While it is increasingly common these days to find imported souvenirs and household items at tourist destinations across the Kingdom, a small community in Svay Rieng province is thriving through their traditional handicraft heritage.
The Kadeaux Khmer handicraft community is located in Chambak Koang village in Svay Chrum district’s Tasuos commune in the sleepy province of Svay Rieng.
The local handicrafts they produce are made from bulrush, sugar palm trees and bamboo.
Kadeaux Khmer is a centre for the underprivileged, gathering vulnerable women, the elderly and the disabled to make souvenirs and households items.
The handicraft community was created thanks to an anonymous Cambodian-French man who was on a vacation in Svay Rieng province in 2011 and asked if they would like to collaborate with him to sell their products.
Before the community was formed, villagers, who inherited the traditional art of making handicrafts from their parents or grandparents, would struggle for customers.
Pov Vannak, who became disabled after he contracted poliomyelitis when he was a child, has been a craftsman as long as he can remember. Today, he is deputy-leader of Kadeaux Khmer handicraft community.
“A Cambodian-French traveller initiated the idea to start a handicraft community in our village. He has experience working in the hospitality industry in France and he was fascinated to see our villagers making handicrafts.
“He suggested forming a handicraft community so that he can help us market our handicraft works,” said Vannak.
Kadeaux Khmer was established in 2011 with 15 founding members.
Kadeaux is the Khmer iteration of the French word cadeaux, meaning gift, which has remained in usage in Cambodia since the colonial era.
“Today, the handicraft community supports 15 families. Most of our community members are divorcees, widows and elderly women. A few of them are also disabled,” said Vannak.
Sitting on a big wooden bed in a traditional rural house, the women make hats, baskets, tissue holders, dining mats, beach bags, boxes, shopping bags, bamboo straws, household supplies and decorations.
“Everything here is handmade with the raw materials sourced locally,” said Vannak.
However, the community, which still uses traditional handicraft techniques, have also listened to suggestions about expanding their product range to meet modern tastes.
“Every member from each household has been busy making gifts from bulrush plants, sugar palm trees and bamboo. We can produce custom made handicrafts according to a client’s request,” said Vannak.
The handicrafts have been sold to customers as far away as France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Australia.
‘It helps divorced women’
According to Vannak, handmade souvenirs and household items are more popular among foreigners than Cambodians.
“By buying these pieces, it helps divorced women, widows, elderly people and the disabled to earn additional income to support their family. It also helps reduce migration to work in neighbouring countries. For elderly people, making handicrafts is also an avenue for exercise. They can keep themselves busy rather than staying idle and bored.”
However, Vannak is concerned that his community is not able to grow as they practice traditional techniques.
“Because we make everything by hand in traditional ways, our production consumes a lot of time. Everything is done by human labour. We don’t have a wood lathe machine. The sugar palm trees and bamboo trees are lathed by our people.” He said.
With the growing popularity of their goods over the past two years, the handicraft community haw never been able to build up a stockpile of goods.
So now, as their orders increase, Vannak thinks it’s time to introduce automation into their production line.
“It will make the handicraft work less laborious and help us produce more to expand our handicraft market,” he said.
But an obstacle facing the community is the lack of electricity supplied to the village, which remains a no-power zone.
“If we buy a machine, it’d be useless. We have previously requested for an electricity power supply to be created. But our community is quite small with only a few households, so we’re not in a priority zone.
“Other villages located just a kilometre away from us now have power by the state-run electricity supplier. Hopefully, we’ll be included in the power connection soon,” Vannak said.
Vannak also fears for the future as he struggles to find young people interested in learning traditional handicraft skills.
“For the younger generation in these modern times, they don’t like this kind of job. They think that it makes them sweaty and requires a lot of patience. It’s considered old fashioned to work in a handicraft workshop as the traditional products are not popular and cannot compete in the market,” he said.
He said younger people prefer to work in a factory or the garment industry as they believe they can earn more.
“For me, I make handicrafts out of my love and passion for it. Even if I’m old, I can continue to work for many more years and I’m willing to teach younger people to continue this tradition.”
But still, he remains fearful that the death of this long-held tradition is imminent, both in his community and elsewhere around the nation.
He hopes that with a change in attitudes towards the handicraft tradition and products, the tradition can endure.
“If the craftsmen can earn more and handicraft products are given higher value, it will encourage and attract the younger generation to continue the tradition for a better living,” he said.
For more information and to support the work of women, the elderly and the disabled, Kadeaux Khmer handicraft community can be reached by telephone (071 575 44 43 or 096 958 36 35).