Pai Ri stirs boiling sap hunched over a large metallic pan that sits on a fire. Her little shop, near Siem Reap’s famous Banteay Srei temple, is brimming with customers, both local and foreign, taking a casual look at the many jars and bottles on the shelves and the other souvenirs for sale, which include traditional garments like kromas.
A palm tree farmer and a producer of palm sugar, a beloved local sugar product, Mr Ri has been in the business for over a decade, having established her base of operations in a so-called palm sugar village located half way between Siem Reap city and the ancient, pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srei.
She confides that business is good, with tourists often interested in learning about the artisanal process involved in concocting the sweet Cambodia treat.
“Many locals and foreigners come to the area to visit Banteay Srei temple, so farmers decided to open souvenir shops to take advantage of the opportunity. One of the things that interests them the most is how we make palm sugar,” Ms Pi says.
“When tourists walk down the road and see us cooking the sap over the fire to make the palm sugar, they can’t resist it. They walk into the store and look at what we are doing curiously.”
The sap of the palm tree can be processed and sold in a variety of forms, Ms Pi explains. In this stretch of road, tourists can find palm sugar cakes and bricks, palm syrup and granulated palm sugar, which looks a lot like brown sugar.
One kilo of raw palm sugar fetches anywhere from 5,000 ($1.25) to 8,000 riel ($2), she says.
Sun Lina, Ms Pi’s neighbour and a fellow producer of the sweetener, started her palm sugar business four years ago. As she pours the boiling sap into small moulds made out of palm leaves, she tells us there isn’t much demand for her products outside of curious tourists.
“We produce palm sugar for the tourists. We have never received a large order from companies in the area or in the city,” Ms Lina says, adding that, depending on the day, she is able to sell anywhere from five to 10 kilograms of palm sugar products.
While some local visitors are also curious about how palm sugar is concocted, it is mostly foreigners who come up to the little shops to take pictures of the cooking process, she says. “They want to know about how Cambodian traditional products are made.”
There are about 100 stores in the village, says Ngou Sophoan, chairman of the Banteay Srei Palm Sugar Association. He explains that the palm sugar business became popular when local farmers realised the potential for sales given the large number of visitors that flock to Banteay Srei temple every year.
Mr Sophoan says locals were trained on producing the sweetener by a number of international non-profits, including Germany’s GIZ. As more people realised they could sustain their families with the new-found trade, new vendors popped up around the area.
“Making palm sugar is not something that has always been done in this area. We learnt the trade from foreign organisations, who taught us how to make it following proper hygiene standards. That’s why we produce only for retail,” he says.
“We rely heavily on tour guides,” he continues. “When they bring tourists to us, they help us by explaining to them how palm sugar is made, since many of us cannot speak English. They are an important part of our business success.”
While some vendors own plantations and can supply their own sap, others need to buy the raw material. Mr Sophoan explains that a liter of sap, costing no more than 500 riel, can yield over one kilogram of palm sugar.
So Viseth, deputy director of Siem Reap’s tourism department, says the palm sugar village is an initiative of the Ministry of Tourism to help local farmers secure a regular income.
“The government is pushing for initiatives based on community-based tourism. The fact that the number of people working with palm sugar in this area is rising so rapidly shows that the idea has been a success.”
On the back of the success of the palm sugar push, the tourism department is now eyeing the possibility of creating a special section in the village for traditional noodles and another for typical desserts. These initiatives, he says, should attract even more visitors to the area.
“Western tourists are interested in the real lives of people and how they produce the different traditional food items. This is what they want to see and experience,” he explains.