Much to the surprise of most visitors to Cambodia, shopping Siem Reap is a real delight, with everything from stonemasonry and woodcarving that date back to the Khmer Empire and artisanal crafts such as silk weaving and basketry to contemporary fashion and handcrafted jewellery.
There are few people more equipped to provide advice on shopping Siem Reap than Cambodian-French entrepreneur, researcher and hotelier Nathalie Saphon Ridel, who has contributed, along with her husband Jean-Pierre Martial, founder of Artisans d’Angkor and Chantiers Ecoles, to the revival and promotion of traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia.
A woman of exquisite taste — Nathalie also owns the beautiful boutique lodgings, Maison Polanka — she was not only a source of superb tips and sound advice when we first arrived in Siem Reap in 2013, she was an inspiration.
For more interviews with locals from Cambodia and beyond see our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.
A Local Guide to Shopping Siem Reap by Entrepreneur Nathalie Saphon Ridel
Q. What makes shopping Siem Reap special?
A. You will have a great time discovering wonderful things in very different styles and with an authenticity and quality of workmanship that is admirable. Fortunately for us, a group of talented designers have chosen Siem Reap as a base to open their workshops, studios, galleries and boutiques.
Q. Where should visitors to Siem Reap shop?
A. Kandal Village has an eclectic range of small boutiques, Psar Leu for the local ambiance and around Psar Char at night, Raffles arcade for renowned quality boutiques and a great High Tea, and there are also a few designer ateliers that should be visited.
Q. When it comes to traditional arts, crafts and handicrafts, what do you recommend people buy and where should they shop for these?
A. There are a few special things:
Basketry — though unfortunately more and more is being replaced by plastic. The best bamboo baskets are made near Kampot and small rattan baskets are made around Siem Reap, most of which is exported to Thailand. There is a huge production of mats and the most developed is at Kok in Kandal Province but it’s best to buy them from the biking vendors that you can find around town. Some projects, such as Saray on the Tonle Sap, are weaving great water hyacinth mats to order. There is also a new shop that has just opened in Kandal Village called Sirivan, which mixes plastic basketry and rattan — it’s useful and beautifully designed.
Stone carving — the Artisans d’Angkor is the place to go for large pieces to order. For creativity and uniqueness, on Road 60 there is a father and son from Battambang who are making the most spiritual and balanced carvings I have seen in Cambodia. Also, the activity is booming at Preah Net Preah, on the road from Siem Reap to Banteay Meanchey.
Woodcarving — it is wonderful and you can buy pieces at Artisans d’Angkor but we really should not be promoted now because timber is scarce.
Q. Silk and textiles are also special in Cambodia — why is that and where do you recommend people shop and what should they buy?
A. The vitality of silk design in Cambodia is stunning and I never dreamt 20 years ago that it would be such. Here we still hand weave! Plus, the input offered by talented designers has pulled the whole cottage industry forward.
I have to make a special mention for the delicate and perfect weaving of Weaves of Cambodia, in Preah Vihear province. On a farm located in a very remote province of Cambodia, from the red dust where mulberries are grown and is surrounding the workshop, 30 victims of heavy land mining are producing the finest silk — immaculate white! — that I have ever seen in Cambodia.
Their pieces —and it is a secret — are being used in prestigious fashion houses and sold in boutiques from the Champs Elysees to 5th Avenue. The project has been managed by a highly skilled weaver, Carol Cassidy, for the past 20 years.
The introduction of organza in early 2000 also opened new markets and prospects for Cambodian silk. And Eric Raisina is a magician with materials. He is the one who developed the silk fur and reprocessed the organza to create the lightest of silk — traditional silk is very stiff.
Romyda Keth, who is my partner in our Khmer Attitude boutiques, has an amazing talent at combining vibrant colored silk in an ultra feminine design for her dress collections. She has found how to modernize the way that locals look at traditional silk and give that industry a future.
Q. Most travellers make a beeline to the markets to buy a pair of elephant pants, yet there are so many beautiful boutiques selling gorgeous clothes. Where do you recommend fashionistas shop?
A. For the fashionistas, definitely Ambre and Khmer Attitude by Romyda Keth for ultra feminine dresses, and Eric Raisina for a unique Cambodian couture piece. For timeless elegance, including cotton and linen fashion and leather flip flops, Galerie Cambodge. For more casual wear, Sirivan at Kandal Village.
Q. There are also fabulous shops for jewellery and accessories — your favourites for one-of-a-kind pieces that are uniquely Cambodian?
A. Garden of Desire for contemporary silver jewellery by Ly Pisith, Khmer Attitude for a tribute to the culture of independence and modern Khmer jewellery by Cambodian master silversmiths, and the Friends shop at Marum restaurant for their cotton bracelets.
Q. Siem Reap also offers contemporary art, photography and design products. Any recommendations?
A. Since 1997, Theam has been my favourite painter, John McDermott galleries are a reference for photography work in Siem Reap, and we would benefit from more contemporary art spaces like The 1961.
Q. While there are so many shops selling beautiful Cambodian made products, there are also a lot that sell tacky tourist trinkets made in other countries. What’s your best advice to help tourists tell the difference?
A. First, let’s look at what we do not make in Cambodia:
- We do not have much varnished wooden products here, so the ones found in the market and night markets are mostly imported from Vietnam.
- We do not have horn — those products are from Vietnam also.
- We do not have silk satin or viscose pyjamas.
- We do not make lacquered panels with cartoons covers or posters
- We do not make lamps, pens, books, kimonos, elephant pants, fisherman pants, puppets, rayon scarves, elephant bed covers, colored table mats — all of these sorts of things, that are machine made, are not made in Cambodia.
- We do not make plastic products — the Angkor Wat snow balls are made in China.
- We might print t-shirts but we do not make them.
A few more tips to buying Cambodian made things:
- If something is incredibly cheap it cannot be Cambodian because locally made products are handmade so they cannot be cheap — it’s probably made in a factory in a neighbouring country.
- You cannot pay U$5 for a silk scarf — again, authentic Cambodian silk is handwoven so it’s expensive. If it’s so cheap it cannot be silk and it can’t be Cambodian.
- The products will each look different to the next — they can’t be all the same or be standardized because they are handmade.
What we do make in Cambodia: cotton kramas, silk scarves, silk and cotton fabric, clothes and jewellery, natural colored basketry, sugar palm products, and coconut shell products.
Q. Why is it important for tourists to buy Cambodian-made products?
A. What would be the point of bringing back something from Cambodia that is made in China, Thailand, Vietnam or Burma?
Q. The best market for buying Cambodian products?
A. Surprisingly, Psar Char is really improving. And of course the Made in Cambodia market at the Kings Road Angkor complex on weekends.
Q. And if visitors only have room in their suitcases for one souvenir, what should it be?
A. Theam’s small colored elephants* or a Yoan scarf from Galerie Cambodge.
Q. Must-do experiences in Siem Reap?
A. Experience dawn at the temples but not necessarily at Angkor Wat. Go to the Tonle Sap via Mek Chrey — there are amazing landscapes on the road to Puok — then return on a boat that has lights, under the stars, for a memorable experience. For a day trip, do a tour with a cause and go with the NGO Osmose. And of course, shopping Siem Reap is essential.
Q. One essential travel tip?
A. Do a helicopter flight over the temples.
We strong recommend consulting our guide to travelling responsibly in Cambodia and why it matters before you begin shopping Siem Reap. Lara also crafts bespoke Siem Reap itineraries and hosts Siem Reap shopping tours.