Sa Em spreads out a 3.6m houl, which took eight months to weave.
Sixty-seven-year-old Liv Sa Em has been a silk weaver all his life. He makes houl,
a silk skirt traditionally worn by Khmer men and women alike at wedding parties,
for visits to the King at the Royal Palace, and at Khmer New Year.
With his reputation, Sa Em has never had to worry about sales - word of mouth
has always provided a steady flow of business. In the past month, though, that has
changed: the sheer expense of his weavings means that Sa Em relies heavily on tourists.
The decline in high-end tourist traffic to Cambodia has hit sales.
"My houl are best-sellers, but only with European people," he says. "I
sell my products from home because I have a well-known name. Some of my customers
are Cambodian-Americans, and most are wealthy."
They certainly need to be: Sa Em's houl sell for up to $650, but the expense, he
says, is unavoidable. He uses the finest quality silk and natural dyes; each piece
takes around eight months to weave.
"I have twenty people to feed," he complains. "I haven't sold one
piece this month."
Inside his house, surrounded by dark wooden walls and cabinets of antiques, Sa Em
explains the steps involved. After buying the silk and preparing the dye, he ties
threads to a dyeing board, which will set the colors in the silk. The final stage
sees the silk threads woven into complex patterns on the loom.
The finest silk is produced by silkworms in the summer months of January and February,
says Sa Em. Each year he buys 30 kilograms of silk - "the best is like foamy
water and soft" - at around $55 a kilogram from Oddar Meanchey.
The dyes too are sourced from around the country. The color red comes from a creeper
vine called Lac Kromoh, which he buys in Mondolkiri and Kampong Speu provinces. Yellow
is from the bark of the Prohout tree, while he gets blue from the Trom tree. The
vivid reds and blues are released from the plants when boiled.
Sa Em's style, he says, is unique. It is known as Houl Banteay Srei, which was so
named by a well-known monk, Hem Chiev, who agitated against the French.
A woman weaves silk in Sa Em's workshop above his house.
It was his grandmother who inadvertently started Sa Em on his career. Most women
in Sa Em's home village of Tuol Lolok in Takeo were taught how to weave, but they
were mystified when he showed an interest in the art. His grandmother refused to
teach him, so he relied on his powers of observation and memory.
"I would sit by her side while she tied the knots on the weaving board. I also
watched her when she wove. I stole some silk and taught myself to tie in the houl
style in the banana orchard behind my house. Then I showed her my work," he
His grandmother was so impressed that she asked him to work for her. He started weaving
using his own ideas, experimenting with different designs in a bid to improve the
look and quality of houl.
Like all Khmer of his generation, Sa Em has his own personal tale of the nearly four
years spent under the Khmer Rouge. Like many he finds it difficult to discuss. His
three siblings - two sisters and one brother - died; he survived by working as a
When the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, Sa Em saved some money and bought a loom. By
1982 he had started his business again, this time from a house in Phnom Penh. Inside,
the rooms are stacked with artefacts, the result of generations of avid collection.
"I love these antiques," he says. "I saved for them, little by little.
All my pieces are Khmer, bought in exchange for rice. My grandmother had many antiques
and this reminds me of her house."
Khmers coming back from the US in the early 1980s provided a market that allowed
his business to flourish.
"Before the Khmer Rouge time I had sold some houl to Cambodian people who then
fled to the US in 1975," he says. "When they came back to Cambodia, they
went to my home village in Takeo and asked if I had survived."
Those customers passed on the message that Sa Em was still alive and weaving his
The finished product: Silk fit to wear for a king.
"American, English and Japanese people know well the quality of my Khmer houl,"
he says. With the cost of his weavings running at around ten times the price of those
available in the markets, Sa Em is well aware that wealthy tourists provide his main
market. The current tourism drought means that for now at least, times are bleak.