In a hole four metres deep near Ta Ngil Hill, in Banteay Meanchey’s Preah Netr Preah district, five men labour in the heat breaking stone to sell.
The stone is used to carve many kinds of artistic items such as Buddha statues and ornaments for the home, but the work is extremely difficult.
Some families in Preah Netr Preah district have been doing this job for many generations, and makers of art-ifacts in many provinces of the Kingdom have long relied on stone from this site.
Moeurng Seng, 44, is a third-generation stone-cutter. He is carrying on a tradition established by his grandfather, and his father brought him to the site as a child.
“I came here to break stone when I was young. My father brought me to here to work,” he says.
Moeurng Seng says people began digging in this area long ago to find knife-sharpening stones and kitchen tools, but later on the stone began to be carved into all kinds of ornamental items.
“Now, people use it for many purposes, especially to carve [artifacts] and produce everything.”
Moeurng Seng says the stone in this area has become popular for carving big statues.
“The stone here seems fragile and easy to carve. More important, it has very good colour,” he says.
Two sites in Preah Netr Preah district — Ta Ngil and Chornhchaing mountain—have colourful stone suitable for carvings, and many artworks have been produced from stones found there.
Moeurng Seng also learnt recently that stone in Preah Vihear province has inspired carvers because, unlike most stone, which is a similar colour to cement, it is a lotus-like shade.
Working in a deep hole covering 200 square metres, Moeurng Seng and his fellow workers are eager to find big pieces of high-quality stone because it fetches a better price and carvers always need it for larger statues.
“Carvers needs bigger stones,” says Moeurng Seng, who explains that “bigger” means between 500 kilograms and a tonne in weight.
Small stones are cheaper and are used to make simple things such as knife-sharpening stones.
Finding big stones is a difficult task, however. “It’s fairly rare to encounter big stones, because stone has a lot of stitching inside. Sometimes, it can take a month to find one,” he says.
Stones cut by Moeurng Seng have been ordered by carvers in Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham.
In the past, taking stone required lots of manpower, because cutters need to follow the size of the stone through its stitching.
Nowadays, machines are used to help with the cutting.
Moeurng Seng says that until 2007, 10 families in the area were engaged in this trade. After that, most of them stopped because of the difficulty of the work and because the market for stone was depressed. Now only three families continue.
“When there was no market, some of them migrated to work in Thailand and some changed jobs to work far away for other people,” he says.
Moeurng Seng says the work is difficult because it involves expending a lot of energy in the hot sun. Sometimes heavy rain falls, making the task even harder.
During our interview in late June, Moeurng Seng was able to sell between 300 and 400 kilograms of stone for 50,000 riel (US$12.50). He explained that stone was cheap, but accessing it was difficult.
“We do it every day, so it becomes normal work. But we feel crushed when a stone is damaged and we have to throw it away,” he says.
Moeurng Seng’s family depends on stone-breaking to survive. Because of the hardship he has experienced, he never encouraged his four children to follow his career; instead, he has sent all of them to school to prepare for different jobs. His eldest son has just finished grade 12.