The creation of pottery and other decorative items from red clay is an ancestral tradition for the local people of Kampong Chhnang province, especially those in the Andong Russey, Kdei Tnaot and Trapeang Sbov villages of Rolea Ba’ier district’s Sre Thmey commune, who have maintained this legacy of skilled craftsmanship and passed it from one generation to another up through the present day.

These red clay ceramics not only provide a profession for many of the villagers, it has also created a special identity for the people of Kampong Chhnang as the pots and earthenware created there have come to be identified with the province by people both inside and outside the region.

Uon Pov, 60, sits in her workshop filled with large and small, finished and half-finished ceramic pieces made from local clay. She tells The Post that she is married and has four sons who also live in Sre Thmey commune’s Andong Russey village.

She said that she mastered making all kind of pots and earthenware products and learned the skills from her mother starting when she was very young.

She was nine-years-old when she began helping her mother make pots during her free time from school. Though she was young and could only do the easier tasks, she tried to learn and memorise each step in the process when making a pot.

She added that during the Khmer Rouge regime, the cadres knew that the villagers of Andong Russey knew how to make pots, so they required them to make pots to store palm sugar being produced by collective farms.

She said she started her professional work as a pot maker after the liberation of the country in 1979 and ninety per cent of Andong Russey villagers are pot makers, having learned the skill from their ancestors, but of her sons only two of them love the profession and are doing it presently.

She added that Phnom Kraing Dey Meas – the nearby mountain – has raised the people of three villages and sustained them, because the mountain was the most important source of raw materials that the residents of the villages used for their ceramics.

After the liberation in 1979, villagers from these three villages still only knew how to make pots.

A woman makes a traditional clay pot in Kampong Chhnang in 2020. Hong Menea

In 2007, an organisation from Japan provided training on pottery techniques, soil mixing techniques, and chemical mixing techniques for painting pottery like pots, vases or bowls, but in 2009 they ran out of budget and move out of the village.

“That organisation trained us in the technique of mixing colours, teaching how to mix the soil, how to make our products into solid ceramic products that can last longer. The organisation told us to find soil and stone to mix together as colour for painting our products, but I still have trouble finding those materials,” she said.

According to Pov, the organisation said that the materials for making colours included yellow ash, black clay, firewood ash, red clay, rice husk ash, laterite, white clay, B and D type stones. These materials are mixed together with ink to soak the product and if they needed any colour they just mixed those materials to get any colour they wanted.

Ceramics start out as clay that needs to be baked in a kiln at 800 degrees Celsius for 24 hours. After that they are tinted with ink and heated again to become ceramics, which need to be heated from 1250 to 3,000 degrees Celsius for another 24 hours to achieve a good result.

Pov said that in addition to making pots from the mountain’s clay, villagers also could produce other objects such as decorative statues of small animals and other souvenirs, but the Covid-19 crisis impacted the potters just as badly as it did most of the country because they no longer had foreigners going on tours of the village and buying items to bring home like they had pre-pandemic.

Losing income is obviously a big problem, but another issue faced by the potters of the three villages that Pov brought up was a lack of the traditional clay needed for production of their distinctive ceramics.

In the past they were able to dig up all the clay they required at Phnom Kraing Dey Meas, but now the military has built antenna on the top of the mountain and prohibited people from entering the area, so people now bought the red clay from another village and it cost them about 150,000 to 200,000 riel per truck and the quality of the clay isn’t as good because it needs to be ground up fine in order to use it for making pots and other things, which adds more labour to the process.

Sre Thmey commune chief Nou Khean told The Post that the pottery business was inherited from the ancestors of everyone living in Sre Thmey commune’s three villages, but he confirmed Pov’s assertion that due to the Covid-19 crisis their business had dropped off significantly causing them to lose money.

He also confirmed that villagers are not allowed to get clay from Phnom Kraing Dey Meas after the mountain was occupied by the military. Now, they do not know where to find clay.

“Now the people of Andong Russey, Kdei Tnaot and Trapeang Sbov villages are buying clay from others for making products but there is still no market for selling anything. The authorities at all levels have said they will try to help revive the tourist market or find a new market for our ceramics. Currently, the villagers are making pots, stoves and clay-cookers to sell, but they go at wholesale to brokers only,” he said.