DUE to the World Wildlife Fund’s establishment of the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project in 2005 and the government’s promotion of the area since 1999, the Irrawaddy dolphin population in Kratie province has become the top conservation site along the Mekong River in Cambodia. This has resulted in many villagers shifting from fishing to producing souvenirs and other tourist-related ventures.
For 54-year-old villager Chhneang Lorn, leader of a tourist boat service association at the conservation site, dolphins became not only the symbol of Kratie province, but also represented a job opportunity.
According to other villagers he was the first, in 2000, to begin carving dolphin figurines from pieces of wood, which soon brought him a satisfying income. Lorn learned his craft from his uncle, who built wooden houses.
At that time, no one saw the potential of his idea.
“I was the first producer. I thought [the dolphin souvenirs] could be easy to sell,” he said. “When I started to carve them, some people laughed at me and said I should choose another job to do rather than selling small pieces of wood.”
He soon proved the doubters wrong and even began to increase his distribution of the figurines, which tourists were buying up nearly as fast as he could make them.
“I earned a lot of money, and I remember I gave carved dolphin souvenirs to sugar cane juice sellers for selling. One time, I made a lot and displayed them for sale. I could earn up to $400 to $500 per day during special holidays like New Year,” Lorn said.
After seeing his success, many villagers came to learn from him how to produce the valuable souvenirs. He never asked for money and encouraged them to carve, because he knew the demand would rise.
More than a decade later, carving has become popular in the region. Lorn, however, found himself unable to keep up. His limited business acumen prevented him from expanding further and he was soon overtaken by other carvers. Now it seems to be over for the “inventor of carved works”, as many villagers call him.
“They started after me and some learned from me, but they can do better because they focus only on this work, while I focus on farming and tourist boat driving,” he said, adding that “some carvers are successful and they hire some workers to work for them”.
Chroek Phanney, 51, who works with his three sons, said he had three machines to produce all kinds of souvenirs, but most souvenirs are dolphins and dragon fish. He too has found it hard to keep up with the pace of recent upstarts.
“At first I was disappointed [that others overtook me], now I can only follow them in accordance with the capital and resources I have,” he said. “However, I am not jealous of them, and I recommended all the carvers to make quality products and to not cheat buyers.”
Nowadays, the sellers offer more than the typical dolphins in different sizes. Tourists can buy many kinds of wooden art, particularly pieces inspired by dragon fish, fruit and flowers.
Lorn recently passed his business on to his 22-year-old son, because he was busy with his position as tourist boat driver and the leader of a tourist boat driver association in Kratie.
He said souvenir shop vendors in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh would order a lot of souvenirs made at the Kampi Dolphin site and some figurines are even exported to neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam.
Lorn’s son could earn about $100 with the souvenirs in four or five days.
However, the profit margins have been shrinking of late because of a shortage of quality wood and its high price. But Lorn is optimistic.
“I think this business is still growing because officials at the Ministry of Tourism started to promote this region and I think more tourists will come and local tourists like buying this kind of souvenir,” he said.