Phnom Kulen is part of Kulen National Park, the site of historical significance as the birthplace of the Khmer empire, 40km away from Siem Reap town. Currently, Kulen has 10 villages populated mostly by farmers.
Some villagers, however, also engage in handicrafts in addition to farming. There are skilled craftsmen there who can make many kinds of high quality goods, such as handmade items like mats, round shallow winnowing baskets, bamboo straws and knives.
Finding a market for those products poses a big problem for artisans, unfortunately, which discourages people from continuing with the tradition of making those products.
In 2020, Kulen Crafts, part of the non-profit Archaeology and Development Foundation (ADF), was established with the aim of contributing to the preservation of traditional handicrafts and improving the livelihoods of the community through outreach.
According to Chhun Phirom, an employee of the ADF working directly on the Kulen Crafts project, they have contributed to the training of artisans in the area and helped to set fair market prices for artisans and improve the lives of communities.
“We only buy from Phnom Kulen, and our purpose is to improve their livelihoods and to help preserve the traditional handicrafts on this mountain.
“There is also a training course to transfer skills to the next generation. Therefore, we have chosen the ones who make the most beautiful products to teach other people in the village,” she said.
Regarding the market for community products, she said Kulen Crafts has more than 10 kinds that they produce, all of which are handmade with rare local materials from the forest, such as mats made of pandanus or screwpine and many others.
Although the project has been going for two years now and contributing to the artisans’ livelihoods in the Kulen community, Phirom said that sales still needed to improve quite a bit to really make an impact there.
“It has improved so little because they can make only two mats per month and sell them to use for 100,000 riel, so they can earn only 200,000 riel per month that way,” she said.
Phirom said that these mats can be woven by artisans according to the season, meaning that they can weave only in the wet season as the pandanus were very fragile.
“We can help them a little and it is better than nothing. It makes them happy to work. For example, we have a lot of women who make mats. At first we had only one person who made the round baskets. One older man could make them nicer than the others. So, we bought them from him. Now other people are trying harder to make them like he does as they can see him making good money,” she said.