless had a troubled start. Flooding was a problem, perhaps unsurprisingly given its location in a favored gathering point for runoff water. Then came the Franco-Thai war (1940–1941), during which the market was bombed by Thai aircraft, causing extensive damage. It was closed temporarily and rebuilt after the end of World War II. It later fell into an undeniably shabby state, until the French Development Agency completed a $4.2 million renovation in 2011. It remains the market with the largest dome in Southeast Asia, measuring 148 feet (45 meters) in diameter and 85 feet (26 meters) high.
To say that the market is somewhat incongruous with the rest of central Phnom Penh would be an understatement. With its huge yellow dome and four extending “legs,” it looks—from the air at least—as if a Barbarella-esque Art Deco space robot planted itself in the middle of the city. Walk inside, however, and you’ll find yourself in a vast, cool, and always buzzing market under the towering central dome, with more stalls spreading along with the four adjoining wings.
Despite the often inflated prices, especially for visiting tourists, Phsar Thmei is the best place in the city for browsing. It’s packed full of all kinds of goods, from impressively intricate gold and silverware to souvenirs, antique coins, electronic goods, clothing (imported and traditional Cambodian), flowers, and an impressive array of dubious watches. And when hunger strikes, the market also has a colorful fresh produce section and plenty of food stalls selling classic local dishes. It’s the best place to escape from the heat, as it is naturally cool inside.
According to atlasobscura.com