The humble water hyacinth was once considered a plant with no practical uses, but now it is the raw material for an exciting line of fashionable women’s hats, bags and baskets.
Modern consumer goods made from this plant reflect the unique natural values associated with the life of the people of Phnom Krom village, Siem Reap commune, town and province.
So Sambath owns a hyacinth processing business, where she weaves the unique plants into many different designs.
She explained that in 2008, a Japanese NGO visited the area and observed that Phnom Krom was a remote area, but rich in lakes with many aquatic hyacinths. They hit upon the idea of training local children, orphans and widows how to weave the plants into consumer goods.
She said that she herself never received formal training, but watched those who had. After she had seen a little of how they went about it, she began to experiment with her own designs and techniques.
One day, a representative from the organisation came to ask her where she had learned to make such beautiful objects. She explained that he had received no formal training but had taken a little knowledge from the people who had been trained, and then devised her own methods.
Due to her talent, the organisation invited her to join them. She was astonished to realise they wanted to employ her as a teacher, rather than offer her additional training.
She taught them the secrets behind her designs, including patterns of parallel lines and many different flowers. When linked with elaborate braiding, she had become a fashion designer that others sought to emulate.
“I don’t copy anyone’s patterns or designs, although I take inspiration from many places,” she said.
“Working with this material requires a great deal of patience, but when done well, can produce extraordinary beauty. When it is rushed, or the weaver is not paying close attention to their work, it will not be as attractive,” she added.
She explained that the ponds near her home used to be an excellent source of hyacinths, but she now finds she has to travel to remote bodies of water to harvest them.
In order to use them for her craft, they must be dried in the sun for 15 days, although it can take longer during the rainy season. After it has dried, it is washed with soap and then boiled to kill any germs that might be present. At this stage, dye is added to create different colours.
She has up to 100 designs available, with each item selling for between $10 and $45.
In 2018, her business, Siem Reap Phnom Krom hyacinth handicraft, claimed an award in the Road to Homeland Awards, which aimed at identifying small and medium business success stories. Held at Koh Pich Convention and Exhibition Centre in the capital, the awards came with recognition by the state.
Her work is popular in each province of the Kingdom, and is also exported to markets as diverse as South Korea and Japan, the US and Australia, and Indonesia and Malaysia.