After seeing the amount of sawdust that was thrown away as waste at his brother’s manufacturing plant, Kuoch Seng Thai decided there must be a use for the overlooked material.

With the idea of encouraging the use of recycled products – and not cutting down more trees – the 37-year-old man found a way to turn valueless waste into valuable statues. The pieces are in the same style as traditional Khmer works which are made from copper, sandstone or hardwood.

Seng Thai, owner of Reakossa Arts in Siem Reap, told The Post: “from the beginning to the end of the process, our statues are created in house. This includes the moulds we use to shape them. We have carved more than 100 different moulds.”

He used his experience working in a souvenir company and his upbringing in the tourism and culture hub of Siem Reap to realise his vision.

Sawdust statues are produced in a large quantity over a short period of time, using waste from his brother’s furniture workshop. The sawdust is mixed with three kinds of glue to create the pieces. The material has the advantage of being cheaper than copper or timber, and is more environmentally friendly, thanks to being largely recycled.

He was the sales and production manager for a foreign company in Siem Reap that produced soaps and lip balms which were boxed in woven palm leaf boxes from 2004 until 2016, when he joined the handicraft association. This set him on the path of searching for a product he could manufacture himself.

“I was always wondering what I could do with the beautiful sawdust that my brother’s factory produced. It is available in many rich, natural hues. I used to use the darkest timber by-products, but demand is now so high I use all kinds of shades,” he said.

From 2016 to 2018, he experimented with ways that the sawdust could be recycled. His initial trials were not always successful, with early formulas not binding at all, or taking up to three months to cure.

Breakthrough blend

At the end of 2017, he hit upon the perfect blend. By mixing three types of glue in just the right proportion, he produces a pulp that can be removed from its mould in between three and eight hours. This allows his team to ensure that the final finishing is carried out and the piece is of a high enough standard that it can be sold.

“Once I knew I could successfully produce the statues, I needed to figure out how to make them more attractive. I began adding additional colours to the mixture so that the finished statues had the appearance of copper or aged timber,” Seng Thai added.

Eventually, he arrived at a formula which he says means only experts can visually tell them apart from the more expensive alternatives.

When a customer holds a statue made from sawdust, he will notice that it is very light. When compared to copper, they are “five to six times” lighter, and “three times” lighter than those made of timber. Naturally, they are far lighter than those made of stone.

Even better, production is 10 times faster than the traditional ways of manufacturing comparable products.

“Carving one of these from timber might take an artisan seven days, whereas we can produce seven in a single day,” he said.

He added that their light weight is a huge advantage to international tourists, as they can easily be added to a suitcase and taken home without the risk of huge fees for overweight luggage.

Dancing Apsara statue made from sawdust. SUPPLIED

He said they will last almost as long as traditional carvings. They are slightly more brittle, but will only break in extreme impacts. Another advantage is that the glue mixture means they cannot rot or be infested with insects, both issues for timber carvings.

He said that a similar technique could be employed with rice husks or dried leaves, but they would have to be ground into a fine powder before they could be used.

The sawdust mixture is prepared and then poured into a mould, resulting in a hollow product. This technique meant the pieces were lighter, and significantly less brittle.

Reakossa Arts produces different sizes of statues, ranging from a few centimetres tall to the size of a full grown man.

The company was commissioned to produce large statues for both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports.

He said the costs – in both raw materials and time – were so much better than those of copper or timber, and he was able to offer small souvenirs for as little as $5. A half metre piece might be as high as $99, with larger ones often special commissions.

“At the beginning of our first year, the business was very successful, and even in 2019 our sales were looking promising. Of course, as we are focused on tourism, we almost closed down during the Covid-19 pandemic and the closed borders – which kept us all safe,” he added.

Airports, souvenir shops, hotels and resorts were Seng Thai’s primary markets, and he had never considered employing social media to sell his products.

However, the situation was suddenly turned almost 180 degrees by the pandemic.

He said that when tourists stopped travelling, many local businesses were badly affected, although by late 2020 tourists had begun to return.

Small-money digital Covid deals

“During the closures, I had to think about how now I could sell our existing products to generate an income. I started learning digital marketing skills to attract local customers and lowered my prices,” he said.

He often gets orders for small dolls and key rings for use as wedding mementos. These small items cost 2,000 riel [$0.50] each and are nicely packaged with stickers featuring the names of the bride and groom.

Seng Thai stressed that the business has not yet returned to profitability, with the pieces it sells for 2,000 riel once having a $5 price tag.

He suggested that the tourism sector in Siem Reap had recovered to just 10 or 20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, which meant Reakossa had fewer trading partners.

“I do not have so many local customers yet. When the prime minister announced the reopening of the country, we saw a boost, but it seems to have slowed down since Khmer New Year. Anyways, I am not ready to quit – we just have to hang in there,” he said.

Reakossa Arts was registered with the Ministry of Commerce, Siem Reap Provincial Tax Branch and the Siem Reap provincial department of handicrafts, and pays its taxes regularly.

Thanks to its registration, the company has had opportunities to exhibit its products, including at the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh.

“The ministry gave my business the chance to participate, and I was grateful. They also shared my products via electronic channels,” he said.

Reakossa Arts products are available at major souvenir shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Kim Yi Joo, 37, the owner of a souvenir shop called Made in Cambodia Market, said the sawdust products are popular with foreign tourists.

“They seem to be particularly successful with international travellers because of the fact that they are made from recycled materials and their light weight. Their classic Khmer beauty probably helps too!” he added.