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Village silversmiths keep alive the glories of Oudong

Village silversmiths keep alive the glories of Oudong

Neat Thoul, 72, has been a silversmith since she was 15. Over 70 percent of Por Touch's population of 700 is engaged in the craft.

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LONG the Tonle Sap river bank just north of the ferry crossing at Prek K'dam, 72-year-old

Neat Thoul sits in her wooden house and tinkers away on a small silver betel nut

container, etching into the metal delicate figures and designs that have been passed

on from generation to generation for as long as she can remember.

Once completed, the Tom Kambao may end up in the markets of Phnom Penh or in some

collector's house on the other side of the planet.

Grandma Thoul is well known by her fellow villagers in Por Touch and recognized as

one of the veteran Khmer craftswomen who have been plying their trade here since

at least the days when nearby Oudong was the Kingdom's capital over 140 years ago.

Craftspeople and artisans were always in high demand by Cambodia's monarchs and the

traditions survived the capital's move to Phnom Penh in the 1860s, such that over

70 percent of Por Touch's roughly 600 population are still involved today in the

silver-smithing industry.

Grandma Thoul says she has been practicing her craft since the age of 15 when her

parents taught her the skills she has refined for over five decades now, excluding

the Pol Pot years when villagers were forced into the fields.

"My works used to be shown in the Royal Palace through Bun Than, who was a silver

vender." she said.

According to her daughters, Grandma Thoul specializes in producing silver figures

representing the 12 signs of the zodiac in a variety of sizes.

She proudly displays a picture of a 30kg silver elephant which she says took her

two months to craft.

When Pol Pot was toppled in 1979 she started to teach her skills to relatives and

neighbors who wanted to continue the tradition. And she was even asked to go to Phnom

Penh and teach at the National Fine Arts Institute, but declined as she felt that

the rustic village lifestyle was more to her liking.

"I'm old now and I cannot go outside the village, but if someone wants me to

help they can come to my house," she said.

Ke Touch, 62, is another veteran Khmer crafts-woman who has been practicing since

her teens. She holds up a silver turtle to display her latest achievement. Never

having officially studied her craft, she picked it up from her parents.

"I was bored and I saw what my parents were doing so I asked them to teach me

how to do it as well," she said.

The head of a silver elephant made in Por Touch

Touch has been crafting silver since the Sihanouk years, but notes that during the

Lon Nol regime her profits were the best as the cost of silver was lower back then.

"During the Lon Nol regime, I could buy one damleung of gold [from profits]

in three days but now I only make enough money to buy food to feed my family from

day to day," she said.

Siv San, 42, a widow whose husband died during the 1980s, also ekes out a living

to support herself and three children by crafting silver figurines.

"I was taught [the skills] by my neighbors so I could support my family after

my husband died," she said

"Now I have only this skill to give to [the children]. I don't have property

or other valuable things to give them when they marry or when I die."

Siv San's 10-year-old daughter, Sok Chea, helps her in her efforts which bring in

about 2,000 or 3,000 riel a day to the family.

"I want to be a famous artist and get a lot of money to give to my mother,"

Sok Chea says laughing.

A Por Touch craftsman works a piece of silver

Chea, who is now in first grade, said she had been helping with the silver carving

since she was five years old.

Khun Sophea, a 19-year-old Cham girl, toils away in the less refined market for small,

quickly-produced silver trinkets. She says she and her brother can produce around

100 tiny pieces which brings them about 10,000 riel per day.

While none of the crafts workers in Por Touch village are getting rich from their

efforts, with the aid of a German-funded organization, the Cambodian Craft Cooperation

(CCC), business has picked up somewhat in the last few years.

Since 1999 CCC has been supplying silver to workers in the village and both sells

the final works at their shop near Wat Phnom and sends pieces abroad to display at

handicraft conventions.

According to Seung Kim-yonn, a professor at the Faculty of Plastic Arts and CCC's

Executive Director, after sample products were displayed in Thailand and Germany

orders have picked up.

In 1999 20kg of silver artworks were produced by the Por Touch villagers for sale

abroad, with CCC paying craftswomen $100 a kilogram for their labors, a welcome increase

from the normal rate of $30 to $50 a kg paid by local traders.

A silver ornament gets the fire treatment

For this year Kimyonn says that until the end of September he has already received

orders for 40 kg of silverworks.

Even with business picking up a bit, villagers are still a bit stoic about the future.

"I don't think the new generation will abandon this craft because we are living

on it. If we lost it we cannot survive," mused Ke Touch.

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