Khmer sculptures in high demand in Kampuchea Krom

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Venerable Chao Chim at Wat Kiri Rainsy in Moat Chrouk or Vietname’s An Giang province.

Buddhist monks at Khmer temples in the Kampuchea Krom area, a portion of southern Vietnam that once belonged to the Khmer Empire, are finding that they need to invite skilled sculptors from Cambodia to help complete their temples, dining halls, gates and pagoda fences with detailed sculptures.

Due to the shortage of sculptors, Venerable Chao Chim at Wat Kiri Rainsy, Moat Chrouk province, also known as An Giang, collaborates with sculptor Matt Phearun to bring traditional Khmer designs to temples in Kampuchea Krom.

“I plan all construction, from the monk’s accommodation to the temples, gates and fences, to replicate what we see in Cambodia,” said Chim.

“There is no school of design here, so craftsmen in Kampuchea Krom basically just copy from each other. As there is no guidance provided, the work here is not of the standard we require,” he added.

The chief monk, who regularly visits Cambodia in connection with the construction of temples as well as other festivals, said that Kampuchea Krom has more than 500 pagodas, many of which use ancestral carvings duplicated from Cambodia. Some have limited funds and their decorations reflect this.

Phearun, who became a professional sculptor after graduating from the Royal University of Fine Arts’ (RUFA) School of Design, said he was responsible for making all kinds of ancient sculptures, making molds, building walls, gates and stupas.

Phearun, a 34 year old with seven years of work experience, regularly collaborates with Chim and other sculptors in Kampuchea Krom, providing them with beautiful moulds which allow them to replicate the ancient designs of Khmer temples.

“I spent many years working in Vietnam before the Covid-19 pandemic, and returned to the Kingdom only a few years ago. As there is more demand for skilled sculptors in Kampuchea Krom, I can charge higher prices. The monasteries there need skilled workers with the right degree and real skills,” he said.

He added that he rarely goes in person now, but sends templates and detailed instructions to the monks. When there are complications, he sometimes travels across the border for a day or two, but rarely longer.

The sculptor provides his services at the behest the chief abbot of each pagoda.

He claimed that until recently, few of the temples and Khmer monasteries in Kampuchea Krom had good designs. When they want beautiful sculptures, they generally came to Cambodia and copied what they found here.

The sculptor, who can sculpt from stone, timber, copper or silver, decided to embrace one of his greatest skills – mold making.

“First, I carve plaster or wax according to the type of template. Once it is carved, we strip it to make a reverse mold, which is ready to send to a client,” he told The Post.

He said that most of the orders for original molds came from pagodas, as the number of private houses being built in Kampuchea Krom was so small that they needed only a few designs.

“I have overseen the construction of a number of large projects, including a chief abbot’s accommodation, a stupa, and the walls of a large pagoda. Although in the past, the designs in the Khmer temples of Vietnam were not very beautiful; there were now many attractive details to be found,” he said.

“Some of their pagodas are even more beautiful than the ones in Cambodia, as they are prepared to spend plenty of money on their construction,” he added.

He said that although the logistics of transporting large pieces was challenging, he would continue to send his work to the Khmer temples across the border.

He is currently carving wall panels which will be sent to Phnom Den. His previous work was dispatched to Prey Nokor, Dong Nai and Tai Ning.

Chim agreed that the sculptures and designs in most pagodas in Kampuchea Krom were no longer of lesser beauty than those of Cambodia. He said the number one reason was due to contributions by the families of devotees.

“Their relatives have given them money, and when people get money, they want to honour their ancestors,” he added.

“For me, Khmer temples represent the culture and ancient civilization of Cambodia, regardless of whether they are expensive or not,” he concluded.