(written by Nancy)
We had an easy day today, taking a break from wat touring to explore a bit around Siem Reap. Our first stop was the Artisans d’Angkor, a school that teaches wood and stone carving, lacquer painting and other artistic crafts to young people from impoverished backgrounds. We had a very interesting tour of the school, watching women painting on silk and lacquer, and also painting large wooden statues that are carved by other artisans there. There were also men and women carving figures out of soapstone and sandstone and others making figurines out copper.
The organisation employs over 800 artisans, who are each selected by the school after applying for the positions and being vetted by the school’s teachers. The students undertake a long apprenticeship in their chosen field under the watchful eye of the teachers. After completing the apprenticeship the students can generally get a job with Artisans d’Angkor, earning a salary and a share of the sales price of their work that is sold, though they may also go out on their own if they choose. The organisation has recently begun creating rural workshops so that their artists can work closer to home, rather than have to come into Siem Reap on a daily basis to work. All of their work is sold through the Artisans d’Angkor shops rather than in any of the markets, in an effort to keep up the value of the products. Interestingly, several of the painters were women who were deaf and mute – they have all learned international sign language so they can communicate with each other. Apparently there is a Cambodian sign language as well, but our tour guide said the woman preferred to use international sign language as the Cambodian language was much more complicated.
The school also runs a silk farm, located about 15k from Siem Reap town. We took the shuttle bus out there to see the farm and the silk weavers. It was quite an informative tour – more informative than the tour we took in Thailand. We were shown the silk worms in various stages – from the small worms eating lots and lots of mulberry leaves to the larger worms slowing down a bit and starting to make the silk thread. At this stage the worms are placed onto round baskets or branches, where they start to spin their cocoons. Next was the ‘boiling’ stage, where the cocoons are boiled to kill the worms inside and remove the layers of silk – the outer raw silk and the inner fine silk. Women sit patiently unwinding the silk thread from the cocoons and spinning it onto large wheels for further processing. Our guide took the opportunity at this point to have a snack of boiled silk worm and offered one around to the group as well – of course Dave had to have one. He said it was not nearly as good as the deep fried one he tasted in Thailand, weird food tastes all being somewhat relative.
The process of taking the silk threads from those cocoons and turning them into beautiful silk fabrics is pretty amazing. We watched the silk threads being dyed in patterns by wrapping little bands of plastic around the threads to form the pattern – apparently they used to use banana leaves before plastic was available. Those threads, with the varying patterns, are then provided to the weavers who essentially put the puzzle pieces together with the loom, selecting the right piece of silk string to fit the pattern taking shape on the loom. It boggles the mind how they keep track of it all, with all the people and commotion around them. Today there were also several kids around, keeping their mums company while they worked.
It was all very interesting and of course the lovely silk products in the store were hard to resist, particularly after seeing how much work actually went into producing them. We must have circled the store about 10 times just looking at all of the beautiful things and I think we were the last of the group to finally make it out of the store!
After we got back into town we had lunch and then just wandered a bit through the alleyway shops. There are quite a few stores in the area that promote products produced in a way that benefits the local communities. There are certainly a lot of folks out there that seem to be trying to help Cambodia recover from their tortured history, which is good to see. There are quite a few signs and brochures around town noting it is not a good idea to buy trinkets from kids as that encourages parents to keep the kids out of school and on the street. It is hard to resist them though as you want to try to help them and they are certainly good salesmen!
Tomorrow we are off to see the two major temples here, Angkor Tom and Angkor Wat. We are taking a guide with us and have a very early start – the schedule is to leave here at 5am to catch the sunrise so it’s off to bed. I am sure a nap will be in order tomorrow afternoon…