Cambodia has a wide range of souvenirs – colourful cotton and silk fabrics, wood and stone carvings, lacquerware, jewellery and much more. Local handicrafts have also been given a boost thanks to various local and NGO schemes set up to give Cambodia’s large disabled population and other disadvantaged members of society a new source of income by training them in various traditional crafts.
Local markets are often the best place to hunt for collectibles. In the capital, Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market) is the acknowledged place to buy souvenirs, and there are also several excellent markets in Siem Reap. In both towns you’ll also find plenty of specialist shops, galleries and hotel boutiques – usually more expensive, though quality is generally significantly higher.
As a general rule, when shopping for souvenirs it’s a good idea to 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 all Cambodians, is arguably the country’s most popular tourist souvenir, and there are plenty to buy in markets everywhere. Many kramas 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 female peddlers in the markets – a large one costs around $3.
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.
Wood and stone carvings
Wood and stone carvings are available in a wide range of sizes, from small heads of Jayavarman VII, costing just a couple of dollars, to almost life-sized dancing apsaras costing hundreds of dollars. 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 or a traditional stone-carving village such as Santok.
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, as well as elegant silver boxes for the betel nuts, phials for the leaves and paste, and cutters – a bit like small shears – for slicing the nuts. There are plenty of religious artefacts available too, 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, in which the two small brass plates, similar to castanets in appearance, are played by being brushed 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 of its alleged antiquity.
Woven baskets, rattan and bamboo
A versatile fibre, rattan is used to produce furniture as well as household items such as baskets, bowls and place mats. 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.
Silver and gold
Most silverware in Cambodia is sold in Phnom Penh and produced in villages nearby, particularly Kompong Luong. 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 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. This is considered a means of investment and explains the hundreds of gold dealers in and around 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 Pailin and Rattanakiri.