Encouraged by the government and aid organizations, local people are rediscovering their natural talent as weavers and craftsmen. A number of rehabilitation programs have sprung up since the eighties such as the gift shop at Wat Thanh in Phnom Penh, a co-op that trains Cambodians disabled by landmines in making attractive items out of silk and cotton fabrics, rattan, bamboo, wood and clay. The result is a pleasing selection of purses and handbags, clothing, furnishings, paintings and many other items.
The sale and export of registered antique pieces is strictly forbidden. This, alas, has not prevented thousands of priceless artifacts from Angkor being stolen over the years, and sold overseas. Because of this and protective laws, you are unlikely to come across genuine antiques openly on sale in Cambodia.
Carried out mainly by women, many of whom cultivate and harvest the reeds by themselves, it is also an important aspect of rehabilitation programs for victims of landmines. The dexterity of the local people is beautifully reflected in products of all kinds, including baskets, bowls, plates, and many other useful items.
Betel Nut Boxes
These cute containers once reflected the status of their user according to its size, design and the material from which it was made. Mostly of silver, many carry ornate designs, and are often crafted into animal shapes. Originals usually contain a higher quantity of silver, but the newly manufactured varieties are still handmade, and a careful choice can provide you with attractive souvenirs or thoughtful lightweight gifts.
Some very cheap and amusing designs are available, which make excellent small gifts or souvenirs.
Custom Made Tailoring
Following the lead of Bangkok’s ubiquitous and often over-persuasive purveyors of made-to-measure clothes, ready in a day or even less, there are now many tailor shops opening in Phnom Penh. Tailors will happily copy from a photo or from a sample in your suitcase.
Gold and Gems
24-carat gold is used for most pieces in the Chinese tradition with prices fluctuating with the daily market value. Jewelry tends to be simple and unsophisticated, and although locally mined precious stones – especially rubies, sapphires and emeralds – can make excellent buys, beware of the increasing numbers of fakes. Lacquerware Most pieces originate in Vietnam, or are made locally by expatriate Vietnamese craftsmen. Local markets normally have a good supply, and the prices are often more competitive (with suitable bargaining) than in the markets of Vietnam.
Rice Paper Prints (‘Temple Rubbings’)
A lightweight, decorative, inexpensive and attractive buy, made by placing rice paper over a mould taken from a bas-relief carving from one of the Angkor temples and lightly rubbing over it with soft charcoal. When framed and suitably illuminated, they can look superb.
Silver was prized in the 11th century for religious and ceremonial purposes. With Cambodia’s tourism industry expanding, numerous silver shops have sprung up in Phnom Penh, selling carved decorative and practical items. Other outlets are in village centres such as Tul Mau, roughly 30km north of the city. The normal working material is an alloy containing 70-80% of pure silver, and prices are based on a combination of weight and artistry, which puts bargaining skills to a good test.
Cambodia has excellent reproductions and copies available at reasonable prices. The intrinsic skill of craftsmen – using the same locally mined stone used to build the ancient temples – produces sculptures of such quality that, with artificially induced weathering, have even fooled some experts. There are also bronze copies of small statues, Buddha figures, heads and apsaras for sale. These can be exported freely, but if you pass through Thailand on the way home, remember that the export of Buddha figures from that country is not allowed.
The krama is the typical and ubiquitous locally worn chequered scarf. Uniquely Khmer; inexpensive, and immensely practical.
Weaving Silk in Cambodia is still handmade using traditional methods with the pattern dyed into the threads before the silk is woven, thus the task of dying and weaving a single piece can take several weeks. Older silk pieces (pre-1970) are increasingly prized.
Weavers can be seen in action at the historic silk centre of Koh Dach outside Phnom Penh. Some nice handiwork comes from Kompong Cham, Takeo and Kandal provinces.
A traditional, if sometimes heavy, addition to your baggage allowance are carved wooden apsaras (nymphs), and a variety of other attractive and decorative wooden items, including furniture, which can be shipped home. Since the quality and maturity of the wood dictates its value as much as the handiwork, care in selection is needed, especially for more expensive items, so shop around.