Tucked away in the northwestern reaches of Cambodia is the sleepy colonial city of Siem Reap, home to the popular UNESCO World Heritage Site best known as Angkor Wat. The magical vestiges left behind by the ancient Khmer Empire bring hoards of tourists to the somnolent location each year.
|A young woman works the traditional
looms at the local silk farm.
Nestled away in a private corner of this magnificent backdrop is a Cambodian arts and crafts company that may otherwise be overlooked if it wasn't for a handy tour guide or two. Working closely with local craftsmen and women, Artisans d'Angkor aims to make and sell various authentic Cambodian products using locally sourced materials in an attempt to revive, support, preserve and promote the country's traditional savoir-faire.
Historically, Cambodia has a well-established artisan culture, most notably in silk weaving. Dating back to around the first century when textiles first started being used in trade, this age-old tradition became part of the Khmer identity. Rural village women, often living around the Mekong river area, began working on their looms at home during the dry season. The traditional motifs and patterns from this period, along with influences from the temples of Angkor Wat, permeate contemporary Cambodian designs.
Founded in 1998, Artisans d'Angkor came about as an offshoot from the Chantiers-Écoles de Formation Professionnelle (CEFP) school-to-work program. The CEFP, first established in 1992, was intended as a response to the urgent need for the uneducated rural youth, aged from 18 to 25 years, to be trained in skills that would enable them to earn a living from a sustainable crafts trade. Artisans d'Angkor began with financial support from the European Union under the REPLIC program and was initially only intended as a three-year project, however, it has now become an entirely independent and self-financing handicraft network.
In ameliorating the local crafts scene, the project has served to benefit the rural communities whose culture was completely devastated during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Many traditional artistic skills either declined or ceased to be practiced as the estimated death toll rose to nearly two million people during the horrific four-year genocidal regime led by Pol Pot. When a team of 11 southeast Asian journalists visited Cambodia in December 1989, they interviewed the Minister of Information and Culture, Chheng Phon, who reportedly said that, "There were 380,000 artists and intellectuals; during Pol Pot just 300 people survived." Once freed from the stranglehold of the Khmer Rouge reign, the revival of previously decimated traditional handicrafts enabled the Cambodian people to begin rebuilding their country and re-establish much of the skills and expertise that had been lost.
Along with producing beautiful high-quality merchandise and developing the region's arts and crafts movement in a fair and sustainable way, the restoration of ancient crafts under Artisans d'Angkor has also had serious economic value for the Cambodian people. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 30 per cent of Cambodians were recorded to be living in poverty in 2007, with 92 per cent of these people living in rural areas, evidence of the geo-economic inequality that still troubles the nation. The annual national poverty rate was estimated to have fallen to around 25 per cent in 2010, therefore ranking the country as 139th out of 187 countries on the UNDP 2010 Human Development Index.
|A beautiful sunrise over the historic ruins of
Angkor Wat. Photograph by Irene Kim.
In an attempt to aid this dynamic progression out of economic stagnation, the Artisans d'Angkor project has worked tirelessly to give young Cambodians the opportunity to train in the craftwork of ornamental sculpture, silk weaving, wood carving, silver plating, lacquer ware and silk painting. Often they have helped those with disabilities who would otherwise struggle to make a living in a country where government aid for such people is limited. In training young Cambodians in various skills, these emerging artists have been able to establish themselves within the social sphere with a sense of dignity, pride and self-esteem, whilst also making an independent living for themselves in their rural home villages. According to Production Director, Eric Stocker, "Artisans d'Angkor [is] a beautiful experience from both the professional and human standpoint."
Since its beginnings 14 years ago, Artisans d'Angkor has created over 1,000 jobs in 12 workshops across the Siem Reap province and has established an innovative social policy that guarantees pay levels for their workers whilst also offering them various medical and social benefits. Of these jobs, 624 have involved craftsmen and women. Local artists have gone on to found their own association known as Artisanat Khmer, and now collectively own a 20 per cent share in Artisans d'Angkor.
As a result of training the local youth in various artistic disciplines, Artisans d'Angkor was awarded with the "Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts" in 2006 as part of a competition run by UNESCO. The competition was designed to recognise "high standards of quality, innovating, cultural authenticity, as well as social and environmentally responsible productions."
With the price of raw silk increasing exponentially over the last few years, this local project has unquestionably played a crucial role in boosting the economy and helping the burgeoning tourist scene thrive. However, it is important that the historic knowledge and cultural identity of Cambodia is not lost under growing western influences and modern textile production practices.
Along with being able to visit the organisation, its workshops and the beautiful gift shop on Thmey Street, it is also possible to visit its silk farm located a few miles from Siem Reap. The informative daily tour, in which one is able to watch the process from silkworm to weaving and everything in between, is arguably the best place in Cambodia to see traditional Angkor art being made and will certainly change the way you look at the products on sale in local markets.
Despite the humid temperatures and long working days, the best part about the tour is seeing the women making the silk scarves, cushions and wall hangings working with smiles on their faces, chatting away to each other whilst their children play about their feet. It removes all preconceptions of sweatshops and child labour, instead granting an unquestionable sense of reassurance that the money you pay for the high quality, carefully constructed products is going straight into the workers own pockets.
For more information or to shop online, visit www.artisansdangkor.com.
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