An Ancient Craft Revived
By: Ann Creevey. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( November, 2001 Volume 1 No.6 )

Pottery is a way of life in Kampong Chhnang province. Chhnang in Khmer means pot, and trundling oxcarts along roads all over the country carry pottery from the province to markets as far away as Poi Pet on the Thai border. But the pottery that is traditionally made here is fired over wood fires, and is good only for use as cooking pots, water containers or to hold fires. Recently, a different sort of pottery has started to come out of the province. Fired in kilns and made for decoration as much as function, this new pottery is sold as far away as the United States.
The Cambodian Craft Cooperation (CCC), a German funded non-government organization, began to change the way local people made pottery in 1997. "Traditionally, Cambodians here have fired the pots over a low, uneven heat, meaning they are brittle," explained Chea Sophon, who works with the NGO Prasac (Program de Rehabilitation et d'Appui au Secteur Agricole du Cambodge) in the province. Prasac oversees the program at a local level in co-operation with CCC. Khmer pottery was once famous throughout the region. Pottery dating back to Angkorean times (around the 12th century) was sophisticated and of high quality.

Pottery fragments from the Kampong Chhnang area have been found and dated back as far as 5000 years. But for reasons that are not really clear, as the empire declined, so did the ancient craft of pottery. By the 1960's, Cambodian pottery had become almost purely functional and basic. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they banned the making of pots altogether in Kampong Chhnang. "No one made pottery during that time. People forgot how, or those that knew died," Mr Sophon said. "Afterwards, a few people started making pots again from memory, but they were not such good quality." The CCC decided that teaching local people a few new designs and basic pottery techniques like how to fire a pot in a kiln was a good, sustainable way of greatly increasing local incomes for very little outlay.

At first, none of the locals wanted to volunteer for the new course. They were suspicious of new ways of doing something as basic as pottery and couldn't see how these foreigners were going to raise the price of an average pot from the 10 cents or 500 riel it brought then. Only 15 women could be found to apply for the first course. In Cambodia, pottery is a job done by women. Yeay On was one of them. Now she works from her Andong Russei village home, churning out pot after pot of all sizes and shapes. Andong Russei is about seven kilometers from Kampong Chhnang town down a rough dirt road. Kampong Chhnang town is nearly 100 kilometers north of the capital, Phnom Penh. Now 64, the old lady says she is too old to be working in the rice fields. "Even this is hard work, but it is better," she grinned. A timber sign in English says "Pottery Shop 100 m", and points the way to her house. The workshop is the area underneath it. Pots dry in the sun all around the yard. She makes pottery the traditionally way, walking around and around the lump of clay and beating it into the shape required with a flat stick, and the modern way, on a potter's wheel. She fires her work in a kiln, which makes it much stronger and more durable.
"These ones here are for a 'middleman'. He has ordered them to sell in America," she said, pointing out some smaller pieces with fitting lids. "But they often want so many that I have to get others to help so I can finish the order in time." The middleman will buy these for 50 cents each already much more than she could sell a cooking pot finished over a wood fire. Down the road, a little shed with chicken wire walls in the middle of a rice paddy is a hive of activity. Half a dozen girls are in their second semester of the CCC course, busily turning out a new style of vase under the watchful eye of their teacher. "The courses are three months each. They do four hours per day, three times a week and they can learn for a total of nine months before they complete a full course," said Mr Sophon. "We took the first group to Phnom Penh but it is better to train them in their home village. Everything is here now. They don't have to leave."

After 16-year-old Chuon Sok Chan finished her first three-month course, she began making pottery in her spare time to sell. She has sold a few pieces already, and she is keen to learn more styles and designs to widen her market so she was quick to enroll for her second semester. For a small fee, students can continue to use the CCC kiln and equipment for personal projects. "The (potter's) wheel makes it easy. I can make 10 pieces a day when I'm not busy helping out in the family rice field," she said. Like most girls in the province, she left school young. School is expensive and the average local wage is only one or two dollars a day. Instead of just helping out on the farm until she marries, she now has a hobby she loves that can potentially earn the family valuable income. One of the conditions of entry to the course is that the family is not already involved in traditional pottery making, as that might make them less adaptable to new methods.
"My family used to make pottery, but they stopped because they didn't believe there was any money in it," Miss Chan said. But a large vase made with the new methods she learned at the CCC training center can sell for $10. "My sister Chuon Sok Cheat is 13. She is still at school and some of my money goes towards her schooling," she said. She is also teaching her sister some of the basics of pottery so they can work together in the future. Seeing the success of people like Grandmother On and Miss Chan, more and more people from the province have realized the benefits of the newer methods in improving their incomes. From just 15 people willing to participate in the first course, the CCC had 60 applications for the last course they advertised. There have been spin-off industries that have grown out of the program, too. Local carpenters quickly learned to make the potter's wheels, which sell for about $65 each.
But the main benefit is that local people are relearning methods lost long ago and using them to improve their lives. "This pottery is sold in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It brings much better prices and rich people in Phnom Penh and tourists want to buy it to make their homes beautiful. People see how successful the graduates of the CCC course are and they want to learn, too," Mr Sophon said. Now her work goes to places she has never dreamed of, like Siem Reap and even America, Miss Chan has begun to wonder about the world outside of Andong Russei village. "I have never left here. I would like to. One day, I would like to go to Siem Reap very much," she said.