In Siem Reap town and province, soft orange-yellow lights reminiscent of Cambodia’s national Rumduol flowers gently illuminate the intricacies of “Siem Reap Angkor Leather Carving”.

Here, a remarkable craft comes to life, as various sizes of dried cowhide hang on the walls, each piece bearing the handiwork of artisans like Khmao Sokea.

In the face of challenging circumstances surrounding her family’s livelihood, Sokea made a pivotal decision. She chose to forego Grade 12, though she was fully aware that carving on leather might not promise substantial income.

Her determination, however, led her to the “Little Angels Centre School”, a leather carving school located in Prasat Bakong district.

Under the guidance of a mentor known as Kru Ta, or mentor, she embarked on a four-year journey of learning and honing her craft, eventually joining her sister as a leather carver.

Her motivation is deeply rooted in her passion for the art of carving. She found herself captivated by the beauty that fellow artisans were able to unveil through their works on leather.

“The decision to pursue a career in carving was driven by my passion. Witnessing the work of fellow artisans, I was captivated by the beauty they brought forth – creating such stunning images on leather. Additionally, I have a desire to preserve the heritage passed down from our ancestors,” she explains.

Even after completing four years of formal education, Sokea’s commitment to her craft didn’t waver. The realm of leather carving offers various forms, and she believes in continuously expanding her knowledge. Mastering leather carving demands immense patience and unwavering dedication.

“If we want to acquire this skill, patience is essential. We must devote full attention and focus to the task at hand. While engaged in the process, it is crucial to maintain a calm and composed state of mind. If our thoughts and emotions were in turmoil, the outcomes of the images wouldn’t be beautiful,” she says.

To create designs on dried cowhide, leather carvers rely on specific tools for piercing the skin, often employing a hammer to facilitate the process. Focus is paramount, as any deviation from the intended pattern can result in irreparable damage.

Leather carving, rooted in ancestral traditions, has historically drawn inspiration from Khmer mythology. However, in recent times, a shift had occurred among some carvers, with a focus on replicating the intricate wall carvings found at Angkor Wat Temple. This transformation is driven, in part, by the preferences of buyers, resulting in a range of designs within the world of leather carving.

Rin Sreyroth, the owner of Siem Reap Angkor Leather Carving, comes from a lineage of leather carving experts. The craft has been honed through generations, tracing its origins back to her grandparents’ era.

Her father played a pivotal role in passing down this skill to her. The legacy continues, as her younger siblings also inherit the craft, seeking guidance from Khmer mentors, who continue to impart their knowledge.

Unrivaled craftsmanship

Sreyroth reinforced that Khmer-style carving is a treasured tradition passed down through generations, an unbroken lineage from ancestors to descendants. Each piece created in this style represents unrivalled craftsmanship, a hallmark of exceptional and incomparable artistry. Her deep-rooted fear of this ability fading into obscurity drove her to establish her business approximately a decade ago.

Reflecting on the past, she recalls a focus on carving images inspired by the epic Khmer Reamker poem, a narrative rooted in the ancient Sanskrit Ramayana. However, the evolving tastes and preferences of society led her to a transformation.

She shifted from Reamker-inspired creations to crafting replicas of the intricate wall carvings adorning Angkor Wat. This transition struck a chord with customers who appreciated the evolution.

When it comes to sourcing raw materials, her choice is cowhides. She treats these materials with care, ensuring they are washed and dried without any mixing with extraneous substances.

Once these hides are dried, they are cut into sizes aligning with her templates, primed for the subsequent carving process.

What sets her handicraft business apart is its adaptability. It offers the flexibility to craft leather in various forms and sizes, entirely tailored to the specific preferences of customers.

The time invested in each piece varies according to its size. Smaller creations can be completed within a mere one to two days. In contrast, larger-scale works, measuring between 1m and 5m in length and half a metre or more in width, can take up to a month to reach completion.

Situated within the Old Market in Siem Reap town, her shop serves as a magnet for both local and international visitors. They are drawn to the allure of crafted cowhide carvings, faithful replicas inspired by the designs found on the temple walls. The pricing of these pieces reflects their diversity in size, ranging from $10 to over $1,000.

After carving, Sreyroth adds a touch of beauty by applying wood-coloured paint to the carved leather, ensuring the colours remain vibrant and resist fading over time.

Muon Sopheap, director of the Siem Reap provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, sheds light on the thriving leather carving industry. He attributes its growth to local mentors who provide training. This training has attracted aspiring artisans, including small and medium-sized craft owners, who have all undergone thorough instruction.

“When mentored correctly, they develop a profound understanding of the importance of conservation. While some carvings are faithful replicas of the sculptures found within the temples of Angkor, others incorporate innovative elements tailored to specific preferences, not merely reproductions of existing sculptures,” he explains.

Sopheap also highlights the significance of foreign customers who purchase leather carvings. Their interest hinges on a genuine understanding and appreciation of the craft. They admire the intricate sculptures adorning the temple walls, particularly the small and large Apsara Dance figures, which they acquire to grace their homes. This act serves as an expression of their love for art and a heartfelt tribute to the Kingdom’s rich cultural heritage.