With beautiful purple flowers and glossy green leaves, the water hyacinth is a delightful sight in the tropical outdoors landscape – but these rapidly growing plants are often considered a curse to the environment and to the livelihoods of fishermen.
Deng Kosal once bought a water hyacinth handbag and fell in love with it and later started her own small enterprise trying to turn the sometimes harmful plants into something useful.
The 48-year-old opened her shop Pdaov Market in November 2019 and ever since the water hyacinth handicraft bags she offers have been selling like hot cakes.
Kosal tells The Post: “As someone who also uses the products, I can assure the product’s quality. The bag I bought seven years ago can still be used now. I chose to open this business because I believe it is important to be supportive to Cambodian artisans as well as to be environmentally friendly.”
Kosal says her business model is supporting local suppliers and artisans.
“We’ve created work opportunities for the poor living in the rural areas of Siem Reap. We are empowering women by providing them with stable incomes from the regular orders we’re giving them,” she says.
The shop orders around 50 to 100 bags weekly from artisans because Kosal says that in order to finish one it takes quite a bit of time, so she needs to have it ordered in advance.
If customers place their orders ahead of time then the shop is able to supply the items to customers without keeping them waiting for two or three weeks.
Back in Siem Reap, first the local community uproots the water hyacinths from the rivers or lakes and collects them. The plant used to be considered garbage except for its edible flower.
In Cambodia, the delicate flowers have long been used as a part of the local cuisine. They are eaten fresh with fish paste or Teuk Kroeung and Khmer noodles called Num Banh Chok.
However, the fast-spreading plants are no good for the ecosystem in part because of their over-consumption of water, which can actually turn rivers shallow.
Not only that, but the closely-grown thick leaves block sunlight and use up a lot of oxygen making the survival of aquatic life difficult wherever the water hyacinths are abundantly present.
Clearing water hyacinths from the environment and using them to make bags to support the livelihoods of local people is the very definition of a sustainable and green enterprise, according to Kosal.
After collecting the plants they carefully cut them and let them dry for 20 to 25 days under the sun. They have to be sure to never let the rain hit them because it will cause spots to appear.
Next, the dried plants are steamed in order to soften the plants as well as to get rid of any insects. Coloured dyes are later applied and they are dried again.
"The real time consuming process is the preparation of the water hyacinths before the artisans start binding them together," Kosal says.
Then they are moulded into shapes like handbags, purses and others products before the weaving and braiding process. Each worker can finish two to three items per day.
When the bags are nearly complete, they are sent to Phnom Penh for finishing touches. Final design pieces are added including decorative bits of metal, beaded handles and silk fabric in traditional patterns.
“The products that have been ordered from artisans in Siem Reap aren’t always totally finished. The shop usually needs to come up with more designs to add to them and sometimes we get ideas from customers who order specific styles or fashions, " says Kosal.
Khmer handwoven silk of the type used in traditional costumes enhances the appearance of the water hyacinth bags, making them fashionable for all occasions -- from beach vacations to wedding receptions.
Pdaov Market has its own unique designs for water hyacinth purses decorated with handwoven silk. With different sizes, various colours and multiple shapes to choose from these purses have caught the eye of many of Kosal’s customers.
“We have orders from clients abroad who love Khmer culture. They asked if we could merge the purses with silk scarves. We tried it and saw that it was beautiful. With Cambodian silk it’s even more elegant.
“We have already sold about two to three thousand of these overseas,” Kosal says.
Kosal says that her international customers still make up just a small segment of her overall business due to the pandemic, so she still mostly relies on local clientele.
Those who purchased her products always come back and show their appreciation for how well-designed and crafted they are.
Many Cambodian women have been choosing to support Khmer products in this difficult period and Kosal says she appreciates the community’s assistance.
“There are a few people who say how can this local product cost this much money because it’s almost the price of a leather purse. But they aren’t acknowledging the hard work of the artisans nor appreciating how much time it takes for the workers to finish each product with tender loving care,” Kosal says.
Apart from their bags and purse designs, Pdaov Market has a few more water hyacinth products such as sleeping mats, picnic mats, table cloths, chairs, bins, hats and more. The prices for most of their products ranges from $25 to $50.
Kosal says that in the future she wants to pay special attention to the furniture she stocks and she’d like to do more to bring Cambodian products like these to the international market.
“I hope I’m able to maintain my strong connections with Cambodians living abroad and through them help expand the products we distribute internationally and we hope we will continue to have local support because that is the backbone of our business,” she says.
For more information Pdaovmarket can be contacted on Facebook via @pdaovmarket.