Over the course of history the artisans and craftsmen of Cambodia have created a style of arts and crafts that is truly unique and exquisitely Khmer. While each artist has his or her own particular style, taking home an item of art from Cambodia is like taking back a part of this long tradition of Khmer culture.
With plenty of artists but a limited number of galleries, many of these goods are available for purchase at local markets. For some specialty goods or high-end products, you will need to turn to larger stores or malls around the cities.
Cambodia was once famous for its gems and kramas (like scarves) but has now added carvings, other textiles, lacquerware, and paintings to its list of popular arts and crafts for sale. The information below will inform you about what types of art and craft are available, and where to seek them out.
History of Cambodian Art
Cambodian art has been vibrant for centuries. Traditional Cambodian art refers to art from the Khmer period 802-1431 AD, when many of the famous Angkor temples were built and inhabited by Hindu, and then Buddhist, scholars and artists. Among the many temples, the most splendid is Angkor Wat, originally Hindu then Buddhist.
After the collapse of the great Khmer civilization, the Angkor sites became overgrown, but much of the architecture survived. Many features of Khmer everyday life have been preserved almost to the present day, particularly in the countryside, where houses, markets and daily scenes are almost identical to those carved in sandstone eight centuries ago.
Due to the popularity of the Angkor temples and other wats around the country, much modern Cambodian art reflects the style of the carvings and bas-reliefs on the temple walls, from mythological and historical themes to everyday occurrences. Surrealist swirling patterns, both concrete and abstract, are common, from the Khmer period right through to the present day.
Bas-reliefs on Bantey Srei
The impact of classical Khmer culture is also evident in the revival of several ancient arts such as apsara dance and its accompanying music. In pre-colonial Cambodia, arts and crafts were generally produced by rural craftsman and skilled artists, hailing from the glorious traditions of Angkor.
Today, government initiatives have helped to encourage the rebirth of other Khmer-era crafts such as textile- and silk-weaving, while still emphasizing carving and painting. Together carving, painting, and weaving comprise most of the art scene in Cambodia, although the scene is developing rapidly.
Textiles and Silk: Time-Intensive Specialties
Weaving has been an important trade in Cambodia for centuries and textiles were used in trade during the Angkor period. Today, with the help of government initiatives, it is still popular and provides employment for many rural women. This traditional art form employs many layers of string to create cloth.
The ikat technique and uneven twill are the two main types of Cambodian weaving. By using the ikat technique, weavers tie dyed portions of weft yarn to create diverse patterns. The uneven twill technique often results in the "color of one thread dominating on one side of the fabric, while two other threads determine the color on the reverse side."
Cambodia's ingenious weavers produce silk cloth, rugs, kramas, tapestries, and hats, and these goods are always interesting, colorful, and unique. Kramas are a type of traditional scarf popularized in Cambodia and currently spreading globally.
Woven silk is another specialty in Cambodia, and you can find amazing deals on splendid silk pieces.
Colorful scarfs selling at the market
Origin and Special Features
Although silk-weaving originated in China, it quickly spread to its neighbors, where it has been practiced almost as long. Cambodian silk starts life in much the same way as its Chinese counterpart: as the cocoon that surrounds a silk worm.
After that, the steps in the process have many variations and the secrets are closely guarded by weavers and silk-producers alike. Today, Cambodia produces its own silk fiber to be woven locally. From start to finish, Cambodian silk is uniquely Cambodian.
The unique craftsmanship of each piece is given a further element of uniqueness during the dyeing process. All high-quality silks in Cambodia are hand-dyed using dyes that locally source their pigments. The red dye comes from lac insect nests, yellow and green dye draws from prohut bark, while blue dye and black dye extract indigo and ebony bark.
The hand-dyeing process ensures quality and individuality in each product.
Weaving silk fabric
Where to Buy
ASPARA Art Gallery near Kapco Market on Street 9 in Phnom Penh is considered to be a leader in displaying and selling Cambodian art. ASPARA focuses on textiles, making it a popular starting point for tourists interested in textiles.
ASPARA focuses heavily on art that depicts scenes from Cambodian daily life, adding to the sentimental value one of these pieces can bring when you take it back home with you.
Mulberry Boutique and Bambou Company Indochine sell attractive memorable T-shirts as souvenirs.
Paintings and Prints: a Timeless Glimpse into Cambodian Life
Rice-paper paintings and prints are another meaningful purchase for travelers who appreciate art. Cambodian artists capture daily life, tradition, and history in their brush-strokes and you can take these all home with you.
In general, paintings are more expensive than prints (painting implies more originality), but prices within these categories can vary greatly, depending on location and quality.
Origin and Special Features
Cambodia's recent history has been traumatically tumultuous. Rather than suppressing art, it seems to have provided more subject matter for painters, poets, writers, and craftsmen.
Now that the country has moved on from those difficult times, the painters in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap continue to produce magnificent works of art that still capture the mosaic of emotions that surround Cambodian history and culture.
Paintings vary in medium but oil seems to be especially popular. Local landscapes and traditional Khmer patterns are common themes, as are scenes from history and Buddhism.
Prints are typically created by rubbing charcoal on rice paper, and while not as individualized as paintings, can still be remarkably beautiful when well lit.
Where to Buy
If you are serious about buying a Cambodian painting then you must stop at Asasax Art Gallery in Phnom Penh.
This gallery is on the higher end with respect to quality and pricing (head to the Central Market for the opposite). As such, its selection is diverse and its employees are well educated in art, and ready to help you through all the steps of your purchase.
Go to Asasax to marvel at local art or to pick some out for your walls at home.
Located at: N. 192, Preah Ang Makhak Vann (St. 178), opposite the northeast entrance of the National Museum, 12206 Phnom Penh
Hand-Carvings and Lacquerware: the Most Exquisite of All Handicrafts
After a few moments in a Cambodian market you will notice the small hand-carved statues crowding almost every stall. Carving and lacquering (layering designs on ceramic or wood) are traditions with strong roots in Cambodia.
Lacquerware reached its peak during the 12th to 16th centuries. The most prominent work from this era is gilded Buddha images, boxes and vases.
Origin and Special Features
The hand-carved statues seen at Cambodia's many markets can take hours upon hours of painstaking work. Many carvers rely on their work for a living and will dedicate their whole lives to improving and perfecting their craft.
At some markets you will have a chance to see how these tradesmen start with a single piece of wood, jade, or even stone, and carefully mold and shape it into something recognizable.
Many statues and statuettes are of the Buddha, but variations of animals, soldiers, and all manner of other designs are available. In addition to statues, hand-carved wooden screens and carvings are popular, as forms of wall-art.
Lacquerware typically features Khmer-style designs or depictions of traditional Cambodian life laid out on a table top or ceramic jar. Using burnt wood, lacquerware is colored black, symbolizing the underworld. The red color comes from mercury, representing the earth, and arsenic is used to make yellow that represents the heavens.
The lacquering process can be accomplished on almost any surface and you will find it in a variety of forms.
Where to Buy
Artisans Angkor is your one-stop shop for purchasing or just admiring the arts and crafts of Cambodia. Its main showroom features over 1,000 pieces, and its smaller galleries together boast just as many.
Pieces range from lacquerware to paintings but Artisans Angkor focuses mostly on crafts rather than art, and this makes it a breathtaking stop when you walk in and see the furniture and statues.
Artisans Angkor is an artist's collective, meaning that the arts and crafts in its showrooms come from more than one artist, allowing you to experience a wide range of Khmer styles all under one roof.
What's more, Artisans Angkor offers travelers the opportunity to see how the crafts are made at one of its workshops, or to see how silk is produced at a local silk farm. The company's responsible practices and commitment to the local people sets it apart from its competitors.
Located at: Stung Thmey Street, Downtown Siem Reap +855 (0) 89 624 686
Shopping for Arts and Crafts
Cambodia is a paradise for shopping due to the diversity of products, as well as the reasonable prices. Shoppers can strike some great bargains at markets where prices are flexible. The atmospheric markets and street stalls offer a wide variety of silk scarves, paintings, statuary, carvings and ceramics, while upscale boutiques offer designer garments and stylish clothes.
Opening Hours and Payment
In the cities, most shops open from 7:30 am to 8 pm, while some shops may close for a couple of hours for lunch around 12 mid-day. Day markets usually open around 8 am and close around 6 pm, while night markets start around 6 pm and close around 10 pm.
Cash is the most readily accepted means of payment in shopping streets and local markets. Most upscale stores and malls accept credit cards. The US dollar is widely accepted in the cities and many premium shops often quote prices in dollars. We suggest you prepare some riel for daily purchases; more if you plan to barter.
Shopping Streets and Local Markets
The best places to shop and experience Cambodian life are its local markets. Many travelers find that interacting with local tradespeople, as they create or sell their wares, can be a great way to build connections. Shopping is mainly focused in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Phnom Penh's Street 178 and the nearby Sisowath Quay, have a rich selection of boutiques, art galleries and shops. The bustling bazaars of the Russian Market and Central Market, packed with all kinds of goods and snacks, are popular stops for shoppers. Expect crowds and bartering.
Quality boutiques can also be found in the old French Quarter of Siem Reap, offering a wide range of tailors, artisans, galleries and shops that specialize in one type of good.
The Old Market of Psar Chas, next to the old French Quarter, is widely used by locals, so you will see more groceries and houseware there. The Angkor Night Market is replete with jewelry stalls, handicrafts, hand-made souvenirs and food vendors, a good place to try out Khmer food.
Alley in the market
Bargaining and Refunds
Bargaining is part of Khmer culture and happens almost everywhere. If shopping on the streets of in the markets, you are recommended to offer at least 50% of what the vendor is asking. But in modern malls, bargaining is unlikely to be the norm.
Once sold, goods are not taken back. If you are buying an expensive item like gold, silver or jewelry, be careful with counterfeit goods. For example, if a silver product does not weigh much, it is likely to have a low silver content and should not be too expensive. Using a credit card may be a good way of recording the history of the transaction.
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