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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Business drop-off hits 'Silk Island'

Business drop-off hits 'Silk Island'

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Silk weavers on Koh Dach, whose products are renowned among dealers and tourists alike, say they are baffled by the sudden disappearance of customers and fear for their livelihoods

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

A Koh Dach villager weaves silk. Hardly any customers have come to the island for months.

THOUSANDS of silk weavers on Cambodia's Silk Island, or Koh Dach, say their businesses are in danger due to a dramatic fall-off in customers that has many in this formerly profitable community baffled.

"For two months there have not been any dealers or customers coming to buy our silk products," said 58-year-old Pok Savmav, a silk weaver in the island's Ronas village.

"My family and the other villagers here now have almost nothing to eat because our silk products have not sold," Pok Savmav told the Post by phone on Tuesday.

The few customers who do visit the village are offering lower prices than before.

Previously, a set of handwoven silk products that takes some three days to produce fetched US$12.

But now villagers are only able to sell for around $8.

"If I sell at this price, I will get no profit," Pok Savmav said.

"And this does not include labour that I spent on weaving," she added.

Up to 70 percent of the 2,887 families living in the Koh Dach commune rely on silk weaving as their primary source of income, said Tat El, Koh Dach commune chief.

The remaining families rely on other handicrafts - making pots for example - or small-scale farming to survive.

Tat El  said that the situation had gotten substantially worse since October 15, when Thai and Cambodian troops clashed on the border in Preah Vihear.

I HAVE EARNED NOTHING FOR THE LAST TWO MONTHS... WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO US?

Since then, only a small number of customers have come to buy silk and have been offering lower prices for products than before.

Tat El said he was trying to find other markets for silk products in order to keep this traditional way of life going.

Worried about the future

Another Koh Dach resident, Chheun Chhoun, 60, who makes her living from silk, says she is increasingly worried about her family's livelihood.

"I have earned nothing for the last two months," Chheun Chhoun said. "I am worried that over the next couple of months my family will have no money to buy food - I have used up all my savings already,  so what will happen to us?"

For Chheun Chhoun, silk is her entire life. She has no other skills and says she cannot imagine earning her living any other way. Many other villagers are in a similar predicament, she said.

In Koh Dach's Ronas village,the majority of the 400-plus families who reside there earn their living from weaving silk, said village chief Kouk Sokhun.

Two months ago, many local middlemen, customers and exporters used to visit the village to buy silk products, but that traffic has fallen off recently. Most of the village's trade was done with local middlemen who were buying silk products to resell to tourists in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.  Sometimes, rarely, tourists used to visit the village directly and buy from local weavers.

"Villagers love their silk weaving, and they pass on their skills to their children. Many families have been weaving silk for generations," he said, adding that he was now worried about the future of the whole village.

Kouk Sokhun said if this problem lasted a few more months, the livelihood of people in his village as well as other villages throughout Koh Dach commune would become miserable.

"I learned to weave silk when I was 15 when my mother taught me, and I have taught my own daughters how to weave," Chheun Chhoun said.

Twenty-two-year-old Kouk Vicheka, who is Pok Savmav's daughter, said she also learned to weave silk from her mother. She is now married - to another silk weaver - but says life is getting harder.

"Nowadays, my husband, son and I go to have food at my mother's house because at my home we have no food," she said, adding that she has not earned any money from her silk products for months now.

Koh Dach, located around 15 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, has a long-standing reputation for the  high quality of its silk. 

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