When it comes to pottery, the name Kampong Chhnang province in Cambodia often springs to mind due to its reputation for traditional handicrafts.
However, a lesser-known yet equally intriguing practice is the creation of aluminium pots fashioned from aluminium cans. This unique skill is not commonly recognised, yet in Cambodia, it exists in a quaint corner of the country, kept alive by a handful of committed artisans.
Nestled in Damnak Snay village within Peam Chi Kang commune, Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district, is a cottage industry led by Kim Chan.
Under the modest cover of his tin-roofed shop, Chan engages in a fascinating operation - the processing of aluminium cans into striking Khmer-style aluminium pots.
Apart from these distinctive pots, he crafts a plethora of other useful and decorative items.
Kim Chan, a skilled artisan of 40, embarked on his journey into this unique art form back in 2000.
The skills he wields today were not self-taught, rather, they were handed down through generations of his family and acquired from the local villagers who kept this unconventional craft alive.
The variety of handmade products he produces ranges in sizes, which he then wholesales or distributes to existing customers across several provinces including Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Kampong Thom, and Siem Reap.
Prices for these carefully crafted pots vary according to their size. The smallest pot fetches a price of $4 for wholesale and $6 at retail, while the largest pot costs a handsome $40.
Despite the unique nature of his business, Chan admitted that sales have seen a downward trend, even though the quality of his goods surpasses that of similar imported items.
Chan takes immense pride in the quality and durability of his pots. He pointed out that the pots he produces are notably thicker than those imported from abroad.
Their robustness allows them to endure cooking over firewood without succumbing to easy breakage, especially at the bottom of the pot. With proper care, these pots can be a kitchen companion for 20 to 30 years.
The seasoned craftsman noted: “The pots we make are of high quality because we use aluminium cans. Many people prefer to cook with our pots over firewood or even gas because they are thicker than imported pots and can retain heat for a long time”.
While he admitted that his pots might not be as aesthetically pleasing as others, he was quick to point out that their thickness and quality are far from inferior. Over time, the aluminium pots acquire a lighter shade, enhancing their visual appeal.
Sales of his pots once peaked, with a record sale of up to 700-800 pots in a month. However, this figure has dipped to a modest 200-300 pots per month.
Chan shared: “I’m aware that even the people who buy from us to resell are also having difficulty selling. They would typically purchase 100 to 200 pots, and it takes them quite some time to sell out. Furthermore, due to the rainy season, it’s challenging to make sales, so we’ve reduced our production accordingly”.
Chan’s aluminium handicraft business is a seven-person team, each member specialising in a different area of production, such as lathe work, moulding, heating, and cover making. Beyond creating aluminium pots from cans, the business also undertakes orders for custom moulds, such as roof tiles and various other household items.
The entrepreneur elaborated on the versatility of his business: “My business is flexible and able to accommodate customer needs. Sometimes customers ask us to mould specific items, we can meet their requirements. We recently received requests to mould small toy airplanes, wheel rims, and even Cambodian cake moulds”.
The craftsman encourages public support for locally produced Cambodian products, which not only promotes Khmer handicrafts but also creates job opportunities. Additionally, Chan expressed his hope to see more Cambodians or experts strive to bring locally processed products to foreign markets, as many artisans lack the means and contacts to accomplish this themselves.