Night falls and the first vendors begin setting up their stalls. Guided only by the light from solo bulbs strung up on wires, they park tiny stools amid baskets of fresh produce and find a promising spot to lay their mats to settle in for the night.
“We leave our house between 5 and 6pm, and eat our dinner here. We sell our vegetables until 5 or 6am, or even 9am if business isn’t really good. We have to be nocturnal: doing business at night and sleeping during the day,” says Sok Khon, 47, a vegetable seller.
Located along Street 336, about 20 minutes from Olympic Market on foot, Doeum Kor Market is a buzzing fresh produce market unique for its nocturnal hours and for its clientele: mostly middlemen in the supply chain who will resell their haul to other markets or restaurants.
On this evening, the ground is still wet from an earlier storm. The sour smell of the street mingles with the fresh scent of fruits and vegetables, as vendors do their best to peel and wash their items before the first customers arrive.
One could be fooled into believing that Doeum Kor is a proper market. It’s actually a parking lot by day. A mostly outdoor market, it does connect to a covered section, where resellers can find a few shops selling meat and other provisions. If vendors have not vacated the premises by daylight, security will chase them away. In one incident two years ago, guards destroyed produce from about a hundred vendors in a bid to get them to leave.
And in 2015, a proposal from City Hall to demolish and modernise the market brought about 300 vendors out in protest. Due to opposition from the vendors, the plan has been shelved.
Khon and her husband, Bun Chomreum, have been working at the market for seven to eight years. They sit under a low-hanging light, sorting vegetables like bok choy, mustard greens, chinese greens, spinach and kale, aided by two assistants.
Longevity isn’t common here, with most sellers only having been around for a few years – perhaps because of the toll of the schedule.
“I am usually sleepy at night, although I sleep during the day,” says Srey Leang, 38, a sour fruit vendor. “I [also] have to leave my house alone very late at night to get here, which is very dangerous for me as a woman. But I have no choice: I divorced my husband a few years ago, and I have to support my two children in my hometown, Kandal.”
Profits are slim too. Leang only makes $5 to $6 each day selling fruits; Sok earns a little more, at about $15 each day.
Nhem Sopheak and her family own a vegetable wholesale business, for which they buy produce from farmers in Battambang and transport it the long 300 kilometres to Phnom Penh with their own trucks. At 11pm, the family can be seen tossing fat stacks of vegetables – eggplants, hot pepper, garlic and yams – off the backs of their trucks.
Customers begin arriving at about 3am, many of them standing around various stalls with big plastic bags of bought goods, haggling loudly with sellers. Buntha, 44, buys vegetables to resell at Choam Chao Market; today, she’s examining pickles to sell to numpang paté shops.
“This is quite difficult for me because I can only sleep from about 1 to 5pm and 8pm to 12am. It makes my heart weak,” she says with a smile and a shake of the head.
Resellers aren’t the only customers. Kong Rom, 49, sells fruits at roadside carts. He and his wife reach the market at about 2am to buy what he will then be hawking throughout the next day. They take all their fruit – papayas, watermelons, mangoes and bananas, among others – home and slice them until 8am before each of member of the four-person family loads up a cart to begin selling.
By the time 9am rolls around, most sellers and customers have concluded their business – be it by choice or from being chased away by security. Often, if vendors have not managed to sell their produce, they will have to give discounts to encourage customers to buy.
For Yeay Peth, 77, a slow night means making a long journey home with less. Living in Kampot with a widowed daughter and a crippled grandson, she goes to Takeo province to buy jambul fruit every May through July when it’s in season. From there, she spends 10,000 riel (about $2.50) for a van to take her to Phnom Penh to sell the fruit at the market.
“I am so old, and I know it is dangerous and risky for me to come here alone, but we need money in order to survive,” says Peth. “I’ve been working hard all my life, but I’m still poor.”