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Khmer woven seagrass baskets in demand abroad

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Sorn Chantha at her shop in the capital’s Chamkarmon district. SUPPLIED

Khmer woven seagrass baskets in demand abroad

Traditionally, most weavers of seagrass are elderly people, who sit and weave to pass the time after their daily work is done. It seems that this tradition may be lost in the future, as younger Cambodians are less inclined to take up the art. Many of them see it as hard work which requires a lot of time and patience. In addition, most young people don’t see how it could possibly earn them an income.

In 2015, Sorn Chantha decided that she could change all that.

Chantha, who goes by the name Maya, is now 40 years old. She opened her small store in Kampong Chhnang province’s Kampong Tralach district, but four or five years ago “Maya Handicrafts” moved to the village and commune of Arey Ksat, in Kandal province’s Lvea Em district. Her business helps her local community to earn extra income and has become especially popular among foreign customers living both in Cambodia – and as far away as Europe.

“I started the business in 2015, while I was working full-time for AsiaLIFE Magazine. At that time, I saw home and hotel accessories made from natural plants – such as river rush, seagrass and reeds – being made in Kampot and Svay Rieng provinces and then sold to Vietnam and Thailand. Meanwhile, Cambodians were all using products made from plastic,” she said.

“I asked myself why we weren’t able to make them here for our own use. Initially, I started using reeds and water hyacinth in Kampong Chhnang province,” she added.

In 2018, Maya was employed by a Japanese company as a design assistant on a film project that used similar products. Seeing modern designs made with traditional techniques inspired her.

“Through my work with the Japanese, I had a good understanding of how I could incorporate my modern design ideas with the materials we knew. In 2018, I established the brand ‘Maya Handicrafts’ to promote my new products,” she said.

Since then my business has focused on products made from Khmer seagrass, which is sourced from Preah Sihanouk and Koh kong provinces.

The brand offers about 20 kinds of products, ranging from bags and baskets to large storage containers, place mats and waste bins. The products are sought after decor for hotels, guesthouses and stylish private homes.

Maya revealed the unique features of Khmer seagrass, saying an expert appraiser of her acquaintance – who has more than 20 years experience – agreed that he had never seen it’s equal.

“Seagrass grown in other provinces or neighbouring countries are simply not of the same quality. Even seagrass from Kampot is inferior. Products made with inferior materials are never as good, as the seagrass is not supple enough to be worked into the elegant designs we employ,” she explained.

Due to their high quality, Maya’s products are very popular, with monthly sales of between 100 and 500 items.

She wants to ensure that revenues flow back into the communities she works with, as she sees them as partners.

“I did not set up a large enterprise and I do not employ a broker. I work directly with my weavers to offer them opportunities and give them confidence. I don’t force them to weave quickly, because to get good products, the weavers need to feel good about the work they are doing,” she said.

“I create the designs myself, often inspired by Asian, African or South American styles. I like to use bright colours as symbols of freshness and happiness,” she added.

Products made by Maya Handicrafts are high quality and long lasting, and range from $6 to $100.

“Most of our customers are foreigners – if I had to depend on my Cambodian clients, I don’t think the business would have survived until now,” she said.

Although seagrass has great potential as a luxury handicraft product – with viable export markets – it is an endangered plant. According to Maya, this is due to geographical factors.

“Based on my four-five years’ experience in this work, I’m also concerned about the growing scarcity of Khmer seagrass. It now grows in just two provinces – Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong.

“In the future, it may face extinction if we have no plan to preserve them – or do not understand its value. I would like to take this opportunity to request that the Ministry of Environment help to conserve this rare and unique Khmer plant,” she said.

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