​The potters' wheels of life | Phnom Penh Post

The potters' wheels of life


Publication date
17 January 2003 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Lon Nara and Haydon Dewes

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Officials examine a haul of rosewood hidden under sacks of cassava in Pursat province on Monday. Photo Supplied

They are the gypsies of Cambodia, nomadic salesmen who travel the length and

breadth of the country looking for customers to buy their hand-crafted clay

pots. They are poor - the money they earn is barely enough to feed their

families they are forced to leave at home.

Mao Sarith, 37, stands with his ox-cart

But for dozens of men hailing

from villages in Kampong Chhnang province, weeks away from home at the reins of

an ox-cart is the norm. They are travelers, but it is not adventure they are

looking for. Their object is simply to make enough money to take home to their


As a stream of cars and trucks churns up a cloud of dust along

Highway 5, Mao Sarith grits his teeth and thinks of home, now just 15 kilometers

away. Occasionally the traffic forces his ox-cart on to the bumpy verge of the

road, causing him to tighten his grip on the reins as the last remaining clay

pots tied to the side of his cart rattle against the side.

Although he is

almost home, he is loath to smile. He has spent the past 19 days crossing

highways and dirt tracks selling his earthenware at markets and villages, but

has little money to show for it. The day before, a car hit and killed one of his

oxen leaving him out of pocket. And he knows that in a few days time, he will

have to load up his cart and do it all again.

Sarith calls it an

adventure business, but admits it is one he could do without. For eight months

of the year, he roams the Kingdom's roads, his ox-cart heavily laden with

Kampong Chhnang's renowned clay pots. Often he is away from his home, the aptly

named village of Kley in Rolea P'Ier district, for over a month.


sometimes travels in a convoy with other vendors, but mostly he goes alone. In

the past year he has traveled to Oddar Meanchey and Poipet in the northwest,

Preah Vihear and Stung Treng in the northeast and Takeo in the


Sarith says life as a wandering pot vendor is arduous. The heat

and dust is irritating, the increasing amount of motorized traffic a constant

peril. When the wet season brings its heavy downpours, Sarith says he becomes

miserable. There are also other threats.

"This is a dangerous business,"

he says. "The roads can be hazardous. I have been threatened and robbed by

thieves while sleeping. One night I even had two oxen stolen, right where I was


A freshly loaded ox-cart at Bun Layís depot, ready to hit the road

Sarith leads a transient life. When the sun goes down, he

simply parks his wagon, slings a hammock and sleeps where he is. It is then he

becomes lonely, thinking of the wife and three children he leaves


So why does he do it?

"I farm a little, but it does not

earn enough to support my family," he explains. "My children are all at school.

Some men in my village climb palm trees for the juice, but I cannot do this. I

must keep my business alive to earn enough to live."

His situation is

shared by most of the men in his village. For a few months of the year they are

small-scale farmers, but when work dries up they find themselves on the move,

roaming like nomads in search of potential customers. The length of the trip is

dictated by how well the pots sell - when their cart is empty, they


In recent times, trucks and boats have transported pots to the

south coast and up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap and beyond. But vendors like

Sarith cannot afford this, and are resigned to making do with their

centuries-old mode of transport: the ox-cart.

Kampong Chhnang is famous

for its quality clay pots and sculptures. The name is apt - chhnang means pot,

while kampong refers to the town's colorful pulse, the busy port to the north of

the city.

To the west, the barren slopes of Kraing Dei Meas Mountain rise

high above the plain and are visible from across the province. It is from the

foothills of the mountain that workers excavate the rich clay that will be

transformed into pots.

The village of Andong Russey at the base of the

mountain is alive with industry. Almost every hut displays freshly molded pots,

the yards littered with piles of dry clay.

Under the shade of her hut,

Heng Toeun is busy adding to a row of neatly matching pots, her hands and

clothes splashed with fresh, wet clay. She has been making pots for almost 30

years, using the same technique that her grandparents used.

"I learned

[this skill] from my mother when I was ten years old," she explains. "My mother

learned it from her mother and so on. We have always worked like this."

The 39-year-old cannot afford a potter's wheel, so simply wets her hands

and spins dizzily around a wooden stand, transforming a dank lump of wet clay

into a beautifully rounded pot.

Each one is crafted meticulously, so the

process takes time - she only produces around eight pots in a day, which may

fetch around 400 riel each. Her children are destined for a similar life. As she

pats a pot with a spatula, she nods at her three offspring, wrestling in the

dusty yard.

"This is difficult work, but it is what the people of this

village do. I have no other job. When they are older, I will teach them to make

pots too."

Further down the road a sea of pots lies in a field, basking

in the midday sun. So Vann, 43, walks over occasionally and turns them. By

mid-afternoon they will be hard enough to bake in the fire she has prepared


This is the final process before the pots are ready for sale, the

scorching flames giving the pale clay its rich amber colour. Vann says she

learnt the trade from her parents after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Like Toeun,

she plans to pass on the trade to her children.

For both women, making

clay pots means making money. But for some, the pots have a deeper significance.

In Kampong Chhnang town, Bun Lay runs a business buying pots from the villagers

to sell on to the vendors. For him, the pots signify a slice of Khmer


The spry 68-year-old has been operating his business for 20

years. As he moves around his yard scribbling down figures in a note pad,

workers rush pots out to vendors, who carefully pack them into their ox-carts

and trucks with straw and twine.

"I enjoy this job because I am

distributing Khmer culture," he says. "If we do not love these handicrafts, who

will preserve them?"

Bun Lay says he is worried about the future of his

business - all his children now have careers elsewhere. But he is confident the

clay pot itself will remain a part of Khmer life.

"The clay pot is still

a best seller, still as popular as ever," he explains. "Some vendors in Phnom

Penh say that even if their customers have an iron pot or a stovetop, they still

use clay pots for barbecuing and cooking medicine. It is a part of their lives.

It is part of who we are."

But for the wandering clay pot vendors,

cultural significance is secondary. In the years to come, Mao Sarith will

continue to load his ox-cart and leave his family for long periods of time, not

for enjoyment or to fulfil any cultural duties, but out of necessity.


am poor, but for me there is nothing else to do," he says shrugging his

shoulders. "I must continue doing this."

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