Fragrant Flowers amidst the Fresh Food ~ Battambang Market, Cambodia

Two small garlands of jasmine and Magnolia champaca

Fragrant jasmine and champaca garlands

Asian markets are such a wonderful miscellany of contrasting colours, smells, sights and sounds – and nowhere is this more true than in Cambodia’s second largest city of Battambang. Dark corners hide from both the distorting light emitted by flickering fluorescent tubes overhead and the burning glare of sunlight streaming in through openings in the walls. Khmer stall-keepers sit on trestle tables, the epitome of a calm and quiet self-containment that is at complete variance with the loud, cheerfully coloured shirts they wear and the buzz of movement around them. I was there in June, when outdoor temperatures average highs of 33C (91F). Somehow, vegetables and poultry products managed to look crisp and fresh in spite of being displayed in an open alley-way in wilting heat, and the fruit looked wholesome and cool, regardless of being hand-cut and on offer in the most unlikely of places.

Khmer woman in a straw hat selling cut fruit as another woman looks on.

In a dark space between the pants for sale, a fruit seller dishes up a portion...

Cambodian woman in a straw hat with a fruit platter on her head.

... while another fruit vendor plies her trade in the fabric "aisle".

Woman squatting in a Khmer market selling fresh eggs.

The "produce section" is outdoors in the searing sun.

Banana flowers, ginger and lotus stems around a concrete pillar

Fresh produce: banana flowers, ginger and lotus stems

Freshly plucked duck on a plate in a Khmer market

The poultry section...

Markets are a photographic challenge for me because of the wild variances in light and the abundance of potential photographic subjects. My big decisions are always about coping with the jumbled cacophony of images and deciding what to leave out. Karl Grobl, who with Gavin GoughMarco Ryan and Matt Brandon was leading our photo-tour, reminded me about using slow shutter speeds to get a feeling of movement, and I spend part of my morning leaning on a pole for stability, before wandering off to explore the space and finding my “subject”: a quiet garland maker in the middle of a busy cross-roads.

Scene: Busy meat market in Cambodia: sellers sitting on tables, shoppers passing

Colour, Bustle and Chaos: Battambang Market (ISO 1600, 70 mm, f /5.0, 1/30 sec)

Woman in yellow head-scarf cutting a leg of meat in a Cambodian market.

Meat on the hoof in the Battambang market.

Portrait: Cambodian woman smiling next to hanging meat.

Always the ready smile

Portrait: Smiling Khmer woman in a bright pink shirt.

Smiles for the stranger.

Busy Battambang market scene, with a woman buying garlands from a flower seller.

Jasmine garlands amidst the food and haste (ISO 1600, 20 mm, f /11, 1/15 sec)

Portrait: Khmer woman in a red hat behind jasmine garlands

The garland-maker

Portrait: profile of a khmer woman in a red hat making jasmine garlands

Quietly watchful as she works.

Close-up: Woman

Busy hands at work

Jasmine garlands hanging and woman

Labour-intensive garlands

Rich-smelling jasmine garlands are everywhere in Asia. Whether hung as protective talismans in vehicles or laid at public or private altars, they are made, sold and given as offerings to the local deities. (For more about their use, check out a delightful article from Vivienne Khoo: “Cancer and the Queen.”) Selling for pennies, they are labour-intensive to make, even by skilled hands; I love watching as workers use needles or bamboo skewers to thread jasmine, symbol of promise and purity, and assorted other flowers, in this case the wonderfully fragrant Magnolia champaca, onto threads made from banana leaf or cotton to make wreaths of all shapes and sizes.

This little corner was a welcome respite of scented calm right in the middle of the busy meat market, and I was very appreciative of the garland seller’s willingness to have me hang around and watch over her shoulder while she worked.

Magnolia champaca

A relative of the ylang ylang, richly fragrant champak sits on banana leaves, Battambang Market.

Text: Happy TravelsA timely reminder: no matter how busy a place is, it is always possible to stop and smell the roses – or jasmine and magnolia, as the case may be.

Happy travels!

Photos: 23 July 2011


  • Lisa Brockman - February 4, 2012 - 2:26 pm


  • dietmut - February 11, 2012 - 11:22 am

    geweldig je serie over Cambodia, greetings, DietmutReplyCancel

  • Elliot Margolies - October 1, 2013 - 2:47 pm

    very well written and photographed. you really capture the feeling and provide great descriptions. I just can’t understand how folks can wear long sleeves etc in the wilting heat.


    • Ursula - October 2, 2013 - 12:57 am

      Thanks, Elliot – much appreciated!
      Yes, the sleeves in the heat always amazes me too. And, they stay cool as cucumbers while I drip with sweat! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • […] for Lunch, Cambodia), others specialise in flowers (e.g. Pyin Oo Lwin Flower Markets, Myanmar; Fragrant Flowers … Battambang Market, Cambodia). You can buy talismans (e.g. Golden Treasures of the Old City ~ Bangkok) or money: shaped into […]ReplyCancel

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