Slek Chak, or mangrove palms, evoke images of Kampot province, where the local plants which grow along the river have long been used for everything from rural constructions to wraps for traditional snacks.
Lately, the palm leaves have been turned into a fashion item, thanks to the creative efforts of Madam Chnai, a social enterprise which was established to help local housewives achieve a sustainable salary.
Slek Chak, also known as Nypa fruticans in the scientific community, is often used to wrap the traditional Khmer cakes commonly found in Kampot, imparting a unique fragrance to the local delicacies.
It is also used to build thatched roofs and walls for rural countryside structures.
The long and slender plants mostly grow in rivers close to the sea and are widely used to make souvenirs by locals in Oudong Mountain in Kandal province.
At Madam Chnai, women weave the leaves into different patterns at their homes, which they customise by adorning them with flowers and embroidery at the customers’ request.
These creative crafts are the brainchild of Chheun Putheary, an entrepreneur and social activist who set out to add sustainable and environmentally-friendly products to her collection of arts and crafts products.
The 35-year-old believes that creating sustainable handicrafts can benefit minorities and vulnerable women by giving them the chance to have a stable job. She says this can reduce discrimination, poverty, and violence against women in Cambodia.
“I have seen many craft shops in other countries. They sell sustainable and environmentally-friendly souvenirs that are locally made to help underprivileged communities, especially income-less housewives, Putheary says.
“When I saw a fabric bag at an overseas social enterprise shop, I suddenly thought of the rich natural resources back home that could be made into something like this.”
Putheary imagined a bag made from the unique Slek Chak plant and she saw an opportunity. While it has been used for a variety of applications before, it had yet to become a fashion statement.
“In Cambodia, people are selling handcrafted bags made from water hyacinth, but most of the raw material is imported from other countries. I then thought of Slek Chak, an easy and durable leaf to make into bags,” she says.
In 2018, Madam Chnai started as an online shop to advertise her Slek Chak bags and their popularity grew as travellers took an interest and posted pictures on Instagram.
Demand became high enough that Putheary opened a small shop in Phnom Penh which displays bags made specifically by housewives from Kandal.
“The women who make Slek Chak bags for me say that they are pleased that the handicraft is gaining popularity. They’re happy to earn more to support their family as more people buy them,” she says.
In the past, Putheary’s worked at NGOs to support women with HIV and disabled people. She also ran a massage parlour which hired visually impaired people before she opened Madam Chnai to assist the rural community.
The beige-coloured bags can be decorated with different flowers, string, laces and fabric. Customers can also request individual styles with customised names.
“We also provide tailored services to allow the customer to enjoy the freedom of choosing unique styles,” Putheary says, adding that customers have the option to chose from different weaving styles, patterns and sizes.
The bags require careful concentration and skill. A designer can only make three simply-designed bags per day. Additional decorations are often created with recycled material such as leftover fabric and lace from seamstresses.
Unlike some bags made from plants which cannot be washed, Slek Chak bags can be cleaned with water. Putheary advises customers to use them with care so they can last several years.
“It is a handcrafted bag that needs a bit of care. For example, if it gets stained or dirty, you can wash it. If you leave it unused for a while and it becomes too dry, you can spray some water on it. If you keep it this way, it will last long,” she says.
Slek Chak can be woven into shoulder bags, handbags, laptop bags, baby accessory bags and shopping bags. The price depends on size and style and ranges from $5 to $25.
A basic laptop bag or a shopping bag costs $10, a purse or pencil holder is sold at $5, while beach bags are priced around $20.
Putheary says she priced the items to be affordable while also ensuring the workers can sustain their livelihoods.
“I urge people to add local handmade products to their lifestyle. If they continue to support us, we’ll be motivated to create something fashionable and beneficial to our community.
“Customers are assured of having trendy items as they contribute to local businesses that help empower rural housewives and earn them income,” she says.
Madam Chnai is located at No 35, Street 8B, O’Bek Ka’am commune, Sen Sok district, Phnom Penh, behind Midtown Mall. For more information contact 093 318 866 or 012 545722.