By Lilian Doyle.
In serene Krabei Riel, just 20 minutes from Siem Reap, a small toddler greets us with smiles, then with crying; another sits quietly in a hammock and looks at us with silent curiosity.
We’re in Krabei Riel to meet Chhim Nam, a basket weaver who works with natural rattan fibers. The cries from the little one subside and Chhim Nam greets us into her home with a warm smile, her youthful face radiating tranquility as she patiently weaves long rattan strands.
Once she’s greeted us she continues to weaving a basket she’s working on as she speaks to us, stopping every now and again to quickly and effortlessly peel the rattan with a small knife. It’s almost therapeutic to watch her weave the natural fibers with such skill, precision and patience; I could have easily sat and watched her for hours.
Chhim Nam learned how to weave rattan from her family, and has been practicing the craft from a young age. It’s a skill that has been passed down through generations, but one that she has modified in her own way.
Besides selling her products at AHA, Chhim Nam also exports some of her products to Thailand where the demand for handmade baskets is huge. While she does train other workers in the craft, many choose to work in other jobs, particularly farming, and consequently she can’t meet the demand from the Thai market. Sometimes, even for Chhim Nam herself, farming has to take priority, especially during rice season.
As I sit with her and watch her work with such calmness, I find it hard to imagine that such a beautiful and simple craft comes with many challenges, but unfortunately it does.
The process of producing one basket, from the raw material to the finished product is incredibly time consuming. First, the raw material must be sourced, which is becoming much more difficult in recent years. Because of land developments in the local area, rattan has become scarce. Before, Chhim Nam could find the rattan close to her home, but now she has to travel to remote areas further away from her house. This makes the raw material more difficult to find and transport, which in turn makes it more expensive.
Due to a lack of human resources, Chhim Nam spends a lot of time sourcing the raw material on her own. Once the rattan has been sourced it must be stripped of its outer layers to get the natural fibers inside. These natural fibers are then used to weave the baskets – a process which takes about a day and a half. She sometimes gets help from her mother and sisters to weave the baskets, but a lot of the time she works singlehandedly to produce them.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Chhim Nam faces is competing with those who sell imported machine made products. I asked her how someone who isn’t familiar with rattan products can tell the difference between machine made baskets and baskets that are handmade like her own. She told us that the imported baskets are usually a lot cheaper and use lower quality fibers that are not natural like rattan. She also pointed out that machine made baskets all look exactly the same, whereas handmade baskets tend to have small differences, making each one unique.
Another reason to buy handmade rattan baskets over cheaper machine made ones is that the imported baskets contain plastic and harmful chemicals. Chhim Nam’s baskets contain only natural fibers which are more durable and flexible, as well as being non-toxic.
What is truly amazing about Chimm Nam is that despite the challenges she faces, she still perseveres. When I ask Chhim Nam why she continues to work with rattan despite it being extremely time consuming and her lacking in resources, she gives us that warm smile she welcomed us with earlier and simply says “It’s my favourite handicraft and something I really enjoy doing”. She went on to tell us that she spends as much of her free time as possible doing it. It’s a special skill she has learned from her family and Chhim Nam feels it is her responsibility to pass the skill down to the next generation and keep traditional basket weaving alive in the area.
By buying locally handmade handicrafts over machine made products, you can help people like Chhim Nam and their families, as well as keeping traditional crafts alive