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.”