The Furniture Vine
By: Ly Vanna. Pictures by : Bobby Viceral ( May, 2002 Volume 2 No.5 )

At a busy intersection in bustling Phnom Penh, young women are standing on the sidewalk, polishing rattan chairs. They work at the cluster of shops here at the corner of Norodom and Sotheros boulevards, all overflowing with furniture made from this tropical vine, called p'dou in Khmer.So many, in fact, that the place has been nicknamed Psar P'dou (Rattan Market) by locals. Almost every type of furniture or knickknack can be bought here, fashioned from this prodigious vine from petite baskets to glass -topped rattan dinner tables and huge satellite chairs priced between one dollar and $140.All prices, the sellers admit, are open to bargaining. "Khmers and foreigners come here to buy this furniture," said shop owner Hi Sithon, 45."But the number of buyers has gone down in recent years. "Rattan is actually not technically a vine but a member of the palm family of the genera Calamus, Daemonorops and Korthalsia. Stems of the larger varieties can grow to 200 meters in length. Unlike most palms, rattan leaves do not form a crown but are typically equipped with long barbs with which it attaches itself to host trees to climb from the forest floor and glean precious sunlight. Rattan is a $3 billion industry worldwide, and most rattan products come from Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia. Cambodia is currently not a large commercial exporter, although domestically the affordable, good-looking wares it creates are very popular. There is an art to shaping the long, hard vines that come to the shopkeeper artisans from provinces all over Cambodia, including Kratie, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Kampong Som. Placing the thick stems over just enough heat makes it pliable, and it can then be bent into circles and rainbow arches to make chairs and tables. Once wood fire was used in the shops. Now gas has taken over. The expert hands of the rattan artists shape the white or light brown stems quickly, before they harden to the strength of timber and a durability all of their own. "To make one piece of furniture usually takes about half a day," said one veteran seller who would only call himself Mr. Sour. "The natural color of rattan is beautiful. Many people prefer that.

Otherwise, we apply varnish, and that takes time to set." I can make just about everything from rattan big or small. We have ready-to-buy patterns and models that we always stock, or some people come to us with designs they want made up, and I can do that, too. "Mountain ranges such as the now-protected Cardamoms (Kror Vanh) stretching across Pursat and Koh Kong, and the Elephant (Damrei) mountains in Kampot, which include Bokor National Park, have traditionally yielded rich harvests of rattan. And that, not the slight fall in trade, might be the factor that finally closes these family-run stores. Shopkeeper Mr. Sour believes "If rattan is left on a tree, it will kill it," But experts do not agree. "Actually, rattan can deform a tree when it grows," said Meng Monyrak, vice chief of the National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary Office, Ministry of Environment. "But nowadays the destruction of rattan areas is very large, especially for three or four of the 10 species native to Cambodia. "There are many species of rattan. Not all are suitable for making furniture. Some are popular as food, but many of the 10 native species are virtually ignored commercially, putting the greatest pressure on a handful of the species in specific forest pockets. "As a secondary forest product or non-timber forest product (NTFP), we need to legislate to protect the rattan and the forests it is being pulled out of. The ministry is currently preparing laws for controlling NTFP cutting and harvesting," Mr. Monyrak said. "Just recently we banned rattan cutting as a business. However, we haven't taken any action against those who cut it as a small scale family-sideline yet." In other countries, like Indonesia, rattan has been successfully cultivated as a commercial crop and the industry is no longer totally dependent on wild rattan. And the Brazilian-based Liana Project, which was established in 1995 and has studied rattan production worldwide and its impact on the environment, has reported that "the economic potency (of rattan) served as an important incentive to preserving and regrowing forests" in other countries with a strong rattan industry. But there is a limit to Cambodia's forests that is quickly being reached, and a limit to the supplies of rattan they can bear, too. Cambodia currently does not have the resources to begin commercial planting of rattan. For now, village families who use rattan cutting to supplement a subsistence farming income are the ones technically supplying the shops on Sotheros Boulevard, and that is legal. That means that the little shops will keep turning out their big, comfortable chairs and expensive looking tables that are actually cheaper and as strong as their timber counterparts. The girls will still to be seen standing on the footpath, applying varnish and applying the finishing touches to their shop's creations in the way they have done and their mothers before them for years past.