Quintessential Siem Reap Souvenirs

A cotton checked krama, the scarf worn by locals in myriad ways, is probably the most quintessential of Cambodian souvenirs for travelers to Siem Reap, however, a number of other locally made objects have become must-buys for many visitors to Temple Town. These are my tips as to what you should buy, including everything from colorful lacquered elephants made by the artisans at Theam’s House to a soft silk scarf or silk ‘fur’ handbag by Siem Reap-based designer Eric Raisina.

Samdech Tep Vong Street
Skip the night markets if you’re after authentic handwoven textiles (most of what’s there comes from Thailand and Vietnam) and instead make a beeline for Weaves of Cambodia. Located in a sleek contemporary store attached to the Angkor Hospital for Children, the proceeds from your purchases go directly to the hospital, which provides free medical care to Cambodian kids an the disabled weavers of Preah Vihear who make these beautiful handwoven textiles, garments, accessories, and woven products, like cushions. I love the large vibrant textiles which make wonderful wall hangings and sideboard runners, however, there are also small inexpensive embroidered purses and wallets, like those above, that make great gifts that give back.
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
The most quintessential Cambodian souvenir must be the checked cotton krama that you will see around the necks, heads or waists of every Cambodian you meet. Cambodians like to boast that the krama has a dozen different uses -- some clever, some cute, some cringe-worthy. The most popular way to wear the krama is as a handsome scarf and a symbol of national and cultural pride, hung loosely around the neck over a pressed dress shirt. However, head out to the villages and you’ll see local farmers wearing them wrapped around their forehead to soak up the sweat, while village women will wear them as a head-dress. I’ve used mine as a belt. They’re handy for wiping the perspiration from your brow while scrambling temples in the sticky humidity. You’ll see kramas sold everywhere and in the Old Market they start from as little as US$1, however, these are generally made from a polyester-cotton mix and don’t do the trick. I love the authentic, quality cotton kramas sold at boutiques like Wa Gallery, which is where the ones above are from.
Heritage Road
Friends International is a wonderful home-grown Cambodian NGO that has now expanded around the world. They’ve reached out to some 60,000+ at-risk kids, youths and their families and communities through social services, training and education programs. Their social enterprise restaurants are some of the best in Southeast Asia, but I also love Friends ‘N’ Stuff, which is their line of fun eco-friendly products made by disadvantaged families as an additional source of income. Made from recycled materials, their range includes everything from the pencil cases and wallets, above, to jewelry and kids toys. They’re sold at the Friends ‘N’ Stuff shop at their restaurant, Marum, in Siem Reap, as well as at the weekend Made in Cambodia market at Shinta Mani Resort and other boutiques around town. When you buy them, you know you’re not only buying something that is eco-friendly, you’re helping to pull a family out of poverty.
Pub Street Area , Mondol 1 Village 284, 2 Thnou St, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
While cute souvenir shops and even haute couture boutiques exemplify the changing face of the retail scene in Siem Reap, the city’s famous Old Market remains a heady hub of traditional trade and commerce. Located right in the heart of town, Psar Chas is amply stocked with lots of things that you might want to buy—as well as plenty of things you probably do not. That said, perusing the labyrinthine aisles full of silverware, silks, handicrafts, spices, stone carvings, and other assorted ephemera is worth a couple hours of anyone’s time. Stay calm and haggle politely with a smile on your face, and you’re sure to find a bargain or two.
Charles De Gaulle
Co-owned by French-Cambodians Nathalie Saphon-Ridel and Romyda Keth, the elegant Khmer Attitude was the first concept store in Siem Reap when it was opened way back in 2000 in Raffles Arcade. The women’s aim with Khmer Attitude (and Saphon-Ridel’s Galerie Cambodge in the same arcade) was to showcase quality Cambodian-made fashion, jewelry, accessories, silverware, silk, gifts, and objects that weren’t available anywhere else. The women work closely with Khmer designers, master craftsmen and artists to source and produce beautiful things that are luxurious in their materials used and excellent in their workmanship. Other than Romyda Keth’s Ambre, Eric Raisina, Garden of Desire, Jasmine, Theam’s House, and a handful of other boutiques, you won’t find exquisite things of this quality elsewhere in Siem Reap.
After a cotton krama, a colorful lacquered elephant by the artisans at Theam’s House has become the must-buy Siem Reap souvenir. Cambodian artist and designer Lim Muy Theam was the creative director of Artisans d’Angkor, the organization responsible for the revitalization of traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia, before leaving to open his own crafts atelier and art gallery in his beautiful home. Theam exhibits his own art in the gallery space near the entrance, and shows exquisite objects he has collected, from Buddha statues to antique musical instruments, in the small salas and main showroom. Most visitors are here to buy Theam’s modern takes on traditional Cambodian arts and crafts, including lacquerware, painting and sculpture. Wander through the various rooms and you’ll see artists and artisans at work out the back, doing anything from painting canvases to carving. Amongst other things, they’ll be painstakingly painting and sanding the elephants that have become Siem Reap’s must-have souvenir. Avoid buying the bad copies you see in the market - not only are these poor quality reproductions but they represent a loss of income to Theam and his artisans. Theam now has a couple of shops and his objects can be bought from other stores, but it’s a real joy to visit Theam’s House, where you might just find the artist at home. Tip: it’s tricky to find. If your tuk tuk driver doesn’t know it, call Theam’s House and they’ll explain or they’ll send you a driver.
Charles De Gaulle, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap’s emergence as a somewhat unlikely destination for fashion lovers is largely due to the efforts of one individual: Madagascar-born Eric Raisina. Inspired by the Khmer artisanal silk weaving he witnessed on a trip to Cambodia back in 1996, Raisina decided to base himself in the country and hasn’t looked back since. He opened his original haute couture outlet in 2005, and his daring designs, colorful and often inspired by ancient Cambodian culture, have earned acclaim worldwide. Admirers of his work can find it for sale at two locations in Siem Reap: at his couture house on Charles de Gaulle Avenue and at the FCC Angkor hotel.
Alley W, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Owned by two long-term Italian expat Siem Reap residents who started Smateria in their home with just three tailors, the brand has become one of the most respected in Cambodia. Smateria practices fair trade principles, including good wages and leave for employees, pays for childcare, lends funds to employees to buy sewing machines, and allows staff to out-source tasks to their families so they can work at home -- things that don’t always happen in Cambodia. The beautiful products themselves are eco-friendly. Made from recycled materials, such as disused fishing nets and factory remnants, they include tote bags, handbags, clutch purses, wallets, toiletries and cosmetic cases, and laptop bags. They’re not only stylish-looking, they’re also strong and durable, so once again, you’re not only buying a souvenir that gives back, you’re buying something that’s long-lasting.
NR6, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cambodian-French fashion designer Romyda Keth is Cambodia’s most beloved home-grown fashion designer and her feminine, figure-hugging, silk cocktail dresses have become the ultimate wearable souvenir for fashionistas. A lot of the clothes travelers buy in Cambodia, from elephant pants to souvenir beer t-shirts not only won’t last, but their origin is questionable - most of the stuff is actually made in factories in Thailand. Buy a beautiful garment or accessory from a local designer such as Romyda Keth or Eric Raisina and you’re not only buying something that you can actually wear back home, but you’re buying something that will last a long time, and you know that you’re giving something back to the community. Both Keth and Raisina follow Fair Trade practices, treat and pay their staff fairly, and use quality natural materials that are made in Cambodia. If I didn’t live in Siem Reap, I know I’d rather my friends back home compliment me on my Romyda Keth cocktail dress than cringe at my elephant pants that will eventually end up in the back of the wardrobe.
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