A traditional carver of leathergoods in Siem Reap is using his own deprived childhood as motivation to help others.

Nhek Sirey Rattana opened Khmer Art Leather Carving Little Angels in 2001. In addition to selling a wide range of hard-tooled leather souvenirs and traditional Khmer shadow puppets, he provides a warm home for more than 20 orphaned or abandoned young people. They learn the art of leather carving, while also attending school.

Located in Aolaok village, Bakong commune in Siem Reap province’s Prasat Bakong district, his handicraft has provided employment to, and supported the studies of, more than 100 people since he opened his doors.

“I was orphaned when I was just nine years old. I became a scrap metal scavenger and sold cakes to earn enough money to feed myself. Eventually, I approached some old master carvers and asked them to teach me their trade,” said Rattana.

“In December 2001, I opened mu own business so I could earn enough money to send my younger sibling to university. Eventually, my business became a humanitarian project,” he added.

He said that in the more than 20 years his “little angels” had changed the fate of orphans by making them become clerks, tour guides and many other fulfilled professionals. In addition, several of them have chosen to pursue leather carving, with some now opening their own businesses.

The 45-year-old said that he helps orphans and abandoned children who want to continue their studies. They are only allowed to help with his leather business during their time off school.

“I don’t want to affect their education – my goal is to help those that want to learn,” he added.

“Learning leather carving is an additional skill, but I want them to focus on their general education. This means that if

they choose not to follow my profession, they will have broader options for further studies or employment,” he explained.

He said that his goal was not to become wealthy, but to help as many people as he could.

“I am happy. At one time I was an impoverished orphan, but now I have the honour of being known as a teacher. My students are grateful, and it fills my heart with joy when I see them succeeding, in spite of where they came from,” he added.

In the future, he would like to open a leather museum, where themed exhibits would explain each aspect of the traditional art.

Historically, large Khmer shadow puppets originated in the 1st century AD and were inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list on November 25, 2005.