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A third of the Old Market was destroyed in the fire on Monday
A third of the Old Market was destroyed in the fire on Monday. Pha Lina

At historic city market, a longtime fruit vendor rebuilds

When a fire ripped through the eastern edge of Phnom Penh’s Old Market on Monday morning, it destroyed about a third of the 914 stalls before dying out under a heavy assault of water, some of which was sprayed from a crane that hovered above the chaos.

Because stalls on the northern, western, southern and southeastern sides were largely untouched, the contrast between these shops and the charred ruins of the others was more apparent later in the week, on Thursday. By then, the blackened wreckage had been removed and construction workers hammered and drilled and sawed on empty square plots. The market looked like a sandwich that someone had taken a ravenous bite out of and put back down.

Sum Samoeurn’s fruit shop on Street 13 was one of the hundreds of stalls gobbled up by the flames. Produce dominated the eastern side of the market, and as Samoeurn spoke about the fire, she sat on a plastic chair under the shade of a nearby, and intact, fruit vendor’s stall, where business went on as usual.

Samoeurn was in the habit of arriving at the market as early as 5am, so she was there when the fire started about an hour and a half later. She tried to put it out herself. “I saw smoke coming from a locked stall selling plastic materials. I tried to break a piece of board to stop the fire with water mixed with detergent,” she said.

“I thought the fire was gone, but it was out of control, and I shouted for help from others.” Though she tried to remove her fruit, large quantities of it were inedible.

The municipality, which owns the market, said the fire had been caused by an electrical fault. Since it was deemed an accident, there would be no compensation and vendors would have to rebuild themselves. The government said it would be quicker this way. Samoeurn hired four construction workers to do the job.

She was no exception. All around her, steel girders were going up to replace the wooden beams that had been so welcoming to the flames. There were general guidelines; one vendor said the stalls were purposefully being built with less width and more height to avoid congestion.

As vendors watched from the sidelines or wandered into the fray, construction workers welded and used power saws with little safety gear except for the occasional motorbike helmet.

Electric generators yammered away. Wires snaked across the ground. The director of the market committee took photos on his smartphone and said he was too busy for an interview. A woman stood atop the concrete foundation that used to be her business.

She lit incense and prayed for good fortune next to a bowl of fruit and a paper basket full of fake money and gold leaf. In the early afternoon, Daun Penh district governor Kuoch Chamroeun appeared with an entourage, attracting a small crowd that listened to him talk for a few minutes. He didn’t linger long.

It’s unclear how old the Old Market is. Samoeurn said it opened in Sihanouk’s heyday, dating its origins somewhere between 1955 and 1970, but it’s probably much older. When Cambodia historian Milton Osborne moved to Phnom Penh in 1959, he said the market gave the impression of having been there for “many decades”.

Sum Samoeurn in the remains of her burned-out stall
Sum Samoeurn in the remains of her burned-out stall. Heng Chivoan

The Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 meant the shuttering of private enterprise. After 1979, when the communists fell from power, the Vietnamese-backed government reopened Old Market. Phsar Chas – its name in Khmer – was once again a source of wheeling and dealing and haggling and bargaining.

Samoeurn arrived in Phnom Penh from Takeo province in 1982 or 1983. She came to help take care of her nieces and nephews. After they grew up, she needed to find a new job. She was in her twenties, with no job skills and no education in a society just recovering from “the Pol Pot time.”

“I never went to school. I didn’t know what to do except sell fruit by putting it in a basket, carrying it on my head and selling it at the northeast of the market,” she said.

Within a year, she saved up and purchased a ticket for a new wooden stall from the government, which was holding a “lucky draw” for spaces. “A stall was very cheap at that time. A stall was worth less than 10,000 riel ($2.50). We bought it with gold,” she said.

She drew Number 18, and went on selling locally grown products: papayas, mangoes, bananas, jackfruit. The business did well, and she added imported items – grapes and apples, for example – from the US, Thailand, Vietnam and Korea. After years in business, Stall Number 18 burned down on Monday.

Samoeurn is now 48, with four kids, a husband who works as a civil servant, and a mother whom the family looks after. With her main source of income out of commission, the speed with which she rebuilds is essential. Optimistically, she says, Stall Number 18 will be back in full swing by December 10th. She has no plans to leave the fruit business.

“I’ll try to sell my best after getting the new stall until I am old and cannot sell,” Samoeurn said. “We do not have another job besides this.”

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