My visit to Cambodia captured my imagination and fired my passion for the history of the country, its crafts and music. The ancient Angkor or Khmer Empire of Cambodia displayed some of the finest art and craft of it’s day. The empire spanned from early 800 AD and ended with the fall of Angkor in the 15th century. The crafts old and new are vibrant, creative and skilful. The music is another wonder I fell in love with including; multi-tonal traditional folk, 1960’s psychedelic, rock ‘n’ roll and modern day fusion.
The stone carvings found on the temples are breathtaking. The detail is painstakingly crafted, the stories it depicts fascinating and the skilled craft men and women behind such works impress me more than words can describe.
This motif is like a comic book, so dramatic and the story is told without any need for words. I love the crocodile feasting on the leg of a man and the way the different levels of the story integrate.
These female figures can be found everywhere in the temples, palaces and walls of the ancient Angorian capital. Each one is unique and beautiful, often the face looks like the carver has tenderly crafted a loved one due to the real human likeness and personality that can be seen. Some are called Apsara, the dancing ones. The above are Devata and they stand still and face forward.
Originally the carvings would have been gilded with gold and other precious materials. They would have shined and glistened in the sun and been very magnificent. I imagined what it would have looked like so many times during my visit, my mind was wild with concepts and scenarios. Now with the aid of technology you can see how splendid it probably was in its hay day with the help of this 3D digital reconstruction.
With such a rich history of culture and art, I was therefore not surprised but wholeheartedly impressed, when I found many beautiful handicrafts in modern day Cambodia. The Angkor Handicraft Association (AHA) which supports Siem Reap artisan producers helps distinguish between local produce and imported copies, which I believe is very important to give tourists and other customers a choice who they want to buy their souvenirs and gifts from. Look out for this logo if buying handicrafts in Siem Reap, you know the money will go back into the community. It is the poorest province in Cambodia but holds the most valuable and popular wonder of South-East Asia, but that is a different sad yet interesting story.
The organisation which first caught my eye was Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, they have a showroom and workshops right in the heart of the city, just a few minutes walk from Pub Street. It felt like you got to see how everything you just saw in semi ruin at the Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site was crafted. This organisation is helping restore many of the stone carving for Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom, some of the main sights.
The skills needed for this wonderful stone and wood carving must take many years to perfect and a lifetime to master. It was a joy to see people taking pride in their work and producing outstanding art and crafts from raw materials. Understanding exactly how much care, patience and precision is required for each hand-crafted item gives them an even higher value than just their initial beauty.
They displayed the process of wood carving a figurine. It was fascinating to see how it was created from a pencil drawing and block of wood to the final polished piece.
The stone carved motifs were the highlight for me, the designs are so carefully crafted, and considered. They tell stories that communicate across any language with graphic, brutal yet tender images. Then on top of the designs, a skilled craft is applied to bring the story to life. The relief’s are often set back and forth dramatically in layers to give perspective and real depth. The use of multiple images of the same figure or animal gave the impression of movement and time like the spinning of a Zoetrope animation wheel. But long before the birth of cinema and moving images.
Once the carving is complete it is gilded and in the showroom of Artisans d’Angkor you can see the final pieces in all their glory. If you have some serious money you can buy and take it home.
Lacquer-ware and lacquer painting is another craft that was in progress at the workshops and on display in the Artisans d’Angkor showroom. The art and design is outstanding, the technique a refined craft and the results are breathtaking. Maybe reading this interesting article in The Phnom Penh Post can explain more than I can about this handicraft. I know that I would like one of these lacquer paintings on my wall.
Another handicraft going on in the workshops was silk painting, which I have done myself and so I know the skill, precision, concentration and consideration that is needed for this. Most designs are taken from the Angkor temples and sold to tourists as keepsakes to remind them of the ancient wonders. But as Cambodia and its people move forward, I certainly believe this revived craft will adapt and burst forth new forms of expression and exceptional creativity with this as an art form.
Silk Farming & Pidan
Silk preparation and weaving in Cambodia has a long and turbulent history. I purposefully have not mentioned the more recent savage history until now, as I want to celebrate the joyful aspects of Cambodia and its wonders, not woes. The Khmer Rouge regime nearly eliminated silk farming but fortunately Cambodia’s “Golden Silk” is still in production, as I went to experience for myself at the Angkor Silk Farm.
The museum at the end of the silk farm tour explained about how important the patterns were, they have deep meaning and history. Some patterns in ancient times were only worn by royalty. The more elaborate the pattern could show you were from a higher social standing.
Another Cambodian handicraft which took by breath away was Pidan weaving which is a very special, elaborately designed pictorial silk textile used in Buddhist temples. I saw a fascinating exhibition about Pidan weaving in the National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
A Pidan is distinguished from other silk textiles as they show narrative scenes. They are produced by the method of tying the threads before dying and weaving. This rare skill was only kept in the minds of a few Cambodian women as Pidan weaving was also stopped during the Khmer Rouge regime. I felt privileged to see the exhibition and being able to go up close, this fine crafts glory really came to life.
I could not take photographs in the exhibition but I found on-line the above image, it is one of the exact designs I saw. I can still not quite imagine how this is done and how much thought and precision must be implemented in the dying and weaving process to achieve such delightful scenes, it’s truly amazing and mind boggling.
As with all endings it is fabulous to look into a bright and optimistic direction. Maybe this one is a little strange but that is the way I like it. While wondering around Cambodia for two months I bumped into the home-grown 1960’s & 70’s psychedelic and rock ‘n’ roll music, what a wonderful, delightful experience it was.
Such artists as Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Serey Sothea I heard in passing and was captivated by their unique sound. Cambodian music before the Khmer Rouge was creative, diverse and powerful. I read a very interesting article “Cambodia’s lost rock ’n’ roll” which tells the story very well and links to some of the music so you can have a listen. I feel I have only touched the surface of this wonderful genre but I know for sure it is full of power and beauty to me, as I can’t stop listening.
While I was listening to and reading about the 60’s & 70’s music on-line, I quickly stumbled upon two modern bands which have been inspired by this creative period; Dengue Fever and The Cambodian Space Project. The sounds they produce are a feast for your ears. The stories and inspiration behind the music are a contrasting mix of nightmares, the ultimate joy for life and flourishing creativity.
The wonderful crafts, arts and music of ancient and modern Cambodia will always be special to me. A country of contrasts, crisis and artistic expression. I look forward to seeing the art, craft and musical delights that will emerge from this land of red soil, flooded spring lands and welcoming souls.