Crowned with distinctive mops of spiky leaves, sugar palms are of great importance to the rural Cambodian economy, with every part of the tree being put to good use. The sweet juice extracted from the palm’s flower-bearing stalk is either drunk fresh or fermented to produce palm beer, traditionally sold by hawkers, although nowadays also available in tourist centres and local supermarkets. Palm sugar, much used in Khmer cooking, is made by thickening the juice in a cauldron and then pouring it into cylindrical tubes to set, after which it resembles grainy honey-coloured fudge. Palm fruits, slightly larger than a cricket ball, have a tough, fibrous black coating containing juicy, delicately flavoured kernels, which are translucent white and have the consistency of jelly; they’re eaten either fresh or with syrup as a dessert.
Further sugar-palm products include the leaves, traditionally used as a form of paper and still used in thatch and to make wall panels, woven matting, baskets, fans and even packaging. The root of the tree is used in traditional medicine as a cure for stomachache and other ailments. Perhaps because the trees furnish so many other products, they are seldom cut for their wood, which is extremely durable. However, palm-wood souvenirs can be found in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, easily identifiable by their distinctive light-and-dark striped grain, and palm-wood furniture has become fashionable in some of the country’s boutique hotels.