Cambodia has a wide range of souvenirs and handicrafts: colourful textiles ranging from traditionally patterned silks to coarser chunchiet cloth; antiques and curios, such as wooden boxes for betel nut; and religious texts written on prepared palm leaves. Local handicrafts have been given a boost by various training schemes set up to help Cambodia’s large disabled population, and there’s now a phenomenal variety of quality products available. If you’re shopping for items sold by length or weight, Cambodia uses the metric system.
Most shopping takes place in the markets, with those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap offering a good selection of items. In the capital, Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market) is the acknowledged place to buy souvenirs – and also motorcycle spares; while in Siem Reap, Psar Chas and the Siem Reap Night Market are up-coming places to look for crafts. Local children at the Angkor temples sell trinkets for a few thousand riel – bangles, hair slides made from coconut shell and handmade bamboo flutes in colourful woven straw sleeves. A relatively new phenomenon in Cambodia are shopping malls – though they’re more akin to department stores. In Phnom Penh, Sorya, Sovanna and Paragon malls offer a vast range of consumer goods at fixed prices; Siem Reap has a couple of smaller enterprises and another is under construction in Battambang. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap you’ll also find plenty of specialist shops, galleries and hotel boutiques; though these are more expensive, their quality should be significantly better.
As a general rule, buy it when you see it: something unusual you chance upon in the provinces may not be available elsewhere.
The ubiquitous chequered scarf, the krama, worn by Cambodian adults and children both male and female, is arguably the country’s most popular tourist souvenir, and there are plenty to buy in markets everywhere. Silk cloth is widely available, woven in a variety of traditional designs and colours; now modern patterns have been created and can be found in the markets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In Rattanakiri, you’ll be able to find cloth produced by the chunchiet, normally cotton with some synthetic thread mixed in; it’s coarser in texture than silk or pure cotton.
Many kramas offered to tourists are woven from mixed synthetic threads; although the cloth feels soft, a krama of this sort is hot to wear and doesn’t dry very well if you want to use it as a towel. The very best kramas come from Kompong Cham and Phnom Sarok and are made from cotton (umbok); those from Kompong Cham are often to be had from women pedlars in the markets, a large one costs around 12,000 riel.
Though cotton kramas feel stiff and thin at first, a few good scrubs in cold water will soften them up and increase the density of texture. They last for years and actually improve with wear, making a cool, dust-proof and absorbent fabric.
The weaving of silk in Cambodia can be traced back to the Angkor era, when the Khmer started to imitate imported cloth from India. Weaving skills learned over generations were lost with the Khmer Rouge, but the 1990s saw a resurgence of silk weaving in many Cambodian villages (the thread is usually imported from Vietnam, though a few Cambodian villages have again started to keep their own silkworms). Most of the cloth is produced to order for the dealers and silk-sellers of Phnom Penh, so if you visit a village where silk is woven, don’t be surprised if they haven’t any fabric for sale. Unpatterned silk is sometimes available by the metre in dark and pastel colours and modern designs are also becoming available.
Silk is produced in fixed widths – nearly always 800mm – and sold in two lengths: a kabun (3.6m), sufficient for a long straight skirt and short-sleeved top; and a sampot (half a kabun), which is enough for a long skirt. A sampot starts at around $15–20, but you can easily pay double this, depending on quality and design. Sometimes the silk will have been washed, which makes it softer in both texture and hue – and slightly more expensive. Silk scarves are inexpensive (around $5–6) and readily available. They come in a range of colours and are usually pre-washed, with the ends finished in hand-tied knots.
There are several different styles of fabric, with villages specializing in particular types of weaving. Hol is a time-honoured cloth decorated with small patterns symbolizing flowers, butterflies and diamonds, and traditionally produced with threads of five basic colours – yellow, red, black, green and blue (modern variations use pastel shades). The vibrant, shimmering hues change depending on the direction from which they are viewed. Parmoong is a lustrous ceremonial fabric, made by weaving a motif or border of gold or silver thread onto plain silk. Some parmoong is woven exclusively for men in checks or stripes of cream, green or red, to be worn in sarongs. Traditional wall-hangings, pedan, come in classical designs often featuring stylized temples and animals such as elephants and lions; they’re inexpensive ($5–10) and easily transportable.
The chunchiet weave a range of cloth, employing generally simple designs based on a range of stripes woven with a motif – a bird and animal or even perhaps a helicopter. Traditionally the colours would have been from natural dyes in muted black, dark blue, red or cream, with a fairly loose weave, giving a rather coarse but quite durable fabric. Increasingly though, textiles are made from mixed-fibre thread and colourfast dyes; this gives a wider range of colours, although some can be startlingly bright.
Wood and marble carvings
Wood carvings are available in a wide range of sizes, from small heads of Jayavarman VII, modelled on the bust in the National Museum and costing just a couple of dollars, to almost life-sized dancing apsaras at $100 or more. In Phnom Penh you’ll find a good selection along Street 178 near the National Museum, or in Psar Toul Tom Poung, though the fact that they’re mass-produced means that they lack a certain finesse; to find something really fine you’re better off at the workshop of the Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap.
Marble carvings, varnished to a glossy finish, can be bought in the capital, Siem Reap or directly from workshops in Pursat, where they are produced. Although some pieces – the replicas of Angkor Wat towers are an obvious example – are rather tacky, there are plenty of other items to choose from, including Buddha and animal statues.
Antiques and curios
Antiques and curios can be found at specialist stalls in and around Psar Toul Tom Poung in Phnom Penh, and at the Siem Reap Night Market. Look out for the partitioned wooden boxes used to store betel-chewing equipment; you’ll also find elegant silver boxes for the nuts, phials for the leaves and paste, and cutters – a bit like shears – for slicing the betel nuts. There are plenty of religious artefacts available too, ranging from wooden Buddha images and other carvings, to brass bowls and offering plates.
You may occasionally find antiquated traditional musical instruments, such as the chapei, a stringed instrument with a long neck and a round sound-box; and the chhing, two small brass plates similar to castanets in appearance, played by brushing them against each other.
Compasses used in the ancient Chinese art of feng shui can be bought for just a few dollars; they indicate compass directions related to the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. You might also be able to search out opium weights, used to weigh out the drug and often formed in the shape of small human figures or animals.
Cambodia’s ancient temples have suffered massively from looting, and although it’s unlikely that you’ll be offered ancient figurines (most of the trade goes to Bangkok or Singapore), many other stolen artefacts – such as chunchiet funerary statues from Rattanakiri – are finding their way onto the market. To export anything purporting to be an antique you’ll need the correct paperwork, so check the dealer can provide this before agreeing a deal. Also be aware that Cambodians are expert at artificially ageing their wares and be sure that you want the item for its own sake rather than because it’s verifiably authentic.
Woven baskets, rattan and bamboo
A versatile fibre, rattan is used to produce furniture, popular with Cambodia’s expats, and household items such as baskets, bowls and place-mats, which are sold in the markets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Appealing purchases are the small, fine baskets produced around Oudong from the kunung vine; the best place to buy them is the hill at the site itself, where there’s a good selection of pieces for a few thousand riel each. In Rattanakiri you can find khapa, deep, conical rattan-and-bamboo baskets fitted with shoulder straps so that they can be worn on the back; they cost around $10 and are still used by the chunchiet to carry produce to market. Everyday items made from rattan and bamboo and available in the markets can also make interesting souvenirs, including noodle ladles and nested baskets; the latter are used to measure out portions of rice but are also useful back home for storing fruit and vegetables.
Due to over-harvesting and massive de forestation, rattan is now in short supply; the best products are exported to Vietnam and China with the poorer quality kept for the home market.
Silver and gold
Most of the silverware in Cambodia is sold in Phnom Penh and produced in villages nearby, particularly at Kompong Luong, which can easily be visited as part of a trip to Oudong. The price will give you an indication of whether an item is solid silver or silver-plated copper – a few dollars for the silver-plated items; more than double that for a comparable item in solid silver.
Small silver or silver-plated boxes in the shape of fruits or animals are delightful and make terrific, inexpensive gifts. Considerably more expensive are ceremonial plates and offering bowls, usually made of solid silver and intricately decorated with leaf motifs. Silver necklaces, bracelets and earrings, mostly imported from Indonesia, are sold only for the tourist market (Khmers don’t rate the metal for jewellery) and go for just a few dollars in the markets; modern silver designer jewellery is also available in the NGO-run shops and boutiques of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
There’s nothing sentimental or romantic about the Khmer obsession with gold jewellery – which is considered a means of investment. This in part explains the hundreds of gold dealers in and around the markets all over the country, where it’s not unusual to see local people negotiating to trade in their jewellery for more expensive pieces. Gold is good value and items can be made up quickly and quite cheaply to your own design, and even set with gems from the mines of Pailin and Rattanakiri.