Along the way to Banteay Srei temple in Siem Reap, in Preah Dak commune – a place also famous for its traditional Khmer noodles – palm sugar makers continue to make their product in a traditional way, selling it to both local and international visitors.
From early morning, a huge clay pot cooker in the front yard sits over burning firewood, gently boiling sweet palm juice until it turns to a solid consistency, the sight attracting visitors who drive pass on their way to Banteay Srei temple and Phnom Kulen National Park.
Collecting firewood to be burned in cooker in front of his home is 47-year-old Pich Lo. He has a stand showing beautifully packed-solid palm sugar in palm leaves and fresh sweet sugar taken down from the palm trunk.
He is a second generation palm product producer, with Lo following in his father’s footsteps. The family hails from Preah Dak commune’s Tako village in the province, a village well-known for its Khmer noodles and palm sugar.
“Every day, especially national holidays and weekends, many tourists travel past here to Bantreay Srei temple. Many tourists take their time to taste the palm sugar and fresh palm juice as they are interested in palm sugar products made in a traditional way,” he tells The Post, standing topless stirring his bubbling palm juice.
“Some visitors buy palm sugar as a food ingredient and foreigners buy it as a souvenir because we pack it beautifully in palm leaves. Other guests just take a look and try the taste.”
Lo along with his wife and daughter smile and welcome visitors, even those just curious about tasting his product, as they want foreigners see how real Khmer palm sugar products are made.
“No problem! We still want them to witness our palm sugar products made naturally. They are very interested but if they don’t buy anything, it is not a problem,” 41-year-old Mam Pek, says in vernacular way while pouring warm sugar into palm leaves with the help of her daughter.
Known in Khmer as ‘skor thnot’, palm sugar is a by-product produced from the sap of the palm sugar tree. It is distinctive from normal sugar in its rich aroma and a light brown colour once treated.
Lo says that he climbs palm trees once in the morning and once in the evening, before cooking his haul in his large pot over the fire twice a day.
“For about 30 litres of juice, we have to cook and stir it for at least three hours at a high temperature. Then we bring down the huge pan out of the clay cooker and keep stirring it about 10 minutes, until the sugar become semi-solid with light brown colour,” he says.
When the sugar is almost solid, Lo, Pek and their daughter rush to pour the viscous liquid into small, round individual mouldings made of palm leaf and wait for it to solidify into a disc shape.
Finally, the finished product is beautifully packed in palm leaves and displayed for sale.
“The unpacked skor thnot or skor phen [solid sugar palm] is sold at 6,000 riel [$1.50] per kilogramme,” says Pek.
Meas Sopha, an English speaking tour guide in Siem Reap, brings tourists to see real Khmer palm sugar products being produced in the village.
“For foreigner tourists, they often buy the villagers’ products during their trip to see the process of making palm sugar. But the sugar they buy is usually just a souvenir, they don’t usually eat it, they just sympathise with the makers,” he says.