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Japanese aromatherapist uses ancient herbal secrets

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A little workshop, a cute store, beautiful products and a pretty garden: Kru Khmer is a Siem Reap gem that’s starting to sparkle.

Kru Khmer, named after Cambodia’s traditional healers or magic men,  is a home-grown sustainable business set up by Japanese-native Chihiro Shinoda and, joining the likes of Bodia and Senteurs d’Angkor, it has created a high quality boutique brand using ingredients native to Cambodia.

While the business has grown from strength to strength since its inception, now working out of a visitor-friendly workshop in Chiri Village (near the British English Language School)  and providing amenities for guests in La Residence d’Angkor and Sothea hotels, Chihiro decided the company needed more exposure and added another retail outlet.

“Before our workshop was in the West Baray,” she says. “We thought to just make a product and sell to the hotels, but then we moved to the city so we could have a shop as well. Then I thought we needed a shop near the Old Market.”

The new Old Market shop, which faces the river, sells all of Kru Khmer’s staples. Bath salts, teas, creams, oils and balms, all created entirely natural from herbs sourced from Cambodian farmers by Chihiro and her staff.

“In the beginning it was just the bath salts and the bath tea,  but then we knew more and more about the products we could get in Cambodia. What I really want is for the products to use as much local material as possible,” explains Chihiro.

“We buy from local farmers around Siem Reap and also from Pailin province, and  90 per cent of our products we make here in the workshop.”

While the new Old Market shop has the products and convenience, a venture a little out of town to Kru Khmer HQ is a real treat. Chihiro runs Japanese or English tours around her workshop where visitors can sit in the herb garden sampling the tea or try their hand at making their own products to take home.

Chihiro herself is something of an expert in brewing concoctions. Having been interested in aromatherapy from a young age, she has studied techniques with courses in London and her

native Japan. “Of course the herbs you can grow here and in European countries are very different, so after I came here I re-searched myself and went to study herbs and traditional medi-cine in Chiang Mai.

“After that I visited the Kru Khmer. It was interesting.”

The Kru Khmer, after which Chihiro named her business,  are the herbal experts of Cambodia. Some call them traditional healers, others call them magic men, but Chihiro learned some of their recipes and techniques and applied them to her products.

“Kru means teacher,” she says. “Cambodian medicine is 50 per cent  practical and 50 per cent magic. There are lots of Kru Khmer in the country side where there are no hospitals or doctors, it’s still what the people use.”

One of Chihiro’s most innovative products is her Deet-free mossie spray.

“The repellent you get in Cambodia mainly comes from Thailand, there is a very high Deet percentage compared to other countries, and it’s a chemical, it can be dangerous for humans,” she explains. “One day, I dropped the cream and my desk melted and changed colour.

“That was scary, so I decided to mix something for myself, and then thought I’d make it for the shop.”

For Chihiro, there are infinite possibilities on where she can take her business, and says while it was tough at first, the longer she works at it, the more she appreciates what she’s learned.

“In the beginning I really didn’t know a lot about Cambodia, the people or the culture.

“I wanted to set up a sustainable business but so I had lots of problems and difficulties,” she explains.

“But now I’ve been living here for four years, I’ve met lots of very nice people who’ve worked with me and helped me a lot.”

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