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Kingdom's last encaustic tile maker faces uncertain future

Kingdom's last encaustic tile maker faces uncertain future

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Traditional building materials have been overlooked in Cambodia's building boom as developers embrace mass-produced alternatives

Photo by: Heng Chivoan

One of Phoam Phalla's last remaining tile workers inspects his handiwork. 

PHOAM Phalla, owner of Tuol Sleng Tiles Handicraft on street 360, near the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, has made encaustic cement tiles since 1990.

At one time he had 60 employers working in two shifts to turn out the one-of-a-kind tiles, but over the past five or six years he has seen a steady decline, and he now employs only six.

He attributes this to both a decline of customers and a lack of willing workers. "Before so many people worked," he said. "But now, because of the new construction, new building, there is no need; they just use modern tiles."

Encaustic cement tiles are found in colonial-period buildings around the world.

They are made to a high standard and come in a wide range of patterns that can be used anywhere. The rich, sophisticated styling is increasingly popular among Cambodia's many new Western homeowners, and they are the new trend with architects and interior designers.

Adding immediate elegance to any space, they provide an alternative to industrial-made products such as linoleum and plastic tiles, which can look cheap and are not as durable. In a tropical climate, cement tiles are an excellent substitute for carpet, and the traditional art nouveau-style often imitates carpeting.

Phoam Phalla learned to make tiles from books and experts in Vietnam. The technique, which allows the mass-production of tiles without the need to fire harden them, was introduced to the public at the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition by Garret, Rivet i Compania of Barcelona, before spreading rapidly around Europe and its colonies. The process Phoam Phalla uses today is the same the French used when they built their colonial dwellings in Cambodia.

The tiles are composed of three layers. The first is a mixture of colour pigment, white sand from Kampong Som and water, the next  consists of dry cement and the final layer is a combination of wet sand and cement.

The three layers are compressed using a manual press Phoam Phalla built himself in imitation of the traditional French presses used during the protectorate period. He also makes the molds used to create ornate designs on the tiles, allowing him to custom make tiles to order. After the tiles are pressed, they are stacked to dry overnight and then plunged into water for four hours to cure. They are ready to use two days later.

Tuol Sleng Tiles Handicraft is the last manufacturer of encaustic cement tiles in Cambodia, but the future is uncertain. "People don't want the old-style," Phoam Phalla said repeatedly. "They want new."

If there are not enough orders he is afraid he may have to stop making the tiles or turn to the tourist industry. Currently he is importing vases and pots from Vietnam, China and Thailand to help keep his doors open.

Tiles from Tuol Sleng Tiles Handicraft come in three sizes - 20x20cm, 25x25cm and 30x30cm - and sell for $5-$6 per square metre.

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