Anlong Veng district is known as the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. The former battlefield has now become a tourist attraction that offers a wonderful view of the remaining historical sites, among them the homes of Pol Pot and Ta Mok, a bullet production facility and the site where Pol Pot was prosecuted before the Khmer Rouge tribunal took shape.
Not to be missed is a village that produces home-made torches for export to overseas markets. The facility provides interesting insights into the production of traditional torches.
Located in Anlong Veng commune’s Kandal Krom village, residents dry Preal leaves, the main raw material, under the scorching sun. It’s easy to tell which families make torches, basically from the sight of stoves used to bake rubber in front of their homes. Around half of the village’s 125 families have them.
The villagers would call visitors “teacher”, a term used to show respect for people even if they are not actually in the teaching profession.
Sot Pov, 49, whose body is smudged with black coal used to bake rubber, has been in the business for five years. Traders would come to his home to buy torches.
“Traders would come to give me rubber in exchange for torches. If, for example, they give me a ton of rubber, they would get 3,000 torches in return."
“For the remaining torches [approximately 1,000], I sell them to customers for profit. If I am left with 1,000 torches, I would make a lot of money. If I was left with 600 pieces, you do the math. One torch sells for only 800 riel,” he says.
Pov says torch-making is just a snap. What is difficult is collecting enough Preal leaves and rubber.
“First of all, you tie a bunch of leaves into small bundles and dry them under the sun, then dip the bundles into burning rubber."
“Villagers have to travel long distances each year to Preah Vihear province to harvest Preal leaves. This year there is lots of rain, so I just headed to nearer Trapeang Prasat district,” he says.
Kandal Krom village chief Orom Meng says there is a total of 125 families in the village, 60 of them make torches for a living. He says there are other families making torches in Anlong Veng district, but only between 10 and 20 of them.
Mean Moeurn, another torch-maker, says he also dries the leaves then bundles and dips them into heated, bubbly latex.
With one hand making a torch, Moeurn says: “For one kilogram of rubber, I can make four torches. Within one day, I can make 500.”
Orom Meng, the village chief, says the torch-making business started not long ago.
“If I’m not mistaken, it only started six or seven years ago. First, there were only a few families learning to make torches. Realising its potential, other families followed suit. Thai traders came to buy their torches, but there weren’t enough for sale."
“The business idea has been fast to catch on. The villagers’ torches sell fast and they are struggling to meet growing demands,” he says.
Meng says he is no stranger to the increasingly popular business.
“I myself make torches. I started when rubber cost only 40,000 riel; now it costs over one million riels (around $250) per tonne. I quit when more and more villagers started to make torches,” says the village chief.
Torch-making families also double as guides, welcoming visitors to experience first-hand the process of torch-making.
Sporting a bright red t-shirt, Py Nara, a visitor from Phnom Penh, was keen to learn the torch-making process from villagers and even took selfies with them holding torch sticks.
“Born in the capital where electricity supply is abundant, such home-made torches really amaze me. Khmer ancestors were always creative in their daily lives,” Nara said.
A first-hand torch-making experience makes visitors appreciate the villagers who keep Khmer traditions alive, though they can only make a decent living from the business.
After a short tour around the village, 29-year-old Nara says torch-making is not a snap but a challenge.
“I’ve tried making torches by myself but couldn’t make a good one like the villagers. I experienced the hardship in making torches, and I learned something wonderful from the villagers – patience,” Nara said.