Fishing for traditional wedding gifts

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Local people harvest bamboo parts, then split them into thin threads for weaving. Photo supplied

Traditional Khmer fishing equipment has been replaced by modern gear these days and many from the younger generations have forgotten what it looks like and what it’s called.

Hoping to run a profitable business and to preserve the memory of these custom tools, Theara Rouem, 33, has reformulated and repurposed them.

Rather than make the gear the way it normally would be at its original size for fishing purposes, she makes tiny and cute versions that are suitable as souvenirs, wedding gifts or decorative items.

Back in the early days when she was first opened her business there was a customer looking for something different to gift to her wedding guests other than an ordinary key chain or candies of the sort that people have given in the past.

A small version of the chhnieng [used in shallow water areas and at the end of dry season for fishing] that had been packaged in clear plastic and tied with a colorful ribbon then sparked the client’s interest.

This simple yet unique gift got a great response from the wedding guests and from there Theara’s business blossomed.

Theara says the idea of turning traditional fishing tools into wedding gifts was originally her mom’s.

“My mom told me that although we can find these tools in various places, we’ve haven’t found anybody making these with proper packaging and using them for wedding gifts yet. Since this is a Khmer handicraft, my mom said it’s worth a shot to try the business out.

“I saw that it was a good idea. And I thought if these goods sold well, then it will also give more work to the villagers who can produce more and earn a little extra income,” Theara says.

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Miniature fishing tackle made from bamboo comes with a starting price of 4000 riel each. Photo supplied

Creating such items has always been the traditional job of the villagers of Prei Chas in Tuek Vil district of Siem Reap Province. They were first sold at markets, temples and resorts as regular souvenirs for tourists, but just recently they began selling them as wedding gifts.

Almost the whole village has been doing this work in some part, but mostly housewives who are unable to work outside the house. They take this work with the hope of helping to earn a little extra for their households.

She has earned the favor of a lot of local customers as well as Cambodians living abroad.

She got the orders from selling to wedding gift shops, Khmer handicraft shops and even a car repair company has given her items as gifts to its customers.

Everything isn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Theara and her people in the village because Covid has slowed down their rising business.

“We were doing quite well at first but as soon as Covid hit our country we did not receive many orders. And we in turn needed to reduce the number of orders from the artisans. We can’t store these items for too long and they get spoiled easily,” Theara says.

Apart from using the small traditional tools as wedding gift it can be used for souvenirs by making them into key chains. The larger ones can be used as display items and if used in more creative ways, they can be vases for growing plants or flowers and also lamps or light fixtures.

The common materials she uses are aungroth, chhnieng, sap, trok, scarves and a tray to place fruits on. All of it is packed in a palm leaf box, and tied with plastics ribbon and veil.

The prices start at 1,000 riel and go up from there depending on the size that the customer prefers.

The items are made from different natural sources such as bamboo, vine, rattan and others which mostly can’t be found in their village anymore because there aren’t enough sources since many have started to do this work.

Some types of vines are hard to find in the normal area, which requires them to go up on the mountain and into the forests searching for them.

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Theara Rouem, owner of Chhieng Mongkol souvenirs. Photo supplied

“Like I mentioned before, they are mostly elderly people so normally they will ask their children to help them find sources for the materials. It was tough and they are too weak to go on the dark and a peak mount in order to find those sources. My mom for instance is already old and my brother and I need to help her with it,” Theara says.

The products can be finished in one to three hours after the natural resources required for them are harvested.

Starting the business in 2018, she has yet to own a shop to sell all of her products. She just collects them from the villagers to store in her house and posts them on her page.

Theara says that it is more than a business; she wants to create jobs and sustainability for the villagers, especially the elderly workers, so that they can generate some income for themselves that they can use for attending the pagoda and they won’t have to depend on their children in order to spend small amounts of money.

“My biggest motivation in starting the business is the love I have for Khmer traditional products and I really hope I can bring this love with me no matter what happens or what the circumstances are. In the future I’d like to have my own handicraft factory and my own shop to display all the items.

“Finally, on behalf of the people in our village and all Cambodian artisans, I would like to ask both local and international customers and all readers to help support Cambodian products so that they will not be lost and the knowledge of them can still be passed down to the younger generations just like this fishing tackle,” Theara says.

Chhnieng Mongkol can be contacted via their Facebook page: @Khmerhandicrafts.