Carved banana tree trunks into various floral shapes is part of the artistic heritage of the ancient Khmer. This highly regarded skill is still being passed down from generation to generation, especially in Peam village, Daun Keo commune Siem Reap province’s Puok district.
The carvings are often prepared for ceremonies and are used as decorations for altars, Buddha statues, birthdays, and at funerals.
Chea Vuth is a 44-year-old engraver from Peam village. He told The Post that he has been honing his craft for over 20 years, having inherited his knowledge from the previous generations of skilled craftsmen in his village.
He described how, according to ancient tradition, apprentices must learn to prepare a pair of Bay Sei and a pair of Sla Thor, four betel leaves which represent the four sacred directions of Buddhism.
“Engraving is not a simple task, as it embodies very particular beliefs. If a person attempts to learn this art without the guidance of a teacher or fails to offer gratitude to their teacher, it is believed that the end result may be cursed or not turn out to be beautiful,” he explained.
He added that there are certain forms with are traditionally used for pillars, or columns – Kbach Phnhy Vor, Kbach Kenor and Kbach Phnhy Hork. Phnhy — also romanised as Phni — is a decorative motif consisting of intertwined elements
“Kbach Klampor, Kbach Dork Chan, Pka Chan, and Kbach Phnhy Tess are used for beams,” he went on.
“Even with advancements in modern design, and people’s changing tastes, the majority of people in Puok district still prefer carved banana trees. Typically, they are used at all major ceremonies, and most minor ones,” he said.
He explained that the only tools that are required are a sharp knife and a newly grown banana trunk.
When it comes time to elect a tree, he said that large straight trunks are preferred, with a preference for chvear banana trees, owing to its resistance to sunlight and clear pale flesh.
“The length of each piece varies according to its final purpose,” he added.
He said that the length of time each carving will last varies.
“During the summer months they may not last long at all, but throughout the winter they may retain their beauty for up to three months,” he added.
“The craftsmen of my commune have a well-deserved reputation for the quality of our work. We are often called upon to showcase our skills for various festivals, often in distant provinces,” he continued.
When called upon to travel to far of locations, Vuth sometimes charges up to $1,500 in labour costs for his team of 15 skilled carvers, although local clients can expect to pay just $500.
For distant provinces, he generally takes a truck laden with from 20 to 30 freshly felled banana trees, although the size of each depends on the needs of the client.
His carvings are available year-round, and he currently fills two or three orders per month. In addition, he teaches the younger generation to preserve the ancient art.
He mentioned that his previous clients included former senate president Chea Sim and Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan.
“Although I am uncertain of its impact in other regions, the people in my area place great faith in the use of carved banana trees. This stems from their belief in their historical significance and their desire to conserve it – a sentiment I share. The final product, once completed, is truly exquisite,” he said.
Chea Samneang, the commune chief of Daun Keo, said that in addition to farming, the villagers of the commune have always practiced the art.
“This unique craft has been preserved and practiced from one generation to another generation, and has improved the livelihoods of many people. There are about 400 families within the commune,” she said.
“The reason that they continue to practice the art of carving is because they hold a steadfast belief that this practice not only produces beautiful artwork but also serves as a representation of their ancestors’ deep-rooted beliefs,” she added.
Siyonn Sophearith, director-general of the Directorate General of Technical Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told The Post that the carvings produced by the people of Daun Keo commune are luxurious works of art, despite being non permanent.
“It is a shame that outside of the region, there seems to be few individuals who are interested in carving these fine pieces. In the past, people took great care in making them, as they understood the significant merit it held for their afterlife. More people should be working for their preservation,” he said.