Ancient art of Khmer weaving alive in Siem Reap
With a smile on her face and thick tidy hair, Pav Pak sits on a mat tying a pattern for weaving on an ikat under a wooden house on stilts located in Siem Reap province where she has worked for the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) for more than two decades.
At sixty-years-old Pak has been weaving in the Khmer style for 20 years. She is currently producing a hol pidan – a kind of Khmer woven wall and ceiling tapestry made from silk – and this one is an 8m long masterpiece featuring images of temples, ships and all types of animals, for Japanese customers.
“From the beginning until finishing the 8m long hol pidan pattern it takes at least two years. I’ve spent one year on it already, then I will continue with another pattern and then we can dye it black in colour. After it is dyed black we can weave,” Pak said.
The special feature of the Khmer hol pidan is the weaving of images showing the history of the Buddha or the story of the Reamker and other legends. These weaving patterns are for display and worship but not for wearing.
The weaver from Takeo province’s Bati district expressed her concern that with the difficulty and complexity of hol pidan – without much pay for hol pidan experts – the art may disappear in the near future.
Pak said that the younger generation is learning modern skills and working in different fields, so there might be no one continue this art form because it takes a lot of time to do and it’s difficult to find someone to sell it to. She has noticed that the number of weavers has dramatically declined.
“The Japanese love the Khmer traditions. They always research the ancient things to remember them and make sure they are not lost. About 10 young people at the Peak Sneng commune branch office of the organisation are learning this skill, but they are not yet in deep. This IKTT organization has only me at the age of 60-years-old and some others at around 40 years-old,” she said.
Yan Marina, president of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), acknowledges that hol pidan was almost lost in Cambodia due to a lack of experts and the fact that no one had compiled any documentation on the rare craft.
The IKTT president, who continues to preserve the tradition of weaving skirts, towels and especially hol pidan. She further added that the purpose of making this hol pidan was to preserve the ancient Khmer pattern and they didn’t want to abandon this ancestral tradition although it is a difficult kind of weaving.
“The production of each material from start until finish is completely following the traditional rules. As far as raw materials we require the silk and plants for traditional dyeing, but in weaving we have replaced the bamboo teeth on our tools with metal teeth because they are more durable and easier to use,” Marina said.
The hol pidan is typically 96cm in width and the length depends on the customer’s order, which mostly ranges from 1m or 1.5m up to 8m.
It costs more than $1,000 for a one-metre weaving and nearly $2,000 for a 1.5 metre weaving depending on the pattern or image. The 8m weavings cost more than $10,000, which sounds expensive until you recall that it can take over two years of work to make one of them.
Aiming to preserve Khmer traditional textiles, IKTT will not accept any orders from customers who want it done in any style other than the traditional ones. Marina claims that if the organization follows a new style, then the next generation would get confused so it is one of the principles of the organization.
The ikat pattern is made from a sample picture from the customer. Pak ties the pattern and then does the weaving on her own except for a group of young people who help dye the panels.
Dyeing starts with light colours such as yellow, red and black, and finally before drying it is cut and put into the ikat and then the weaving is done in stages.
“The production of hol pidan is very complicated. If you come to see when we are doing it, you know that it is complicated. If you see only the finished product, it seems to be easy, but in fact it is very difficult to do it,” she said.
IKTT, founded by the Japanese Kikuo Morimoto in 1996, aimed to revive traditional Khmer silk weaving, which was endangered by the upheaval of the civil war and he wanted to help revive traditional culture.
After the founder passed away, Marina became the president of the organization in 2007. The staff members are all women living in Siem Reap, including pregnant women with children and some are very poor.
“There were 110 to 120 female employees who earned money from weaving traditional Khmer patterns to support the organisation before the Covid-19 period, but now that the handicraft just reopened in August of last year, we have only 60-some members,” she said.
However, it is not just IKTT that continues to preserve traditional Khmer weaving. According to the Department of Visual Arts and Crafts at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, other NGOs and the ministry itself are also continuing to preserve it through sponsoring production as well as providing salaries to trainers and students.
Chhim Sothy, chief of the Department of Fine Art and Handicrafts under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that Khmer hol pida was not yet lost. There were still weavers, such as grandmothers who taught their grandchildren, especially those in Prey Kabbas district’s Kdanh commune of Takeo province.
However, they find it difficult to find markets for their products. They weave them to sell and keep waiting until a customer orders one, he added.
Sothy admits that weaving with ikat patterns is more difficult than using normal patterns for weaving, because they tell stories about Buddha, forest animals and myths.
“Despite the difficulties, our weavers can weave as long as there are customers. They work hard for their livelihoods and to preserve our national cultural values,” he told The Post.
The Department of Fine Arts and Handicrafts has already documented the hol pidan, including the technical terms used in weaving.
He said that the fine arts ministry has many policies to promote the art of weaving as well as hol pidan by inviting weavers to organise exhibitions, product promotions and festivals. In fact, this year, the ministry selected hol pidan weaving as a cultural living legacy.
“In the upcoming Pentagon Strategy, the Royal Government has a policy to promote and encourage those who continue practicing our ancestral skills by providing salaries to students and teachers who train and continue to study the traditional arts and crafts that are almost lost. Therefore, in any village where there is training, the state will help to continue teaching the skills over the long term,” he said.
Sothy said that today there are many organizations that continue to weave, such as IKTT and Angkor Artisans in Siem Reap and the Kei Khmer Association and Danich Hol Pidan Khmer in Takeo province.
Once the tourist numbers increase again, the weavers would become more active because the cultural arts products rely on tourists, especially foreign guests who have money to spend and value works of art.
“For the local market, they buy it to put in hotels because it is expensive and ordinary people do not understand the price of art and do not dare buy it at such a high price,” Sothy said.
Marina said that the hol pidan products were expensive because all of the raw materials are natural and the item is produced by hand.
For customers who dare to spend a lot of money on works of art, she says that if they understand the meaning of them and the difficulties of weaving them, they will not hesitate to support the production of Khmer weavings.
“In the past few years, I have seen that our Cambodian people are also beginning to value the hol pidan because I have received a significant amount of Cambodian guests,” she said.