Precious little things

You’ve heard of the expression, “It’s the little things that count.”  You know, those “little things” that add the special touch and essential nuance to every gesture and intention.  And little things count even more when they turn out to be little “big” things, like these Khmer silver-coloured boxes.

betel box tortoise betel box elephants

A friend gave a similar Khmer box as a gift — a gift whose artistry and cultural background is highly appreciable (and appreciated!).  What wasn’t obvious then was the cultural meaning of the piece in its contextual place within traditional Khmer society.

Cambodia has a betel-nut chewing tradition similar to many other countries in the same region (e.g., Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.) and elsewhere, like India and Africa.  The practice of betel-nut chewing is prehistoric and presumed to have originated in Southeast Asia.  Although betel plants were thought to be indigenous to the Philippine islands due to its geographical diversity in that area, the practice of “betel nut chewing”, as noted above, has a much, much larger historical distribution with extraordinary significance on both mundane and consequential events. (

Betel nut chewing has a special importance in the societies in which it is practiced.  Being offered a betel nut “chew” upon entering a household is a sign of welcome.  It is also a sign of good faith, as betel nut chewing is part and parcel of family gatherings and is used for receiving dignitaries, as well as being crucial in intimate negotiations, such as for marriage.  More often, betel nut chewing is just part of daily life — as an expression of hospitality, as a soothing reprieve at the end of a long workday, or as a relaxing activity after a meal.  Thus, chewing on the betel and areca nut combination has become an integral part of individual and social life. (,

This “betel nut chew” that is so essential to daily interaction is actually composed of a few ingredients.  Generally, the nut being chewed is the “areca nut” from the areca palm.  This nut is then cracked and sliced, then wrapped in a roll of betel leaf, along with a dollop of lime paste (calcium hydroxide, not the citrus fruit). (, and  Chewing tobacco is sometimes added to this combination, but this addition is a relatively new phenomenon.

800px-Arecanutbetel nut ingredientsBetelnutroll


Since a “bêtel nut chew” is not a one-ingredient operation, it is natural for paraphernalia to be developed which allow people to store and carry the ingredients to have on hand at all times.  Aside from the fruit (areca), betel leaves, tobacco, and lime paste, nut cutters are also needed, and a serving tray for presenting the ingredients to visitors, such as the one below from the Philippines:

Betel Nut chewing ingredients Philippines

“A container or implement has evolved for every ingredient and process connected with the preparation of betel in Indonesia. There are boxes with or without lids, individual containers (sometimes in the shape of the fruit mangosteen) for the nuts, the lime and spices, elongated holders for the leaves, tweezers for picking up and mixing, cutters for the areca nut, a small flat spoon for the lime as well as spittoons.

The most common materials are brass but other sets are made out of wood, palm fibre, split rattan and even tortoiseshell. In Lampung there are exquisitely beaded sirih boxes. In Palembang there are red lacquer sets and silver boxes come with chains to facilitate carrying. In the Javanese kraton (sultan’s court), the sirih set was usually made of gold, sometimes studded with gems or decorated with exquisite repousse or stained gold work. Sometimes it is made of other metals inlaid with gold. So central is the custom that the sirih set forms part of the essential court regalia. The king’s retinue always included a slave or a servant who carried the master’s betel box.” (

Some examples of betel nut sets include those made of wood, brass, mother of pearl, silver, and, in royal courts, gold.  In Cambodia, the storage, carrying, and serving of betel nut chewing ingredients often came in metal containers or boxes which reflect the social position of the family.  Silver sets, in particular, were indicative of wealth and status:

betel box set wood inlaidbetel box set brass

betel box set mother of pearlbetel box set silver

The prized accoutrements found in the sets also came in the form of animals from the Chinese zodiac.  Many tourists travelling through Cambodia delight in taking one home because they are so cute and detailed.  The craftsmanship and handiwork are exquisite.  And, if you don’t use them as betel-nut holders, you can use them as jewelry boxes, coin holders, and will also make excellent and unique presents for your loved ones.

betel box rat  betel box pig

Don’t forget to pick up your very own betel nut box when you find yourself strolling through the markets in Phnom Penh, Jakarta, or elsewhere in the betel-nut chewing world.  You would be taking a piece of history and indigenous tradition with you.

This little thing really is quite a precious big thing when you think about it.


Vireak, K. (2009). Khmer Silverwares.  Phnom Penh: UNESCO & Reyum Publishing.  Retrieved from

For another information source on Khmer society, you could visit

One thought on “Precious little things

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  1. This is a really informative and just fascinating post!
    I have learned a lot of my own culture. Being a mixed Khmer raised on Cambodian and Chinese cultures but on the background of North American society has made it difficult to fully immerse myself in all aspects of my heritage. Perhaps if my grandparents had survived the atrocities of wartorn Cambodia, and my immigrant parents weren’t sacrificing their health and livelihood in order to support my brother and myself, there may have been more opportunities to discover more of the ancient Khmer and Chinese traditions.

    I am glad that I have the opportunity now as an adult to have rediscovered more of my ancient lines, and to have read your post. I do thank you greatly for that! I am embarrassed to admit that I only viewed the little silver box as a decorative figurine that was expressive of the cultural arts, and was ignorant to its true value and history.

    I know that the next time I see those silver little boxes, my perception of their intrinsic beauty and cultural significance will no longer be the same. Perhaps I will also make the effort to acquire more of them, and ensure that they are given to those that can appreciate the history behind them, now that I have been properly informed.

    aw khun chrun (Thank you very much!)

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