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A burning passion for art turned lucrative business

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Artist Roeum Bunhak uses a heated metal tool to burn intricate patterns into palm leaves. Sam Walker

A burning passion for art turned lucrative business

A Siem Reap’s artist’s burned palm leaf pictures – made using an ‘iron pencil’ – have become a popular collectible for visitors

Siem Reap artist Roeum Bunhak’s “paintings” are no ordinary renditions of Cambodian landmarks and life.

Using his “iron pencil”, the 35-year-old sears images onto palm leaves with the intricacy of an accomplished pencil sketcher.

“I found it to be an art with a beautiful concept,” said Bunhak, who spent most of his life as an oil painter before moving on to palm-leaf burning.

The concept is simple: a palm leaf is glued onto a piece of plywood.

Using a tool with a metal point heated in embers, Bunhak applies his “iron pencil” onto his canvas, sketching images ranging from the temples at Angkor to personal portraits.

His work has proven lucrative – pictures can fetch up to $30 in Siem Reap souvenir shops while his three-hour palm leaf burning course for tourists costs $28.

Bunhak, who won his first art award at an UNTAC-sponsored competition way back in 1993, said that he first got the idea while living with his uncle after he was forced to close his oil-painting studio.

While helping his uncle keep house, he was always tasked with burning the rubbish. It was a chore he liked, he said, because he found it stress-relieving.

Bunhak said he began noticing fire’s artistic potential when he stared into the fire.

“I saw the burned patterns – the flames created pictures from ash,” he said.

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Bunhak’s first painting sold for $0.75 but now go for up to $30. Sam Walker

At the beginning, Bunhak began experimenting with his uncle’s iron tools. He had limited success until he perfected the size of the iron pencil.

“I imagined burning an entire Angkor Wat picture onto a piece of palm leaf board using miniature iron pencils,” he said.

“It took a whole day to finish one because I didn’t have enough material, but it showed a wonderful picture of Angkor Wat.”

Bunhak sold his first burnt painting in 2007 to the Cambodian Cultural Village recreation centre for a mere $0.75.

He still hadn’t perfected his craft, he added, and was tempted to quit.

“I wanted to quit my job at that time, because it didn’t make money and wasted a lot of time, but I decided to stick with my own creativity to make it successful.”

Today, he can make up to $200 a day in addition to what he earns by teaching eight people in classes for tourists.

“After they practise with me, they always give good feedback to me – that this is the perfect and only one [palm burning class] in the world,” he said, adding that although he was happy at his work, he sometimes doesn’t have time to eat even a quick meal of rice.

Hopefully, he added, he can move beyond painting and become a local leader in the Cambodian art scene by opening a gallery of his own.

“I hope in the future I can have my own following or gallery to preserve this original product and contribute my knowledge to orphans before I die,” said Bunhak.

Bunhak’s palm leaf burnings can be purchased at the Angkor Handicraft Association on Road 60, 200m east of the Naga Bridge in Siem Reap.

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