The ASEAN Summits in Cambodia were many months ago, but most of the domestic and international guests are sure to remember an exhibition of Cambodian products at the event. One of the highlights for many visitors were a series of small colourful masks, clad in the costumes of Preah Ream and Princess Sita, two characters from the Reamker, a classic Khmer epic poem.

While viewing the displayed goods, many of the international guests were drawn to the beautifully crafted masks, and wanted to know more about the meaning behind them.

Suon Dara, often called Suon Ta Ming, the 35-year-old creator of these unique lacquered masks, was on hand to explain the purpose of his artworks.

“Having the opportunity to share this traditional Khmer art with the important visitors to the ASEAN Summits was a dream come true. I was on cloud nine! Despite the multitude of items on display, many guests only had eyes for my masks,” said Dara.

“What makes these special is that they are not carved or cast from plaster or plastic, but handmade using paper mache and a wooden mould. Each layer of the paper is visible through the lacquer, so observer can see the texture that the technique creates. They are essentially perfect small-scale replicas of the full size masks that are used in Lakhon Khol, the traditional musical theatre of the Kingdom,” he added.

He claimed that at the summit Expo, many guests were interested in buying his miniature Lakhon Khol masks as souvenirs. He had to ask for their understanding, as he had only display models available.

He had since received orders from many of the guests, most notably from the Philippines and Indonesia.

He said many embassy staff had purchased them as gifts for their ministers. They had also requested that he introduce more characters, some of whom – like Hanuman – also have a large following outside of Cambodia.

“The five days I spent at the expo was totally worth it. I had the chance to show the word a unique Khmer art for, and was really pleased that so many foreign guests seemed to really appreciate my work,” he told The Post.

Dara originally trained as Lakhon Khol performer himself, and has performed on and off since 2007. Unfortunately, the performances alone were not enough to guarantee him a full-time salary, so he was forced to work in another field to supplement his income.

In 2018, Lakhon Khol was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, a source of pride for Cambodia. Dara was very emotional at the announcement. Aware of the slow decline of the art form, he hit upon the idea of promoting it by making and selling lacquered masks.

After speaking to many souvenir vendors – and members of the public – he realised that many Khmer people found the full sized masks too frightening to display. Each of the central characters is a powerful ancient mythical character, and many potential customers felt their power would be too strong to decorate their homes with.

Dara made the decision to scale them down. The faces retain their beauty, but their impact is now more subtle, making them perfect as souvenirs, or small keepsakes.

“In terms of production, and the materials we use, nothing changed. We just make them smaller than we used to,” he said.

As recently as a year ago, he was producing less than 20 characters from the epic poem. Now, customers can order up to 50 different masks, meaning almost every character is available.

“We now offer all but one or two of the characters from Lakhon Khol, even the lesser known and performed chapters. This includes the children of the monkey general Hanuman and the mermaid princess Neang Macha,” he explained.

Among the many characters, Preah Ream, Preah Leak, Neang Sita and Krong Reap are the most popular.

He offers even smaller masks – which are displayed in glass jars – for $25, while his regular products retail for between $40 and $50.

Despite the somewhat high prices, he says customers can see the quality.

“When they are displayed in the home, people can immediately see their beauty, and thus value. I am not making a profit from this enterprise, I merely wish to promote this unique part of our cultural heritage,” he added.

He explained that the production of each mask used to take from four to seven days, but he can now produce ten in a month – depending on his other artistic endeavors, acting and working for a touring theatre company.

Despite a production average of ten per month, he rarely sells that many, often receiving orders for as few as four.

“In an average month, I earn about $800 from the sale of masks. I have four employees, each of whom receives salary of $300. My theatre and dance work, along with some photography, subsidises my mask business,” said Dara.

Most neighbouring countries use a male mould – where paper is stuck to the outside of the cast, whereas Cambodia uses female moulds.

“Female moulds are more challenging to use, but the results are of a higher quality,” he added.

While many mask makers import clay – used for certain features of certain characters – Dara mixed his own from red ochre, oil and soap. This meant would dry hard without cracking, and would not be attractive to insects.

In addition to his small masks, he has begun receiving larger commissions. Although some customers will pay up to $500 for a large work, he said they could take up to a month to complete.

Hap Touch, director-general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Department of Cultural Technique, said it was an encouraging to see souvenirs being crafted according to tradition.

“I think it is an excellent way to promote our culture,” he added.

He suggested that there were other traditional art forms that could be miniaturized in the same way. This would mean the Kingdom could offer another unique form of souvenir, while also providing work for traditional artisans.

“Many other countries have found ways to adapt their own cultural heritage to the tourist market. Our culture is one of the richest in the world, so why don’t we? It would also be an excellent way of preserving our heritage for future generations,” he told The Post.