10 Cambodian Souvenirs Your Family Actually Wants

What to Buy in Cambodia

    Among the best things to buy in Cambodia are the local handicrafts, which are designed and created by the locals themselves. Encouraged by the government and various aid organisations, many local Cambodians are rediscovering their natural talents as weavers and craftsmen.

    A number of rehabilitation programs have sprung up since the 80s such as several gift shops and co-ops in Phnom Penh. They train Cambodians who were 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.

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    Antiques

    The sale and export of registered Cambodian antique pieces are strictly forbidden. Unfortunately, this hasn’t prevented thousands of priceless artefacts from Angkor being stolen over the years – and sold overseas. Because of this and several protective laws, you're unlikely to come across any genuine antiques that are openly on sale in Cambodia. But with items bearing intricate stylings and exotic forms, even knock-off or antique-like ones can make great keepsakes of your memorable visit to Cambodia.

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    Basketry

    The making of woven basketry in Cambodia is carried out mainly by women, many of whom cultivate and harvest the reeds by themselves. This type of handicraft 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.

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    Betel nut boxes

    These cute containers once reflected their user's status 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. 

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    photo by AKS.9955 (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

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    T-shirts and tailored clothing

    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. 

    Also, you can pick up some very cheap T-shirts printed in amusing designs, which make excellent small gifts or souvenirs.

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    photo by shankar s. (CC BY 2.0) modified

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    Gold and gems

    Generally, 24-carat gold is used for most pieces in the Chinese tradition with prices fluctuating with the daily market value. Jewellery 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.

    Most lacquerware 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. 

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    Silver

    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 30 km 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. 

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    Sculptured reproductions

    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.

    You can also find 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. 

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    photo by shankar s. (CC BY 2.0) modified

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    Silk and scarves

    Silk in Cambodia is still woven by hand using traditional methods with the pattern dyed into the threads before the silk is woven. The task of dying and weaving a single piece can take several weeks. Older silk pieces (pre-1970) are increasingly prized.

    You can see weavers in action at the historic silk centre of Koh Dach outside Phnom Penh. Some nice handiwork comes from Kompong Cham, Takeo and Kandal provinces. Also, check out the krama, which is the typical and ubiquitous locally worn chequered scarf. It's uniquely Khmer; inexpensive, and immensely practical.

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    Woodcarvings

    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. 

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    Rice paper prints or 'temple rubbings'

    Rice paper prints or 'temple rubbings' are a lightweight, decorative, inexpensive and attractive buy. They're 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. 

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    Paul Smith | Compulsive Traveller

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