Cheam Ban picked up two empty sacks and climbed aboard her son’s motorcycle. They were preparing to head to a forest rich in lush green long leaves on Kulen Mountain.

Thanks to the rough mountain road conditions, they spent almost an hour driving 4km to the foot of the 2km trail that would lead them to the forest. Once their hike was complete, they began to fill their sacks with khun mear leaves.

Khun mear (Ancistrocladus tectorius) leaves are a non-timber forest product that the residents of Khnang Phnom commune’s Thmey Village of Siem Reap province’s Svay Leu district weave into mats and roofing, as well as decorative products.

The 61-year-old Ban has been in this business for 30 years, and it is a core income for many of the people living on Kulen Mountain.

Sewing khun mear leaves is similar to the way most palm leaves are used as panels. The leaves are cut in two, and then sewn together using pampas-grass or reeds. After they are sewn, the leaves are stacked atop one another to make a flat clean surface.

When assembled into matting, several leaves are sewn together to form a larger panel.

Ban told The Post that when she began making the mats, a square metre of mat could be sold for 3,000 riel ($0.75). Nowadays, they fetched up to 15,000 riel.

She added that when she first took up this career, the leaves were plentiful and could be found not far from her home.

However, an increase in the number of people making the panels meant that the plant had become scarcer. Sometimes it was also difficult to find the reeds used for stitching them, she added.

“Khun mear plants are native to the area. Most people pick them from deep in the forest, often as far as 6 or 7 km from their homes,” said Sun Kong, director of the provincial Department of Environment.

Kong said he did not know the range of the plant, but noted that it was so abundant in the Kulen Mountains that people used it to produce products that they could sell to earn income to support their families.

“They know how to utilise non-timber forest products. They cannot cut down the trees, but let them grow naturally and produce leaves. They understand the importance of this plant to their business as well. Picking the leaves does not affect the environment, and provides benefits to the community,” he told The Post.

Krouch Ly, head of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia in Kulen Mountain – which focuses on improving the education sector – said that 15 families in Thmey village were engaged in sewing khun mear leaves full-time and many other families did it irregularly.

Ly is a facilitator for finding new markets for the product.

“I do not know how far away orders for the leaves come from, but in the two months I have been working with them, I have helped sell their products to Phnom Penh and the provinces of Koh Kong, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap,” he said.

Ban said that almost all Thmey villagers were in this business because they could not grow rice or farm on the mountain. They sewed the leaves so they could buy rice, he added.

She said that only few among the 60 families didn’t do it.

“Usually customers call to order and we divide the work up between families. Sometimes many customers place orders and we don’t have time to meet them all, and sometimes in the rainy season, production slows. Khun mear leaves grow in all seasons though, and are easy to pick,” she added.

“If we make a roof from these leaves, without trees to it, it will last around six or seven years. It is also naturally flame resistant. If you set it on fire, it will burn a small hole, and then extinguish itself. Khun mear is more resilient than palm sugar leaves,” she said.

“Foreign customers often buy it to make hotel roofs or as decorative wall panels. When I deliver it to them, they always say wow, it looks great!”” she said.

The leaves can be used as roofs, walls and to make chicken coops, she said.

Besides spending two or three days picking leaves, Ban can produce about 4sqm of mat per day. She currently works alone as her daughter has just delivered a baby.

“Generally, I sew 50 leaves and then take a rest,” she said.

Ly, who uses his own private time to help facilitate deals between villagers and new customers, said the main problem was the cost of transportation. The mats were far cheaper if customers came to collect them in Siem Reap.

He said he is trying to establish a single market and organise transport links. He does this work for a small fee.

“We are thinking of forming a khun mear leaf community to ensure a clear pricing structure,” Ly added.

According to his understanding, the leaves grew only on the mountain.

“People don’t cut down the trees, they just take the leaves. This makes the business very sustainable. My concern is that if the land is cleared and used for plantations, the villagers may lose their business,” he said.