In the heart of Cambodia, a centuries-old tradition is alive and flourishing. In the commune of Bralay, Kampong Thom province, nearly 200 families are keeping the art of ropeak (rattan) weaving vibrant.
Crafted from rattan, these intricate items are more than just objects; they are a testament to cultural legacy and artisanal skill.
Loun Meth, a 41-year-old resident of Chhouk village in Bralay commune, is one such gifted craftsperson.
“I learned this art from my parents,” says Meth, who carefully weaves rattan into a myriad of unique pieces, from decorative baskets to functional household items.
It’s not only about keeping an age-old tradition alive. Meth’s creations are finding new fans, especially online where buyers from as far as Phnom Penh are eager to own a piece of this enduring craft.
She notes: “Consumer tastes have evolved so I’ve updated my designs to make them more appealing to modern eyes”.
Meth added that adapting to changing times doesn’t mean sacrificing the essence of the craft.
“While we apply modern and aesthetically pleasing designs, we also focus on preserving the craftsmanship,” Meth shares.
Her balanced approach has certainly paid off, with her items selling for prices ranging between 1,000 and 35,000 riel ($0.25 to $8.75).
However, the creative process behind each item is labour-intensive. For instance, Meth can only produce four to five small gift baskets a day. Despite this, she says, demand is so high she never worries about sales.
Harvesting the raw materials for this craft is a separate journey altogether. Meth and her neighbours travel to distant forests on hand tractors or motorbikes, as nearby areas have been cleared for farming.
“The usable lengths of rattan have diminished due to its decreasing availability,” she laments.
Once harvested, the rattan is carefully prepared.
“We remove all the thorns and let the stems dry in the sun for a couple of hours,” Meth explains.
She mentioned that one step they intentionally skip is soaking the rattan in water, as it can lead to an unpleasant odour.
The skill of weaving rattan isn’t just about the physical act; it’s an exercise in patience.
“Without patience, one cannot truly engage in this craft,” Meth says, summarising a sentiment that could very well speak for the whole community.
And so, in a small corner of Cambodia, a tradition endures, woven into the fabric of the present, yet deeply rooted in the past.
In the Bralay community, where Loun Meth crafts her intricate rattan items, another important figure is Noeun Chantha.
Once a weaver herself, the 31-year-old has shifted roles to become a buyer and distributor.
Chantha also injects fresh creativity into the craft by designing new patterns.
“Since the end of the pandemic, there’s been a resurgence in demand for these traditional pieces, especially those that are unique and visually appealing,” she notes.
It’s a community-wide effort. Chantha sources from artisans ranging in age from 30 to 60, even extending her purchases to the neighbouring province of Siem Reap.
Social media has been a game-changer for her, spreading awareness and increasing online orders.
“There’s particularly high demand in Phnom Penh,” she adds.
But for Chantha, it’s not just about commerce.
“This work supports families and preserves our ancestral heritage,” she emphasises. “Plus, using ropeak products can also help reduce our reliance on harmful plastic imports, benefitting the natural environment”.
Deputy village chief Chou Eang reinforces this sense of community involvement, stating that nearly 200 of over 300 families in the village are engaged in rattan weaving.
The task of rattan harvesting, often involving arduous journeys, falls to the younger and more able-bodied residents.
“For those unemployed, particularly the elderly, weaving ropeak is a vital income source,” Eang adds.
Eang also notes that while the majority of rattan weavers are older residents, it’s the younger generation taking on the physically demanding task of rattan harvesting.
The journey to the forest is no small feat, often requiring two to three hours of travel on challenging roads.
When contacted for official comment, local authorities said they were less informed about the exact numbers of weavers in the area, but the importance of the craft was not lost on them.
“Ropeak weaving has undergone significant transformations,” says Kao Sophon, chief of Bralay commune.
“These products not only showcase the Khmer identity but also reflect the ability of artisans to adapt to the times,” he adds.
What began as a simple practice of crafting baskets and household items has evolved into an art form that resonates with contemporary tastes, without losing its roots.
As Sophon puts it: “Though it may seem like a simple craft, it’s a display of remarkable patience and diligence. What’s truly special is the artisans’ ability to adapt while preserving the essence of this age-old tradition”.
In the villages of Bralay and beyond, the art of ropeak weaving serves as a bridge between the old and the new, making it a living tradition that tells a rich and evolving story.