Amid a tangle of guest houses and restaurants on Phnom Penh’s riverfront are three coffin shops where caskets large and small stand in neat rows, ready to buy and made to order.
The shops are largely owned by Cambodians of Chinese descent who ply their trade by making and selling caskets and offering funeral services, such as the transportation and burial of bodies.
Tai Hok Huot began running his father’s coffin shop on Sisowath Quay more than 10 years ago.
His father started the business in 1985, and his uncle, Chao Bunna, owns a coffin shop a few blocks down.
The 42-year-old, whose grandfather was Chinese-born, said that a Cambodian aversion to selling coffins had opened a gap for Chinese merchants.
“Khmer people don’t like to sell coffins because they think it is like living with dead people,” he said. “People think it is unlucky. Chinese people don’t think like that.”
Wood is imported from Cambodia’s provinces to workshops in Phnom Penh, where “sculptors” sand and shape it into coffins. The exterior of a completed coffin can feature intricate carvings of trees and mountains or painted dragons, peacocks and flowers.
Prices range from US$100 up to more than $1,000 for the highest quality craftsmanship.
The coffins, according to shopkeepers, are sold mostly to Chinese people and made in a traditional style – narrower at the top and wider at the base with characters denoting happiness and long life painted at the head and foot.
But the shop-owners do not sell exclusively to Phnom Penh’s ethnic Chinese population. Coffins can be tailored to specific designs and measurements and occasionally the shops sell to Cambodians for cremation purposes.
Tai Hok Huot claims that Prime Minister Hun Sen bought a top-range coffin from his shop for his mother’s funeral, but he said that most Cambodians don’t buy expensive caskets.
“Khmer people burn bodies in coffins, so they don’t need to buy the expensive, good-quality coffins,” he said.
“Only some Khmer people choose to pay for the expensive coffins because they really respect the dead person.”
Though they are commercial businesses, Phnom Penh’s coffin shops also have a charitable edge. On the wall in Tai Hok Huot Coffin Shop is a log of caskets bought and donated to the poor, who cannot afford funeral services for deceased relatives.
“Sometimes poor people don’t have money so we can give them coffins for free,” said Tai Hok Huot.
A shopkeeper manning the counter at Chao Bunna Coffin Shop said this was also part of their business.
Competition in the coffin sector is growing. Tai Hok Huot claims that his shop used to be more profitable, but sales have dropped in recent years as competing shops began trading in Phnom Penh.
One such shop is run by 45-year-old Kang Uy Hok, who broke into the coffin trade about 10 years ago after closing her wood-selling business. Kang Uy Hok Coffin Shop is a smaller affair.
“We started our business later so we cannot sell as expensive coffins as other shops,” she said.
Despite the implied certainty of the coffin trade, Kang Uy Hok said that business can be unpredictable.
“Selling is not regular,” she said. “Life is not permanent, but we cannot predict [sales]”.