Cambodia - A Week With the Artisans - Lost in Samsara

Cambodia - A Week With the Artisans

Inserito da Mariavittoria Scala il giorno

Three years have passed since our last trip to Cambodia to visit the two small projects we work together with. After a flight of over twelve hours we reach Phnom Penh. It is about 7:30pm local time. The heat and humidity await us at the exit of the airport. We grab one of the remorque, what everyone calls tuk tuk. A two-wheeled carriage pulled behind a motorbike and a really fun way to go around Phnom Penh. 
We glimpse at the still busy streets on our way to the hotel. The city is still lively, people are eating outside at stalls sitting on small chairs. There is a gentle breeze and the ride is smooth. After little less than half an hour we reach our destination. We decide to go to bed, get some rest and be ready for the day after.

It always proves really hard to sleep on the first few days trying to adjust to the jet lag. So we are awake pretty early and after breakfast we decide to get around the city. Today we get to relax and recover after the journey and, despite temperatures are over 35C, we gladly head to visit the National Museum as we didn't get the chance to see it the previous time. The outside is remarkable, it's a terracotta structure of traditional design, almost in contrast with the inside which is very humble with its old and not really looked after display cases. The pieces shown are beautiful though, old Khmer artefacts, sculptures, statues and pottery. There is even a lunar fragment donate by US President Richard Nixon in 1973 as wishes for goodwill among "all mankind in the future."

After the museum we head back to the hotel to rest for a while and in the evening we go back to watch a show of Khmer dance organised by Cambodian Living Arts, an organisation that supports the art sector and creates uplifting employment for artists. The show is beautiful and the costumes magnificent. Exhausted, but nourished in our spirit, we decide to call it a day and go back to rest for, hopefully, a full night sleep.
Today we are meeting Chamroeun (below) founder of Smart Crafts, the small producer group that makes all our recycled wallets and bags. He comes and picks us up on a tuk tuk and together we head to the workshop where the artisans are preparing our recycled from cement bags and motorcycle seats backpacks.

There are four artisans working and with Chamroeun, who helps us as translator, we have a nice chat and discuss adjustments and future designs. 

Prom Raiy (above) is the oldest. He was a former hair dresser, but it wasn't an enough remunerative job for him. Now he is passing on his skills by teaching the others in here how to sew.  


Ming Sall (above) comes from outside Phnom Penh and she was a former garment factory worker making dresses. She has no family and she says that she is now happy being here and work in a better environment and earning more. 
We also meet a new little friend who really likes being photographed and to discover the magics of a camera. 


After few hours we need to leave and get back to our tuk tuk to visit another group of artisans based just outside Phnom Penh. They are the ones making all of the recycled tyre wallets and women bags. Before leaving we manage to get a group photo where everybody actually looks at the camera!

The journey to get to the other artisans is almost an hour so we decide to stop for a brief lunch for which we are also joined by our fun tuk tuk driver. 


Rice is not missing as you can see!

We arrive at Sokha and Korng's house which is where they work. Korng is the main artisan and he taught his wife Sokha to sew and work with the tyres. She was previously working at a souvenir shop in Phnom Penh and that is where she learnt english. Korng doesn't speak english and he seems to enjoy his wife conversations with us by smiling from time to time. They show us our new designs that are now almost ready. We discuss some more details and then we just keep talking with Sokha whose stories and smiles makes us feel welcome and home away from home. But it comes the time to leave, it is another hour to drive back to Phnom Penh. Tomorrow we'll be meeting Chamroeun again. 

(Alessia looking at the new bags)

(Sokha & Korng)


Our morning is free today before Chamroeun comes to pick us up in the early afternoon to go and choose some new fabrics for the bags. 

We take it easy and go for lunch at Romdeng which serves local dishes, including the tarantula (well..subject to availability!). The most important thing about Romden is that it belongs to the Tree Alliance which is a social business with the ultimate goal of providing young people, many of them former street youth, with the skills they need to become employable in the thriving hospitality industry. So after a restoring lunch is time to go. Chamroeun brings us to a market where there are different shops selling fabrics. We settle for some new colours which will be also used for some of the wallets. We are not going to disclose here what colours would those be, but you can look at Marvi trying to choose carefully!

We say Chamroeun goodbye and thank him for being such a wonderful host in those two days. 

Another day is gone, tomorrow we are meeting with the other producers group, Craftworks Cambodia, the one that makes our recycled bullet cases jewellery.


 Vichet is the manager of Craftworks Cambodia, we meet him at their showroom 20 minutes further south of the Russian Market, the most famous and touristic market in Phnom Penh. We arrive there in the early afternoon. Vichet greets us with a big smile and after a brief chat we all head to visit Chenla the artisan that together with his wife produces our jewellery. 

 (Craftworks Cambodia showroom)

Chenla leaves outside Phnom Penh, it is over an hour by tuk tuk and this time it feels like a really long drive. He also works from home where he has a little workshop. He and his wife greet us and invite us in. Chenla tells us a bit of his story. How he learnt to make jewellery thanks to an NGO that trained him when he was younger and gave him the skills to provide for himself and for his family. Chenla is 39 years old now and he has two daughters. He is Christian and the only one of his faith leaving in his area. Every Sunday he and his wife prepare lunch for the kids that live in their neighbourhood. His dream, he tells us, is to earn more money so that he can build a bigger workshop and teach his skills to others and give them a better future, like the NGO has done for him before. 

Chenla is a very smiley and positive person with a strong can do attitude. Alessia shows him the new designs she has in mind, while outside a chickens fight takes place.

It's late in the afternoon now and we need to head back. We are very grateful to Chenla and his wife for their kind hospitality and the much appreciated bottles of water they gave us for our journey back.

We jump again on our tuk tuk while waving goodbye.

(From left to right: Vichet, well you know..Marvi, Chenla and his wife)

On our way back, we get stuck in traffic. We pass in front of the garment factories and the shifts are finishing. It is peak time. There are loads of trucks carrying the workers. Their salary improved slightly since the last time we came, but there is still a lot of work to do. They travel up to three hours everyday each way to go and come back from the factories and most of them work seven days out of seven to make enough money to survive. We are told that they also pay for the trucks to bring them to and from work around $40, a third of their monthly salary.

(A shot of one of the trucks passing by our tuk tuk)


It is our last day here in Phnom Penh and before we leave we decide to visit another project that employs artisans with disabilities. It is a local social enterprise that is called Watthan and is by the temple that goes by the same name. Watthan was set up in 2004 and managed to train and provide work to many, including Chamroeun who was once working for them and now is collaborating with them. 

We get to see the workshop and look at the wonderful textile that is handwoven in the Takeo Province, south of Cambodia, with which they produce bags and accessories. 

This is all very inspiring and what made us fall in love with Cambodia. People's resilience, their will to build a better future for them and for others. It is all a life lesson for us.


(Watthan Artisans Cambodia workshop)

After our visit, we get back to the hotel to prepare our suitcases. It is time to leave Cambodia until next time. We had a wonderful time, we have learnt more about the people that make our products and we hope that with us you did too.



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