By Lilian Doyle.
Close to Banteay Srei temple, known for its exquisitely detailed carvings Sarouen Sean sells his own beautifully detailed handmade wooden carvings.
Ambitious Sarouen moved to the Banteay Srei district, just over 35km outside Siem Reap, several years ago. Here, he made the dramatic career change from taxi driving to woodcarving, and eventually, to local entrepreneur.
He established his woodcarving business in 2012 and since then has been helping the local community in a variety of ways, mostly by using his innate entrepreneurial skills to create jobs for the local community.
Sarouen didn’t just set up his woodcarving workshop for the purposes of running his own business, he also uses it to pass down his woodcarving knowledge to the younger generation in the community. Sarouen shares his artisanal skills with the younger people in the community who are willing to learn, thus keeping traditional woodcarving techniques alive.
Unfortunately, traditions in woodcarving have changed somewhat, and one particular way is in the type of wood that is used. The high quality and highly coveted, particularly in the Chinese market, Rosewood mahogany was once a popular choice for woodcarving is now a protected species. Due to illegal logging it has been logged to near extinction. Sarouen warns that within a few more years, if things keep developing the way that they are, Rosewood mahogany will be completely extinct in Cambodia. However, he does assure us that different types of wood will always be available.
Another problem facing artisans like Sarouen is having to compete with those who sell cheaper machine made souvenirs in the markets of Siem Reap. These items can seem like they’ve been handmade when in fact 80% of them are machine made. These machine made items are produced in large quantities, which makes them a lot cheaper to buy for the unsuspecting tourist who thinks they are buying something more unique and authentic.
We visited his Sarouen’s workshop (where he also teaches in English in the evenings!) and here he told us about the importance of buying locally handmade wooden handicrafts and how it benefits local communities, such as Banteay Srei. He also told about how visitors to Siem Reap can tell if what they are buying is authentically handmade or machine made.