Feb 13 2013
Visitors to Siem Reap are often disappointed when they get home to discover that many of the Cambodian souvenirs they bargained so hard for in the heat and the crowds of the Old Market are actually made in China. Thanks to the Angkor Handicraft Association’s new gold seal of authenticity, and its recently opened ‘made-in-Siem Reap’ craft market, you can now give the crowds a miss and bag yourself some genuine local goodies at the same time.
The market has 28 stalls offering a variety of locally made products from hand luggage-sized ceramics to cargo hold-sized stone carvings, and from bags and purses made from recycled rice sacks to original — albeit rather ubiquitous — paintings of the Temples of Angkor. You can even buy little bags of Siem Reap-grown and dried fruits. Out front is a handy cold drinks and snacks stall and there is also a brand spanking new toilet block.
Many of the stalls hold demonstrations of how their wares are made, although when I visited one Friday lunchtime it was strangely quiet — mainly because no one seems to know the market exists. In fact, I was the only customer there and many of the stalls were unattended which is a pity as there are some great items for sale. I did, however, see a couple of artisans at work. The first was a young woman from social enterprise Grace Gecko, deftly demonstrating how to weave the dried fibres of the normally ‘nuisance’ and highly invasive water hyacinth plant. The fibres are woven into all manner of attractive items including bracelets, placemats, purses and bags.
I must declare an interest though, as I have undertaken voluntary work with NGO Grace House — one half of Grace Gecko – in the past. But on the plus side that does mean I know that their water hyacinth products are okay to take into Australia as I have seen the e-mail from Australian customs.
The second master craftsperson at work during my visit was Daro Rachana, a young sculptor who was skilfully chipping away at a large lump of sandstone, slowly transforming it into an intricate work of art. His work ranged in price from $25 for a sandstone turtle to $5,500 dollars for a stone carving based on the dancing Apsaras at Banteay Srey Temple. And yes, they can organise shipping of the giant pieces to anywhere in the world. Prices seem to be based on size rather than weight, with a minimum charge of at least $500 regardless of destination. Still, if you are going to spend over $5,000 on a sculpture, I guess it’s worth spending that little bit extra to actually get it home.
Other stalls feature leather shadow puppets, ceramics, wood carvings, traditional Khmer checked scarves or kramas, statuettes made from recycled leaves and rubbish, and even a rattan chaise longue. Unfortunately, the painter’s easel was unattended, as was the large weaving loom at the entrance. I was assured that more of the demonstrators are in attendance between 16:00 and closing time at 19:00.
I actually enjoyed being the only shopper there. Unlike the noisy and much more commercial markets in town there was no pestering by pitch-perfect career sales people, the traders actually present all had time for a chat about their craft, and I was invited to join them for an impromptu lunch.
Unfortunately this quiet and relaxed atmosphere is not so good for business, and in truth you have to work quite hard to find this little market in the first place: The Association has yet to post a map on its website, and most of the town’s tuk tuk drivers and tour guides already have their own ‘preferred’ shops and stalls around town, so convincing them to take you somewhere they’ve never heard of, and whose location they will almost certainly not know, will be a bit of a challenge.
But if you are in search of authentic local souvenirs in relaxed surroundings, and want to be sure you are supporting the local economy rather than some foreign factory, then it’s worth the effort. So, here’s a link to a map I prepared earlier , and if you are directing a driver here are some foolproof directions:
Take River Road East in a northerly direction from Route 6 for about two kilometres. Go past Rosy Guest House, the Catholic Church, the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient and L’Oasi Italiana Restaurant. When you see the new “60 Metre Road” ahead of you, which crosses the river on the Naga Bridge to the left, turn right onto the unmade road immediately before you hit 60 Metre Road itself and you will find the market about 75 metres further on, on the right hand side.
If you want to save on the tuk tuk fare it’s an easy cycle ride from town, although the ‘riverside regeneration work’ currently makes for a rather ugly, albeit shady bike ride. Oh, and of course, you’ll struggle to get a $5,000 stone carving in your panier.
The first of a new monthly ‘Made in Cambodia’ Street Market, complete with live music and upmarket food stalls will be taking place in Siem Reap on March 2. The market will run from 15:00 to 21:00 on the first Saturday of every month on Oum Khun Street which runs between the Shinta Mani Hotel and the Royal Bay Inn.
The Angkor Handicraft Association Market
Off 60 Metre Rd, Siem Reap
Open daily 10:00-19:00
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.