Artisans Angkor: Traditional Crafts in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last December I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand, but before it started we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We came to see the temple of Angkor Wat, and stayed in nearby Siem Reap. 

Because of the temples surrounding it, Siem Reap is buzzing with tourists. It offers plenty of accommodations and wonderful food options, as well as different kinds of activities. If, like me, you are passionate about traditional crafts, the town has enough to satisfy your curiosity before and/or after you visit the temples.

The night markets offer everything from food to handicrafts, and are fun places to explore. There are several of them, so you might want to stretch your visit to these markets over a couple of nights. If you only have one evening to spare, you can ride a tuk tuk from one market to the other. Riding those is an experience all by itself!

If you only have little time in Siem Reap and wish to stock up on locally-made souvenirs quickly, the Made in Cambodia market is the place for you. Small, pleasant and not overwhelming, it has an array of booths displaying a wide verity of local handicrafts. I was happy to see some upcycling, such as these bags by Angkor Recycled:

After I bought something at one of the booths, I got it in this self-made bag, made out of newspapers. How cool is that?!

For those who have more time, Artisans Angkor is a must stop. This company, which started in the 1990’s, aims to revive some of the traditional Khmer crafts that nearly disappeared during the years of the civil war. It provides vocational training to uneducated villagers, teaching them new skills and allowing them to supplement agricultural work. The company gives its workers the opportunity to work near their home villages (the center at Siem Reap is only one of twelve sites in the province), and provides a safe work environment in addition to social and medical welfare.

Artisans Angkor is also an educational center for tourists. Visitors are invited to take free tours with English-speaking guides. They can visit all the workshops, and read English signs explaining the different stages of each craft. Some workshops even give hands-on experiences, which can be quite fun for kids and adults alike.

Nothing beats seeing craftspeople in real life, so if you find yourself in Siem Reap, make sure to visit Artisans Angkor. For those of you who can’t make it, here’s a brief virtual tour:

Stone Carving

The tour of the stone-carving workshop begins with a sign explaining the different kids of stones.

Clear displays then show the stages of carving a stone statue, from a block of stone to a smooth, finished image.

With hard stone, the artists start with a drawing on the stone. They then drill holes along the outlines, and begins to chip away the spaces. After the carving, the artists polish the statue to remove tool marks, and then sand it to make it smooth:

Soap Stone, which is softer and crumblier, can be made into smaller and somewhat finer sculptures. Artisans polish it with water, creating a smoother feel once finished:

In the spacious and clean workshop visitors can see artisans at work. Each person has their own bench, and is working on their own project.

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Carving a relief of a face

Wood carving

Wood Carving is similar to stone carving, except it begins with a drawing on paper, which is attached to a block of wood. The artisans carve the spaces out, polish the statue to remove tool marks, and, once finished, wax it to protect the surface:

Artisans paint some of the sculptures once finished, and decorate them with gold leaf. When finished, they protect them with patina as well as wax.

Metal Smiting

Cambodians use copper leaves to make boxes. Artisans first clean the copper sheets, fire-mold them, and then pound them to give them shape. They gently pound designs, usually that of plants or animals such as elephants. They make smaller details, such as elephant tasks, separately, and glue them on. Once finished, they dry and clean the boxes, and then soak them in a silver bath.

Cambodians also use copper leaves to decorate wooden sculptures such as elephants. These people, for example, are working on saddles they will later attach to wooden elephants:

Metal decorations are also added to lacquered wooden boxes:

Lacquer Work

Cambodians love to apply lacquer to boxes, sculptures or paintings. The process begins when artisan apply several layers of lacquer over two and a half weeks to create the background color.

For paintings, they use a pad with talcum powder on tracing paper to create the outline. They then apply varnish to the parts that need to be gilded. They gently check with their fingers to make sure the varnish is ready, and add the gold leaves carefully when it is. When the piece is finished, they spray it with hydro varnish to make it safe for humans. It takes up to a week for the hydro varnish to dry.

Silk Painting

For silk paintings, artisans stretch silk in a frame over an existing painting. They copy the outline of that painting onto the silk, and then fill the details in with colors. When done, they apply patina to protect the painting.

Silk Weaving

Cambodia has amazing textiles. Nowadays you can find many cotton weaving in the different markets, but traditionally the country excelled at silk weaving. Silk weaving was probably introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century, through the Silk Road. Local people turned woven silk into sarongs and scarves.

At Artisans Angkor, you can see a demonstration traditional Hol Lboeuk scarf weaving. Women weave these scarves entirely by hand on traditional looms. They take weeks or even months to complete.

Artisans Angkor also has workshops for ceramics and silver jewelry.

Your tour at the facility will inevitably end at the store. Beautiful and modern, it displays the work of the company’s craftspeople. Many of the traditional methods have been adapted to modern tastes and lifestyles, resulting in souvenirs of the highest-most quality. The prices, accordingly, are not cheap. Please remember, though, that any money you spend there will support the continuous preservation of traditional crafts, as well as the community of local craftspeople who could really use your help.

For those of you who are interested in textiles and are willing to go to the outskirts of the old town (a short tuk tuk ride away), Siem Reap offers yet another treat. The Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles will allow you to follow the process of silk weaving in even greater detail. But that, I think, deserves its very own post…

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