September 25, 2023
PHNOM PENH – In Siem Reap province, nestled between the Beng Mealea Temple and the Kulen Mountain, one can find entrepreneur Unn Sophary, known affectionately as Pari, skilfully crafting a delightful blend of flavours and fragrances on her “chemical-free” farm.
Pari’s remarkable journey – from her modest upbringing in Kampot province to her role as an advocate for sustainable farming practices and the artisanal creation of lemongrass tea, lemongrass essential oil and herbal gin – is inspiring.
The roots of Pari’s passion for transforming plants into beverages and remedies can be traced back to her childhood, a legacy passed down from her grandfather.
While she never had the opportunity to learn directly from him, her voyage of discovery began many years ago.
“I began my journey in tea-making, followed by crafting lemongrass essential oil, and most recently, I’ve ventured into creating gin using ingredients grown right here,” explains Pari.
She manages her business single-handedly, overseeing everything from cultivation to marketing and sales.
At her plantation amid the verdant landscape of Siem Reap, a variety of crops such as lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, lemon and basil flourish under her attentive care.
Her lemongrass tea, a fusion of lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and assorted flowers, presents three unique flavours, each chosen to offer specific benefits.
“One variety aids digestion, another soothes nerves for a restful sleep and the third incorporates French lavender to promote healthy circulation,” she claims.
Yet, Pari’s ingenuity didn’t stop at tea. When the market for some of her plant products seemed limited, she harnessed her creativity to craft essential oils and mosquito repellents.
“I’m not content with just these offerings; I also have plans to produce balms made from lemongrass to alleviate the discomfort of mosquito bites,” she tells The Post.
Despite the challenges posed by a small market and production capacity, Pari decided to introduce her products to markets.
Presently, she produces 300 bottles of gin each month, with each bottle holding half a litre of this herbal concoction.
Her recipe includes locally sourced ingredients such as country borage, one of the main botanicals in Herbal Kulen Gin, basil, turmeric, ginger, cardamom and pepper, complemented by a few imported elements.
The distillation process mirrors the local tradition of rice wine production. It entails a two-week soaking of ingredients, followed by a series of meticulous steps.
A defining aspect of her farming practices is her commitment to sustainability. Her crops grow without the use of chemical fertilisers, and no large trees are felled on her land. Natural fertilisers, derived from cattle dung and a blend of carefully selected plants, nourish her crops.
She encourages her community members to embrace chemical-free farming practices on their land, yet she acknowledges the reluctance of many to make the switch.
“Most of them do not cooperate; today, only two families work with monthly payments,” she says.
“Others believe that without chemicals, yields will be insufficient, so they resist cooperation,” she points out.
Pari hopes that more villagers will start cultivating basil, as it’s a key ingredient for basil oil production.
Lemongrass essential oil, with a price tag exceeding $100 per litre, has found favour among older customers seeking relief for their aches.
She currently wholesales her gin and tea to stores in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, including supermarkets, liquor shops and AEON Mall.
While acknowledging that locally branded products like her Khmer-labelled gin may not yet have widespread appeal, Pari notes that they attract curious customers eager to try something new.
“Additionally, prominent hotels use my gin as a welcome drink, introducing foreign guests to the diversity of local products,” she says.
Neth Sophanha, the manager of KHLA Spice in Siem Reap, introduced Herbal Kulen Gin to her shop’s offerings a year ago.
Despite its slightly higher price compared to imported products, she has witnessed a growing appreciation among customers for supporting local ones.
According to Sophanha, the allure of Herbal Kulen Gin extends beyond its origin; it’s about the exceptional taste that results from the inclusion of fresh and locally-sourced ingredients.
“The combination of supporting local artisans and indulging in a fantastic tasting experience has made Herbal Kulen Gin a choice for our customers here at KHLA Spice,” Sophanha emphasises.
Looking ahead, Pari aspires to increase her production capacity to around 1,000 bottles per month, with an eye on a broader market.
From planting and harvesting to distillation, her process encounters numerous challenges. It demands time, capital and yields of less than 15 litres per batch.
“To obtain a litre of pure lemongrass oil, we have to distil lemongrass leaves in 10 pots. From a 50kg pot, we yield only 100ml of oil. That’s why lemongrass oil is priced higher than oil imported from neighbouring countries,” she explains.
Despite these hurdles, Pari remains steadfast in her commitment to delivering quality. A half-litre bottle of her gin is priced at $22.50, while a set of three tea varieties costs $5 for a 50g package.
“I tell buyers that because of our small production, the quality is higher than that of industrial machines,” explains the owner of Herbal Kulen Gin, which has a valid commercial licence.
She said her tea can be brewed multiple times, thanks to the hand-chopping technique that rivals mechanical alternatives.
“Don’t be afraid of failure. Start small, learn about market demand, and grow at your own pace,” Pari advises aspiring entrepreneurs.
In her quest to share her journey and products with the world, Pari envisions opening her farm to visitors for tours, tastings, and eventually, farm stays combined with hikes on Kulen Mountain.