At the Prek Pnov wholesale fish market, on National Road 5, customers begin arriving around 2am. It’s one of the only places open on the empty highway at this time of night. Some drive in from the provinces, while others come from restaurants in the city. And they come for everything: river fish, catfish and redfish, as well as other creatures, like snakes and frogs. Many are still alive.
Sellers sit in a row alongside the road, their fish gleaming in the streetlights. The market is 12 kilometres north of Phnom Penh, but it is the largest of its kind in the capital, supplying fresh catch for most local markets and many seafood restaurants.
The air is pungent, and everything is wet. Sellers wear hats, raincoats and, more creatively, plastic bags around their shoes to shield themselves from the sludge. Earlier in the evening, the fish arrive – in metal tanks loaded into truck beds or strapped to the back of motorbikes. Men scoop them out by the basketful and carry them off to be sold.
Khean Dola manages a large-scale fish business and brings his catch to the market each night at 10pm. His company brings in two or three tons of trey phtok [mudfish] every day, directly from Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
Dola divides up the fish for his regular customers – large and small wholesalers alike – and weighs them. He will continue handling the fish, distributing them and waiting for payment until 8am, when he returns home to sleep.
“I took over this business from the owner, and I’ve been managing it for six years, so I’m used to it,” he says with a smile.
A smaller seller, Prum Arm, docks her boat near the market on the Tonle Sap around 4am. Today, she is late. She carries a bamboo basket full of river fish – freshly netted in Kandal province – into the market and sets it on the ground.
Arm has brought in 10 kilograms to sell, caught by her husband just hours before. “I wait for my husband until late night or early morning every day,” she explains. “When he comes home, I take the fish to the night market. It’s from the river, and it’s natural – it tastes much different from Vietnamese fish.”
Fresh fish like this costs more than the farmed fish from the border, but customers come from far away to net a bargain at Prek Pnov. The mudfish are often made into the prahok – fermented fish paste – sold at local markets in the city.
Others make their living bagging, carrying and loading fish for customers. Seventeen-year-old Ny Ka spends two hours on a fish truck from Kampong Chhnang province to get to the night market, where she helps her sister divide, weigh and pack fresh catch.
“I sometimes sleep at this place, because we have to sell it all,” she says. “It is hard to sleep in with so many people, but I have to sleep for a bit, because we can’t leave this place until the morning.” Sim Soeun says he has worked loading fish onto trucks at the night market for 12 years. He makes between 1,000 and 2,000 riel [25 or 50 cents] per customer – which amounts to about $5 per day.
Soeun sometimes worries about his safety: The market is very close to the road, and large trucks fly past on occasion. Ear Chariya, the director of the Institute for Road Safety, points out that accidents frequently occur near roadside markets, especially large ones like the one at Prek Pnov.
“We never see markets like this next to the main road in other countries,” he says. Arm, too, says she frequently thinks of the risk involved in her job – she comes from the other side of the Tonle Sap in a small boat. This evening, there was a late-season thunderstorm.
She often travels in inclement weather; she has to get home in time to take a nap and send her children off to school. “I am a housewife, too,” Arm explains. Lin Din, a wholesaler, wakes up at 4am to travel to the Prek Pnov night market to buy fish, snakes and frogs. She has been doing so since the age of 10.
“I don’t have a specific place to buy in this market. I buy what I see that is good,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t have what I want.” Din – like the others at the market – does not make much money, but she continues the work. “I can get little money from selling, but this is my career,” she says.
For some, it’s a career that can start to feel grinding. Soeun, the fish loader, works from 10pm until around 6am. He is 43, and he is often tired. Sometimes he takes 10 minutes to rest. “Since I am still strong, I can afford to do it now – but I’m not sure about the future,” he says.
When there isn’t work to do, he says he likes to fish.