Durable shoes made from old car tyres became the distinctive style of the Khmer Rouge regime four decades ago. And still today this footwear, despite its tragic historical associations, continues to prove popular among Cambodia’s older generation.
But most importantly for 87-year-old Samrith Un, this enduring sandal continues to offer an invaluable source of income for his family.
Un redesigns the traditional sandals, called ‘Sbek Choeung Kang Lan’, in many styles, offering his customers a modern twist to this shoe with a stark history.
Un was born in Takeo province in 1932. He served in the monkhood for nine years as a young man before he married his first wife in Pursat province in his 20s. Together they had nine children – the oldest of which is now in his 60s.
To support his big family, in the 1960s he decided to move to northwest Cambodia – Battambang province’s Moung Russei District – where he learned how to make shoes from old car tyres.
When the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime came to power in 1975, they popularised the wearing of the shoe that Un had come to rely upon for his income. Along with the signature red and white krama scarf and the black shirt and trousers, Sbek Choeung Kang Lan became distinctive part of the Khmer Rouge’s uniform.
Faced with the horrors of what his shoes had come to represent, and with all normal life dismantled, Un stopped producing the footwear.
It wasn’t until 23 years ago, when he married his second wife in Takeo province in 1996, that he restarted making and selling the shoes to support his second family of eight children born from his second union.
“I didn’t know what to do to make a living and support my family. Then I recalled my skills making shoes from old car tyres, but this time I added a little style to them. My creativity was appealing to the customers,” he says.
In total, Un has 17 children and nearly 60 grandchildren. Despite Cambodian tradition which generally dictates that children should support their parents in old age, Un says he has no intention of relying on his offspring.
“In these modern times I cannot rely on my children 100 per cent. As long as I can put in my labour and turn my sweat into income, I will,” the mobile vendor says.
Un’s handmade shoes are distinctive for their long-lasting and sturdy nature, much like the man himself. Despite being close to 90, Un remains active and healthy as he continues to cycle the 100km journey from his home in Takeo province to Phnom Penh to sell his produce.
With help from his children and grandchildren, Un can make 20 to 30 pairs of sandals per day in different styles.
“It’s not difficult to make the shoes. I have moulds and then we heat it with coal. Then I use a pen to quickly draw the shapes and design before cutting it by hand. I do not use any machine or equipment because it would need petrol and oil burns my pocket,” Un says, his wrinkled and sun-tanned face a sign of the long and industrious life he has led.
Everything on the shoes is handmade, but Un now struggles to source good-quality old tires from which to produce them.
“I can barely get enough car tires for the production line in my small workshop. Sometimes I can’t make enough shoes on time for the wholesalers, who usually buy up to 50 pairs to retail at their shop,” he says.
“The truck tires that I use must be between 1,000 and 1,200 [mm in diameter]. Each one can be cut into 20 pairs of sandals.”
While he sells about 50 pairs a week directly to shops, once a week he prefers to spend the several hours it takes to cycle from his workshop in Tramkok district to the capital in order to sell the handmade sandals directly to the public.
“I can sell between 20 to 30 pair of shoes which are priced between 15,000 to 20,000 riel [$3.75 to $5]. The cheap one has a simple style and the expensive one has a thick sole,” he says.
Most of his shoes are sized between 38-42 (EU) to meet the average local size, but people with bigger or smaller feet can order custom pairs.
“Most of my customers are middle aged people and monks. The classic stripe and slingback sandals [that many people regard as the Pol Pot sandal, after the leader of Khmer Rouge regime] are the best sellers. The modernised ones with the wing shape design are most popular with young people,” he says.
Un believes that his designs and the durability of his product are the keys to their popularity.
“I’m talking about the quality. Here look at my shoes that I have worn at least four years,” he says, pointing to his aged, worn feet snugly tucked into his own pair of handmade rubber sandals.
But not all his customers buy them for a daily wear anymore.
For some in the older generations, the sandal remains a source of nostalgia – particularly those who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime – who have had their feet protected by the durable rubber of this affordable, everyman shoe for decades.
“Some people just buy these car tyre shoes to look at them,” Un says smiling.