Seasoned travellers know to always leave some space in their suitcases for packing keepsakes. Well, you might want to save a little bit more if you’re heading to Cambodia because choosing from our list of top souvenirs is going to be tricky, as the country is full of incredible artisans.
Cambodia has a rich silk-weaving history, with evidence found on some of the etchings that adorn the walls of Angkor Wat. However, recent history led to the ancient art teetering on the brink of extinction. The past few decades have seen great efforts to revive the trade, with Artisans Angkor in Siem Reap retraining communities. The organisation offers free daily tours of its silk farm. When buying Cambodian silk, it often pays well to steer clear of the markets, where cheap fakes imported from Vietnam and China are often masquerading as Cambodian silk. Instead, head to one of the many boutiques that sell the real deal. Lotus Silk in Phnom Penh is bursting with silk scarves, clothes and accessories in a range of designs and colours.
Trash is a problem across the globe, and in Cambodia, it’s no different – visitors are encouraged not to accept the unnecessary volume of plastic bags dished out across the country during their travels. Thankfully, there is an army of NGOs and organisations employing underprivileged communities to convert waste into a delightful collection of purses, bags, wallets, passport holders and other accessories. Friends International’s Friends’N’Stuff stores sell a funky range.
Investing in art isn’t going to break the bank in Cambodia, with plenty of affordable pieces waiting to find a home. In Phnom Penh, the stretch of Street 172 between Monivong Boulevard and Sothearos Boulevard is home to several art shops and galleries. While the majority sell traditional landscapes portraying glorious Angkor Wat or the pristine Cambodian countryside, an increasing number of galleries are popping up showcasing an exciting range of work from the country’s emerging contemporary scene.
Stone and wood carvings
Cambodia has a rich history in carving, both with wood and stone. Just take a look at Angkor Wat and other ancient temples, where intricate carvings decorate the walls. Visitors can see carvers across the country hunched over blocks of wood and stone as they chip, carve and create stunning works of art. While the huge Buddha heads that often line the pavements in front of workshops may be too heavy to take home, there will be plenty of smaller and lighter options available inside. Again, Artisans Angkor in Siem Reap is a good place to learn about the trade and meet some of the artisans at work.
There’s no way you can leave Cambodia without a pouch of Kampot pepper in your suitcase. Used by top chefs in kitchens across the globe, the premium pepper is organically grown in Kampot – where the soil is super fertile – in green, black, white and red varieties. As the peppers’ popularity has risen, there has also been an increase in the sale of fake Kampot pepper, so take care when buying it. The best way to make sure it’s the real deal is to go straight to the source and visit one of the many farms found in Kampot and Kep.
The Cambodian countryside is studded with sugar palm trees. In fact, they’re so common that they are the country’s national tree. In order to collect the product, men climb up the trunk to cut the fruit from the treetops. The sap is then extracted and heated in a large metal pot until it turns into a thick paste, which is then left to solidify into blocks of palm sugar; this is then used as sugar, or transformed into a variety of other items. Confirel is one Cambodian company that has sweetened up the ingredient, also creating candles and wine.
If you’re looking for something quintessentially Khmer, then look no further than the krama. Visible everywhere across the country, this cotton or silk scarf traditionally comes in red and white checks, with many other modern versions available today. The multipurpose scarves are wrapped around heads, waists and necks, draped across shoulders, used to carry babies and other items, and pretty much anything else that they might have a use for. Again, kramas come in varying qualities, prices and patterns, with the cheapest starting at about $1 in the markets.
Silver jewellery is especially common in Cambodia, with several artisan jewellery designers tapping into the country’s tragic past to forge a brighter future. Angkor Bullet Jewellery is one such example. Made of a group of vulnerable Cambodians with disabilities, who live on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the collective creates unique jewellery fashioned from recycled bomb casings left over from the war. The result is a range of rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and other accessories.
Silversmithing is another traditional trade that has undergone a revival in the past couple of decades, with the country now a treasure trove for those wanting to take home some silverware. From large plates with intricate designs to a range of ornate boxes, ornaments and other trinkets, this is another great souvenir to pack in the suitcase.
The ancient art of lacquer is another perfect piece of Cambodia to take back home. Also having roots that stretch back centuries, today’s artisans are creating a stunning range of work that seamlessly combines traditional techniques with modern designs. These range from decorative lacquer boxes and statues of Buddha to bowls and ornaments. The process is lengthy, taking between five and seven days to complete before being left to dry for three days. Theam’s House in Siem Reap has a range of lacquer products for sale, as well as a workshop that visitors can walk around to see the process first-hand.