A man with fair skin holds a sword in each hand and speaks slowly. At first glance, people might think he is a samurai gangster or a street fighter, but he is actually a blacksmith named Ron Nopann, a 30-year-old living in Roluos commune of Siem Reap province’s Prasat Bakong district.
As he works the air pump to make the flames go higher in the forge he uses to soften steel to be able to hammer it into a sword, knife or any other design requested, Nopann said he considers blacksmithing to be an art form.
Nopann said that he has four brothers and his parents were farmers. He learned this skill from his grandfather who was also a blacksmith, making knives, axes or other metal tools.
He recalled that when he was about 10 years old he lived with his grandfather, studying only half a day at school and the remaining half of the day he would come home to help work the pumps on the forge for his grandfather.
While living with his grandfather he was taught blacksmith skills, which he eventually mastered and continues to use today.
“Making swords, spears or weapons requires special techniques, we cannot just do it carelessly without any measuring or method. We also need to think about how to make it suitable for the person who is holding it. I learned this skill from my grandfather and I learned some of the decorative aspects from studying the sculptures on the stones of the Angkor temples,” he said.
According to Nopann, forging steel into knives, swords, spears or other objects is not only a matter of counting hammer blows and following the rules, it also requires a lot of patience and attention to detail.
It also requires a great deal of strength and endurance because the smith has to be able to stand the heat and swing a heavy hammer over and over again to shape the metal and one must follow the correct practices or risk hurting themselves otherwise.
He explained that he knows how to make at least eight different type of swords: Eel swords from the Longvek period; single and dual swords of the Angkor period; Ponhea Vaing’s sword from the Odong period; Kampong Svay swords from the era of Techo Meas (1603); leaf swords and winged swords from the Odek and Longvek periods and spears that have been used across all eras.
He confirmed that not just anyone was allowed to wield all of these eight types of swords. They were used depending on the person’s height, weight and status.
Thus, before he makes a sword he needs to know the customer’s weight, height and age if they want to order from him. For example, if the customer is 1.8 metres tall and weighs more than 100kg and is still young, then he knows that the customer will be strong enough to wield a larger and heavier sword.
However, his handmade weapons are not intended for use by harming others or committing crimes, they were made for display only, but he wants to preserve the heritage of his ancestors so he follows the old practices, hopeful that they will be carried on by the younger generations.
He said that the market for his products was limited as not many people support or understand the artistry behind what he is making.
“I want the next generation to know our Khmer weapons. Those weapons are not only for our ancestors to use to fight the enemy, but each type of weapon has a unique form that no other country has the same as our country,” he said.
He said that in the future, if he has enough money or resources, he will teach young people to understand and know the work of the Cambodian ancestors because if no one helps with preserving the art form the knowledge of it will be lost or claimed by some other country.