In front of a handicraft workshop in Pursat province, hundreds of sugar palm tree products are displayed on long tables, their uniqueness attracting curiosity from those passing by.
Tissue boxes, cups, bowls, teapots, pestle and mortars, ladles, forks, spoons, plates and chopsticks – souvenirs of different sizes and styles, all made using sugar palm by craftsman San Pov in his workshop in Bakan district’s Boeung Chhouk village.
The long slender sugar palm tree has long been honoured in poetry and art for its important role in providing income and building materials in Cambodia for generations.
It can be harvested for its leaves, flowers, fruit and trunk. Palm sugar is also present in many Khmer food recipes, while its juice and wine remain local favourites. Thatched roofs, fans and hats made from palm wood are still a common sight in rural Cambodia, while it remains the building material of choice for many rural homes and boats.
At Pov’s workshop, which specialises in converting dead trees into usable objects, his products bring sugar palm products into modern usage, taking these rural delights and introducing them to city dwellers, restaurants and hotels.
After going through a business crisis almost 10 years ago, forcing him to sell his livestock and rice field, the craftsman started his small family business that has grown exponentially and now employs more than 120 workers – more than 50 per cent of whom are women.
“I’ve been doing sugar palm handicrafts for about 10 years. I started very small as a family business in 2004."
“In the past three to four years, I’ve expanded hugely. My workshop is on a big 25 metre by 25 metre plot of land. I invested in lathe machines [machines that process wood] from China after using $190,000 I borrowed,” Pov said.
Because of his product’s uniqueness, Pov has received orders from clients overseas too.
“Now my workshop is very busy, but not only with local clients. Orders have also come from Thailand and the US,” he said.
The business has faced some criticism for what some view as encouraging the cutting down of sugar palm trees. Pov, however, believes this is based on a misconception of how his operation works.
“I think it’s only a small minority of people that have this misconception about my business. Most people support me because they know that I don’t use palm trees that were cut down – I only buy the dead ones. The palm trees that I use are the very old ones that have died or ones that were struck by lightning.”
Pov is committed to promoting Khmer identity and culture, as well as supporting his local community, through his products. He proudly states that he employs some workers without skills and trains them up to perform jobs.
“I pay my workers and craftsmen a reasonable salary of $250 to $350 a month. The lead craftsman can even earn $500 per month.”
Pov’s sugar palm products are retailed in 25 provinces and cities throughout Cambodia. Prices range from 6,000 riel ($1.50) for a small cup to 8,000 riel for a large one. He also sells luxury palm products such as furniture that can cost up to $50,000.