The word ‘souvenir’ is derived from the French for to remember, and far more than their beauty or intrinsic value that of course is the ultimate purpose of those odd trinkets we buy when we travel. We’re not really buying a thing so much as a memory trigger: for that moment on a rubbish day at home when our eye should fall on the misshapen elephant on the shelf that instantly transports us back to the lazy pleasures of a tropical land.
But even though aesthetics or worth are not necessarily the most important features of a good souvenir, we do have some requirements of them. A few years ago the German development agency GTZ (as it was then known) conducted a survey among tourists in Siem Reap to find out what it is they most seek in the souvenirs they buy here. In response, an overwhelming majority felt it was important that souvenirs of Cambodia should be made in Cambodia. This makes a lot of sense. After all, most people want to feel like they’re taking a little something of the country they’re visiting back home with them, and it is important to many that their purchases contribute to the local economy too.
Which is a shame really as most of the stuff that’s sold in the markets in Siem Reap has probably spent less time here than the average tourist. The survey found that much of what is sold is produced in, for example, Vietnam and trucked here and all across the region for sale. And you can ask the market trader as much as you like whether it was made here or not, she knows what you want to hear.
And this is a problem not just for tourists; the consequences for the local economy are pretty awful. It’s staggering to imagine that even though two million plus tourists coming to Cambodia every year, the majority of whom go to Siem Reap, the province remains the third poorest in the country. Barely a drop of the rain of money that is pouring down on Siem Reap is touching the local people.
So how can you ensure your souvenir really is from Siem Reap? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule that I can tell you unfortunately. Buying from local artists is one way. For example, at Sao Mao (behind the Old Market) you can buy silver jewellery that is made here, as well as jewellery that is made out of old bullet casings, designed by a French woman, but made by local artisans. Then there is Theam’s House whose beautiful lacquer-work I couldn’t rave about enough if I tried. And shops such as Artisans d’Angkor and Senteurs d’Angkor also have all of their products made here
Within the markets you’ll find products made with lpeak that are produced here; see the picture below. And I believe, though cannot be sure, that the bamboo kitchen products are made here too. After that, it’s a lottery.
However, the German agency, which is now called GIZ, has come up with one solution that should help tourists and the local economy. They have developed a seal of authenticity that guarantees that the products on which you find it are made in Siem Reap.
The seals are produced using a special method, which means they are highly metallic (not printed) and they also split into four – to prevent the inevitable imitations. The project is still in its early stages, however a good number of local artisans (almost 20) have signed up and more will do so in time. Keep an eye out for the seal and help to make a real difference for local people and really bring home a true piece of Cambodia to see you through the grey days at home.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 26th April, 2015.