A fire ripped through Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas, otherwise known as Old Market, yesterday morning, destroying about 300 of its 914 stalls and causing an estimated $1.5 million in damages, authorities said, although no one was injured or killed.
The blaze began at 7am and gutted the market’s eastern core along Street 13, destroying or damaging up to 60 per cent of its stalls.
Vendors rushed to evacuate as many of their goods as possible, and then could only watch as the firefighters battled the flames for two hours.
“We managed to stop the fire at around 9:18am,” said Khoung Sreng, Phnom Penh deputy governor.
“It was difficult to go in [and extinguish] the fire because most of the stalls in Phsar Chas are made of zinc and are low [-lying].”
Speaking amid burnt bananas and heaps of twisted metal, fruit seller Choun Seng Ngim, 23, said he had lost about $2,000.
“When I came [in the morning] to open the stall, another vendor shouted that there was a fire,” Seng Ngim explained.
“We hurried to bring our goods out, but my two refrigerators, all the fruit, and my stall were completely destroyed.”
Some vendors expressed dismay at the response of the authorities. Crouching to the ground to find gems and pearls in the ashes, jewellery seller Ton Channa, 35, said it took too long – 15 minutes – for the first firetruck to arrive, despite the market’s central location.
Forty-eight-year-old Seng Hun, who came to help her family evacuate cookery from their stall, said improved safety standards could have averted the disaster.
“All the store owners should have a fire extinguisher; only a few did,” she said.
“My sister [the owner] is so devastated, she cannot control her feelings.”
Deputy Governor Sreng appealed to vendors to have fire safety tools like fire extinguishers to prevent fires before firetrucks arrive.
“Windy season is coming now, so please, all people, houses, businesses, and vendors must be careful together.”
Paul Hurford, a former firefighter and head of Firesafe Cambodia, said “the extinguishers are certainly a good start, but they would have to go a lot further [than that]”.
Hurford said it was unclear how upcoming safety regulations in the building sector would apply to the Kingdom’s many markets, which he said are especially vulnerable to fires due to their easily combustible materials and mazelike passageways.
“When a fire starts [in such environments], you’re going to have an extremely hard time to put it out.”
Rumours also spread quickly on Facebook and elsewhere that the blaze was started deliberately to make way for a new development that would take advantage of the market’s prime location.
Phnom Penh municipality reacted by announcing the fire was started by stall number 01 owner Sean Ly, 48, whose plastic bags were set alight by an electrical fault.
“We are taking the opportunity to appeal to all journalists and Facebook users to please not exploit the vendors’ sadness for their own benefit or demonise the authorities,” read a statement.
Many of the vendors said they would file demands to the authorities for compensation, as the market is publicly owned.
Daun Penh District Governor Kouch Chamroeun said that a working group would be created to evaluate the full extent of the damage, estimating the total costs to be around $1.5 million.
Prominent historian Milton Osborne said in an email yesterday that he did not know the exact date of the market’s establishment, but he said it had been a fixture of the area for decades, and “its existence was very much linked to the Chinese Quarter of the city”.
“When I came to Phnom Penh in 1959 and lived in the Chinese Quarter, in Kralahom Kong Street, the Psar Chaa market gave the impression of having been there for many decades,” he added, using an alternate spelling.
“So it’s a loss, another break with the past that seems unlikely to be replaced.”