In a little shack in Andong Russey village, at the foot of Phnom Krang Dei Meas mountain, Grandma Moun slaps into shape the round-bottomed clay pot that is the de facto symbol of Kampong Chhnang province.
Moun can’t remember her age – only that she wasn’t yet married when Cambodia gained its independence. She does know that the people in her family, and her Sre Thmey commune village, have been making these pots, or ka-orm, out of the area’s reddish brown clay for generations.
“My family taught me and we have been making ka-orm since way before the Pol Pot regime happened,” she says.
Her method involves shaping the jar’s exterior with a wooden paddle that she uses to whack the clay, which is supported by a round wooden knob on the inside.
It’s a technique that pre-dates the sixth century, surviving the turbulence of the years since, but also one that is destined to fade away with her generation. That may not be such a bad thing, however, as what is replacing it in this village is not only also in line with Cambodia’s ancient history, but much more efficient.
“Potters that use a throwing wheel can make many more different pottery items and a much bigger ka-orm than I can,” she admits.
Archaeologists have determined that the Angkorians used throwing wheels as early as the sixth century, as well as high-temperature kilns – advanced techniques that were, until recently, lost in Cambodia. They were reintroduced to Kampong Chhnang in the 2000s by a German-funded development program, and the throwing wheel has given new life to the pottery craft, practised heavily among Andong Russey’s 300 families and in the two neighbouring villages of Bang Skun and Trapeang Sabeu.
Then in 2009, the Cambodia Traditional Pottery Project, funded by Japan’s Nippon Foundation, built the country’s first modern-day high-fire kiln and ceramics workshop in Andong Russey.
Grandma Moun’s 31-year-old neighbour, Sam Sokha, was among the project’s first students of wheel throwing when she was just 14 years old. She now spends at least half her week making high-quality ceramics at the workshop, and her remaining days at home making red earthenware jars and vases on her throwing wheel at home, assisted by her sister Sokhy and her husband, Phal Mech.
Sokha represents a new generation of Cambodian potters who are incorporating experimental designs into their wares, which are reaching boutique hotels and upscale restaurants.
The project began with a promise from Yamazaki Yukie, who began a love affair with the Kingdom in 1994 as a 21-year-old volunteer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Though she was sent home after falling ill, she saved up money to send herself back within two years.
“I could get no work at any Japanese entity, the market was not good, so I had nothing to do but learn Khmer,” she said.
‘There was no hope’
She enrolled in a Khmer literature class at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – after getting approval from Prime Minister Norodom Ranarridh and the Ministry of Education because only officials and aid workers were eligible to study at the time – and in class she found that students had a dismal view of their heritage and country, which was still embroiled in war.
“There was no hope for the future . . . They did not believe Khmers built Angkor Wat,” she said. “So I promised I would support the Khmer youth to have national pride.”
After graduating in 2000, Yukie worked as a Khmer-Japanese translator, and launched the bilingual culture magazine Nyo Nyum. In 2005, she became involved with CLAIR, a Japanese organisation that brought in potters from Japan’s Togichi prefecture – known for its ceramics culture – to teach locals.
But the project’s funding fizzled out in 2008, right as the first 1,250-degree-Celsius high-fire ceramics kiln was completed - a gift from Togichi prefecture - but before anyone in the village had learned how to use it.
“The locals told me they want someone to teach them,” she said. The Nippon Foundation agreed to fund a project in 2009 with Yukie as the manager, and it was born as a nonprofit. Among its aims was the lofty goal of recreating a ceramic culture that had been lost since Angkor.
‘A waste of time’
Yukie flew in a Japanese master potter named Shinsuke Iwami from Tochigi, and 30 women enrolled to study at the workshop. Within two months, however, all but seven women had dropped out.
“The commune chief told me that when I ask for the local’s participation in this project and do not give any money . . . no one will come. They need money to survive and it is a waste of time for them,” she said. “I was very surprised with this logic and I replied to the commune chief that my country sent the masters to teach the locals here for free, so why should I pay them to come and study, when usually the students must pay the masters for their teaching?”
Sokha and fellow potter Saun Sokhy, 26, had the foresight to see their time investment, which included one month in Japan, would pay off.
“The 23 who left would ask me, ‘Why are you still here? It’s a waste of time’ . . . And after two years when I could earn my income, and I went to Japan, they felt such regret, and felt they should have stayed,” Sokhy says, barely masking her schadenfreude. “I had no idea where Japan was when I was 15, I never knew where or what is Japan, I just thought about making pottery products.”
The project also created a certain amount of fiscal freedom for the six women working at the studio, who, as Sokhy notes, likely earn more than their husbands.
Sokhy’s husband works at home making metal frames to go with the earthenware cooking pots she makes as a side business, while Sokha’s husband Mech is employed at the workshop with three other men, mainly on grunt work like firing the kilns and collecting raw materials.
“The men make the soil into clay, the women throw the clay, the glazing and decorating we both do,” Sokha said, as she sliced off a freshly spun bowl from her wheel.
About 30 percent of income from sales goes to purchasing materials, while the rest pays the workers.
Managing the workshop since 2012 is Sourng Sambath – a man and the only worker with a fixed salary. He’s responsible for bringing in orders and showing around tour groups so if sales are down, the pressure falls on him.
As for Yukie, Nippon Foundation’s funding expired in 2015, after which the nonprofit became a social enterprise selling under the brand name Kampong Chhnang Pottery. Her only involvement now is to provide an outlet to sell in Phnom Penh, as well as securing orders for the occasional Japanese client, for which she takes a commission.
However, the potters at the project workshop see more than just a monetary windfall from the craft.
“I enjoy the many different styles and designs I can make thanks to the technique I learned from the Japanese,” says Sokha, showing off a black on white glaze pattern on a mug she designed herself.
Their wares can be anything from a lamp fixture to a teapot with lotus flower patterns or carved motifs inspired from Angkorian temples.
While Sokha may be too modest to boast outright, there’s an element of pride in being one of the village’s ceramicists, as opposed to the average potter whose livelihood is to churn out earthenware piggy banks, pots and vases, firing them in the handful of family-operated kilns and selling them off to middlemen wholesale.
“I wouldn’t say people respect me, but they appreciate my work,” she says, adding: “It increases the reputation of Kampong Chhnang, as this is the only place that does ceramic pottery.”
Her husband Mech is more direct.
“I don’t know about my neighbours, but I’m proud that our country can produce such a product, even if it is not as refined as porcelain,” he says, noting that he hopes their two boys, aged 8 and 4, will follow
in their mother’s footsteps.
Sokha is now willing to teach anyone her skills, fulfilling both the project’s goal and Yukie’s promise.
What’s more, she doesn’t really see the work they do at the studio as being a Japanese or foreign implant.
“Cambodia has know-how to do the pottery,” she said. “Since the Angkorian era we had the tradition. It has always been the culture of Cambodia – it was lost along the way and we are finding it again.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated where the organisation CLAIR is based. It is Japanese. It has also been updated to specify that the ceramics kiln was a gift from Togichi prefecture, not from CLAIR.