Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ratanakiri Market

We had heard that Ratanakiri, a north-eastern province of Cambodia, was full of outstanding natural beauty and a great place to explore on motorbike trips or multi-day treks (guided hikes). So, although it wasn’t part of our original itinerary, we decided to go check it out on our way to Phenom Phen.

But after our 12-hour journey to Ban Lung, the capital “city” of the province, we certainly weren’t feeling up to a hike. Our first day in Cambodia, we planned to sleep in and take a trip to the near-by volcanic crater-lake for a swim in the afternoon.

Slept in we did, but when we crawled out of our hotel late in the morning and got our first look at Ratanakiri in the daylight our enthusiasm for doing any exploring at all was snuffed out.

Despite the fact that the main roads in town are paved, rust-colored dust covered every building in sight. It’s clear that the government is currently investing in paved roads, sewage pipes, and new sidewalks, but still the town of Ban Lung is run down and dismal. It is in this part of the country, much more than in the cities or popular tourist areas, that you can really see Cambodia as a poor developing nation. As far as we could tell there is little to no trash collection service in town. Bottles, wrappers, and refuse litter the streets.

When we finally crawled out of our hotel at 10am, we got breakfast at a foreigner-friendly restaurant, used the painfully slow internet, and headed back up to our hotel room to watch TV. Inspired, we were not.

After a couple of hours, we summoned up enough motivation to leave our hotel room – planning to grab some lunch and then go for a swim – but what we found instead was an experience unmatched thus far in our travels: the local market.
After being in Asia for over a year, we have been to a LOT of markets; night markets, morning markets, evening markets, fruit markets, textile markets, tourist markets… you name it, we’ve seen it. But we had never seen anything like this.

This was the filthiest market that we had ever been to. 
The ground was covered in garbage and flies were everywhere. Unlike markets in Taiwan, where most of the meat and fish are displayed out on ice, here in Ban Lung, everything was just sitting out in the heat on cardboard.

The meat was a veritable breeding ground for flies, and very few shop keepers were doing anything to keep them away.

Clams were just sitting out, baking in the sun
Eels, still alive, were writhing in tubs of water on the ground where dirt was easily mixed in with them.
But the thing that startled me the most was the huge haunches of cows, rumps and thighs, with the rest of the leg – including the hoof – still attached.

Even with all of the food on sale – including very pungent fish paste – the dominating smell of the market was garbage. Garbage was everywhere. In 10 minutes walking through the market, we must have come up on 10 or so piles of garbage.
 garbage pile in the middle of the market

a look "behind the scenes" of the market

In a town with no grocery store (that we found) this is the place where people purchase their everyday food. This is the state of affairs for many people in Cambodia. It's hard to imagine how people survive in these conditions, with food contamination so high and medical resources to scarce. But not only that, they survive with plesant dispositions and many with smiles on their faces.

For me, walking through the market was shocking more than anything, but reflecting on it now is both sad and disheartening. I can only hope that with the  improvements in paved roads, sewage, and sidewalks, will come an improvement in sanitary conditions in this town and others like it in Cambodia.


  1. It is, of course, THON weekend here in Pennsylvania, where the markets are slightly cleaner. Just wanted to say that I'm thinking of you and enjoy the blog posts and read them with increasingly selfish interest as I know I'm joining you in SE Asia in May.
    Take care and keep taking pictures!
    PS See if you can find a "RAZ" Cape in Cambodia...

  2. Gross. And what's with this previous commenter and the May talk, I thought you were coming back to the states then! ha.

  3. As a westerner living in Cambodia for seven years this market is typical. Western style grocery stores only exist in a couple of places outside of Phnom Penh. I eat food out of these markets daily. As all who live here do. There is no second choice. The food in the groceries comes from the same supply stream. The food in all but the very best and most expensive restaurants comes from the same markets. Few restaurant do little more than rinse food in tap water (city) or river water (province).

    That said I have a three year old son here who has rarely eaten processed food, preservative laced snacks, or sugary soft drinks. He has not seen a doctor since the day he was born. Yes he has had his shots from the local government clinic and a few more not on the government list from dad at home. He is healthy and happy chasing the chickens and puppies under grandmas house in the province.

    When me and my wife where first married I actually sat down with her and had can opener lessons. After six years she is a scratch cook and evens rinses the lettuce for my tacos with silver solution or iodine.

    The market looks gross I eat meat from there daily. Buying a haunch of cow and grinding it at home I have never had a problem. The morning flies can do little damage in a couple of hours. Fish and crabs are sold live; the dead ones are sold to restaurants and the poor at deep discounts. I have never been ill from market food cooked at home.

    Restaurants here will lay you low regularly as they keep food to long poorly chilled if at all. In restaurants kitchen hygiene is a joke with live crabs as likely as not to be setting next to the garnishes and raw vegetables. Soups are regularly left out over night and reheated the next day.

    Those nice cane sugar drinks the squeeze fresh in the streets will kill you. The cane are regularly kept fresh by standing in buckets of river water. As a tourist traveling Cambodia you will become ill from the food. It took me two years to adjust. Eating only well cooked items and avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables will only delay the inevitable.

    All this said my life here is healthier than it was in California.