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Some glum amid Water Festival fun

Some glum amid Water Festival fun

Tep Sokunthea (right) and friend Luy Lina wear palm leaf hats and fans they bought at a Phnom Penh stall at the Water Festival.

The Water Festival is Phnom Penh's busiest time of year. More than one million people

flock to the city, some to enjoy the festivities and a chance to see the King, others

to sell to the revelers. Along the waterfront on both sides of the Tonle Sap, handicraft

hawkers weave through the crowds, laden with hats for boat racers and spectators.

One of those who comes every year to sell crafts is 52-year-old Ouch Chhin from Kandal

Province. She has brought her assistants - her husband and five children - to sell

vine baskets, palm leaf hats and fans, and rattan rings. Their stall is on the pavement

outside Wat Unalom, one of the oldest pagodas in the city. Under the baking morning

sun, Chhin is arranging her wares.

"It's good selling our products here," she says, piling hats on her children's

heads, which they carry down the road to the waterfront, "even though we don't

make much money from doing so."

In the week of the Water Festival her family can earn around 30,000 riel, about $8.

However, low income is not the only problem that Chhin and the other sellers face:

the raw materials for their trade, rattan and palm leaves, become harder to find

each year.

Every year the farmers in Kandal clear yet more land for planting. This combined

with general deforestation, says Chhin, means that she and her fellow weavers must

travel further from home to find their materials. This year she had to travel more

than 100 kilometers from her home in Srah Pou village to Phnom Srouch and Oral districts

in Kampong Speu to harvest their supply. It took two weeks.

A villager weaves baskets from rattan cane for sale in Phnom Penh at the Water Festival.

Chhin is one of 20 vendors who have come from the village to Phnom Penh for the occasion.

They recall that until only a few years ago there was no shortage of rattan vines

and palm trees, but increased demand for land in the past decade has forced villagers

to uproot forests and bushes.

"Many of the people buying my products think it is easy to collect these products

from the forest, but that simply isn't so anymore," she says. "We are also

worried about future house building - the loss of trees has increased the cost of

wood, which makes it expensive to build a home."

Chhin's problems are familiar to even the younger vendors. Yim Vuthy, who is 12,

enjoys the fun of the festival, but he and his siblings face similar difficulties.

Vuthy's older brother says all the vendors suffered problems this year.

"We are very concerned for the future," he says. "The places where

we collected vines just a few years ago are under threat because of land clearing

by farmers."

While his older brother wrestles with the practical problems, Vuthy is just happy

to be in the city.

"I always come to Phnom Penh with my brothers and sisters to sell these,"

he says, holding a palm leaf fan above his head while touting for trade from passersby.

"I am happy to help them and I get the chance to see the Water Festival and

the fireworks."

Some shoppers are sympathetic to the villagers' problems, saying the main reason

they buy is to encourage the manufacture of traditional Khmer products and support

the vendors and their families.

Tep Sokunthea, a 19-year-old student from the Faculty of Management and Law, is shopping

for palm leaf bags and hats with her friend, Luy Lina, also 19.

"I always buy some items from the villagers," says Sokunthea with a smile.

"I strongly support our Khmer crafts - the cost doesn't really matter to me."

Yim Vuthy, aged 12, keeps watch at his parents' rattan goods stall near Wat Unalom October 30.

Both women say they prefer local products to imports. Among the reasons, they say,

is that by encouraging local industry they can help tackle unemployment and reduce

the poverty that afflicts many villagers. Sokunthea and Lina also express the hope

that more of their generation will do the same.

"I feel very sorry for the villagers," she says. "They are extremely

poor and suffer disasters almost every year. I hope the money they make here helps

them get by."

Sokunthea adds that by buying their products the villagers will become more aware

of the importance of the forests. Greater awareness at the local level will help

in the battle to preserve the nation's natural heritage.

Chou Kim Sour, a preservation officer attached to the Royal Palace, is also shopping

outside Wat Unalom. He is looking for decorations for the area of the Palace where

he lives.

"I want to help maintain our Khmer products," he says, "and encourage

the villagers to keep making these traditional crafts."

At her stall, Chhin is less than confident of the coming years. The effort involved

in finding rattan and palm leaves has alerted the villagers to their reliance on

the forests.

"Now we know how important the forests are to us," she says sadly, "but

I think it is too late to change what has happened."

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