Sculptures in the traditional Khmer style, including tep pranam, dragon, phnhy tes, reahou chap chan, and Hanuman carvings, are traditionally crafted out of timber. However, a young entrepreneur with exceptional skills has started using wrought iron to create unique designs for staircases, railings, gates, and ever furniture frames.
Her outstanding work has earned her wide recognition, and she was awarded an entrepreneur’s gold medal by Hun Manet.
Ly Phally, the 36-year-old owner of the Win Heng Rachana handicraft enterprise, is dedicated to designing products that embody the beauty of Khmer arts.
She described her impoverished upbringing in the slums of Phnom Penh. Despite her humble childhood, livelihood, she had a great passion for education. In ninth grade, she started looking for job opportunities while continuing her studies.
She began handing out flyers on public roads after school, and even interrupted her studies to become an English teacher and support her family for a short time.
After completing Grade 12, she pursued her studies in business management at a local university. In an effort to alleviate the financial burden on her parents, she negotiated with the school to work as a cleaner and assist the administration, in exchange for her tuition fees.
“I had two roles at university. My first job was to clean the bathrooms. Once that was done, I transitioned to my second role, assisting the administrative staff to prepare documents,” she said.
Phally said her wrought iron decorative business was begun in 2015, although her designs were predominantly based on European styles.
However, her strong passion for Khmer art and its conservation, led her to switch to the style that have her earned her plaudits.
She explained that she chose to shift from foreign styles to Khmer as a means of preserving the unique artistic heritage of the Kingdom.
“In contrast, European styles have become so commonly used, and they do not represent our Khmer identity. Following extensive research, both online and from the walls of temples, the designs for our sculptures are created on a computer,” she said.
“Our design team is responsible for completing the design of each piece, and then breaking it down into its separate components. Afterwards, they bring the designs to craftsmen, who follow our exact specifications,” she added.
According to Phally, designing traditional vibrant forms for a medium like wrought iron is more challenging than carving on timber.
“The fabricators need to pay close attention. If they do understand traditional Khmer styles, it may be prove difficult for them to execute the design,” she said.
She added that it tended to be civil servants living in villas who appreciated the aesthetics of her pieces.
“There is a unique significance to each of our designs, and people appreciate this. It allows our customers to demonstrate a connection to their identity as Khmer, and adds meaningful value to their homes,” she explained.
She said the quality of the materials she uses mean that each piece will last a lifetime. She also noted that several Cambodians who live abroad have expressed an interest in utilising her work in their homes.
“Unfortunately, the weight of the iron means they are very awkward, and expensive to pack and ship overseas,” she added.
Phally explained that she holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management and is also an active member of the scouting movement. As a young entrepreneur, she is affiliated with several private institutions. She has frequently been invited to share her leadership experiences, and was honoured with the prestigious outstanding entrepreneur gold medal by General Hun Manet in 2022.
“I didn’t start my business solely for profit; instead, I was passionate about promoting Khmer art styles inside and outside the country. In the future, I envision Khmer art styles being showcased in more and more locations. What I want more than money is to preserve Khmer sculptures, and also to mentor the next generation, so they can utilise their skills to establish their own businesses,” she said.
Prak Sovannara, director-general for heritage and spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, noted that it was now becoming more common to see traditional forms of Khmer sculpture appearing in different materials, whether timber, iron or two-dimensionally, in paint.
“Those who create these pieces are making a significant contribution to preserving the Kingdom’s artistic heritage.
“However, it is still crucial that they adhere to the traditional patterns of the ancestors,” he said.