There were only two choices: stone carving or electronic repair work. So I chose to be a stone carver.
Keo Bun Seap, 39, is a war veteran, and bears the scars to prove it. He pulls up his shirt to reveal a bullet wound he received while fighting the Khmer Rouge 17 years ago.
“It went close to my lung,” he says. “It hurts when I do a lot of physical work.”
After using the money he received when discharged from the army in 2001 to buy a motorbike, he worked briefly as a motodop driver.
“At that time there were a lot of robbers, so I sold the motorbike,” he says. After a short spell working at the border, Keo Bun Seap decided to set up his woodcarving micro-business in the village of Bra Ngil five or six years ago.
Now he has seven female sculptors, including his wife, as well as one man who saws the wood.
Illegal logging of the sandalwood tree has become a major problem in the province, and government attempts to tackle the trade have made Keo Bun Seap’s business more difficult.
“Right now we lack wood because they [the government] have sanctioned the cutting down of the trees,” he says. “The price of wood is high.”
Keo Bun Seap does not know precisely where his wood comes from, but believes that much of it is from land granted for the construction of a dam in neighbouring Veal Veng district.
“They bring it here by ox-cart or sometimes I go to their homes,” he says.
Keo Bun Seap says about 100 families have similar businesses to his, but none of them have licences. “Previously we did not have the licence to operate,” he says. “But recently I have made an application for the licence.”
Before his wife, Duch Kosal, married him she used to carve marble, having been taught by an NGO in Kravanh.
“There were only two choices: stone carving or electronic repair work,” she says. “So I chose to be a stone carver.”
She started carving wood about three years ago.
“At that time the wood was not so expensive and the stone was expensive,” she says. “As for the work, stone carving and wood carving is almost the same, but I prefer wood as it is easier to carve.”
Today, Duch Sosal is working on a large water bowl which has carvings representing the landscape at Angkor. Her own design, it will take about a week to 10 days to complete.
She hopes to sell the bowl for US$800, which represents a 100 percent mark-up on the cost of the wood. “But it is not easy to sell,” she adds.
Duch Sosal is not an ambitious woman. “I don’t want to open a big shop. I just want my business to move forward,” she says.
“I want my children to learn other things so they can have a better job than this.”
As for Keo Bun Seap, he is hoping that their business is successful. He dreads to think what the future holds for his family if it fails.
“I am disabled, so it is difficult for me to work for others,” he says. “I only have this job.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY