Jars, vases, incense burners, piggy banks, traditional cookers and pots can all be found in front of almost every house near Phnom Krang Dei Meas Mountain, an area rich with red clay.
Most people in Kampong Chhnang province’s Andong Russei village keep making pottery the traditional way. Some have been involved in the trade even before the Khmer Rouge regime.
But pottery production is not the only source of income for these families. Taking advantage of the growing number of tourists to the area, some have started travel agencies.
Three ladies sit in front of their pottery wheels in a workshop waiting for the next customers. To attract tourists, they have installed a traditional fountain made out of a vase at the entrance and a long bamboo bed so that tourists can sit while watching them work the wheel.
Pov Sambon, 47, and her two teenage daughters have made over 3,000 oil lamps, which they sell to customers and pagodas to use during Buddhist ceremonies.
“During religious ceremonies such as Meak Bochea Day and Visak Bochea Day, I receive orders for thousands of clay oil lamps that people light up during ceremonies. We are always busy making pottery and souvenirs,” says Sambon.
The villagers are always eager to share their skills and knowledge in pottery with curious visitors, she says.
Sambon, who learned pottery from her mother and is now passing the craft down to her daughters, tells The Post: “Many people visit the village. They come from Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh, as well as from outside Cambodia.
“Sometimes, they buy one or two souvenirs. Sometimes, they just come to see us at work. Some come to learn the craft from us,” she says.
Observing the village women at work, Py Nara, a resident of Phnom Penh, says he is interested in learning how to make pottery.
“When I first saw them do it, it looked easy enough. They put the clay on the wheel and, as if by magic, the clay gradually becomes a lamp. However, when I tried to do it, it proved harder than what I expected. I could not do it,” he says.
“People rarely buy clay products since they are fragile,” laments Pov Kongkea.
In one of the workshops, villagers are trained in a more modern method which uses a throwing wheel. The method involves shaping the jar with a wooden paddle used to whack the clay, which is supported by a round wooden knob inside.
“Tourists can watch us at work or they can learn the craft. They can make their clay pots and take them home,” says Teang Sophan, from Kampong Chhnang Pottery, an enterprise associated with the Cambodia Traditional Pottery Project.
“Tourists come to watch what we are doing. If they don’t want to buy, it doesn’t matter. We won’t charge them. Few tourists are visiting the workshop now, since most are walking around the village to see what the villagers are up to,” says Sophan.
Carefully crafting a one-meter tall clay pot, Sam Sokha, 33, says she is happy to share her knowledge of this traditional art form.
“Now I am making vases for my customers to sell at the market. In one day, I can make 10 vases, each priced at 12,000 riel [$3],” says Sokha, who started learning the craft at the age of 14.
In a cottage with dried clay splattered on the walls and floor, Chea Muon follows her daily routine, which includes collecting clay and using it to make beautiful pots.
“I whack the clay every day, and each day I can make about 10 pots,” says Muon, 85, who, due to her advanced age, often has difficulty remembering things and answering journalists’ questions.
Sokha, her granddaughter, helps her deal with journalists and other people curious to know more about her life and craft.
“My grandmother keeps making pots every day, but she does not know if the business is profitable or losing money.
“Her children and grandchildren want her to quit, but she won’t. Sometimes she buys the clay, and sometimes she digs it out herself. Visitors always give her money at the pagoda so that she can buy clay,” Sokha says.
Andong Russei Tourism Community was created to promote local handicrafts and generate more income for families. But the organisation has faced some difficulties.
“Sometimes, we invite the villagers for meetings so that they can learn more about hospitality. However, many don’t want to come because they think it is a waste of time and won’t get any benefit,” says Sambon, who is also in charge of the Andong Russei Tourism Community.
Of the 400 families in Andong Russei village, only 15 families have joined with the organisation.
Created a few years ago, the Andong Russei Tourism Community allows tourists to experience first-hand the production of clay pots.
Tourists can also see how the villagers produce palm sugar, including watching them climb the palm tree and boiling the palm juice.
“Although we face many difficulties, I still want this organisation to work,” says Sambon.