I have covered the wonders of the ancient past in Siem Reap as well as the horrors of the recent past some of which continue into the present. In this blog I plan to talk about some of the social enterprises we visited showing how the Khmer are trying to shape their own future.
We visited two social enterprises in Siem Reap, the first of which is called Artisans Angkor. This has been set up so that young people in rural areas can train to become artisans. The workshop teaches young people traditional Khmer arts and crafts, many of which had to be rediscovered after the rule of the Khmer Rouge. All of the arts and crafts produced by the artisans here are sold in the shop. The artisans receive a fair wage and any profits are reinvested in the company, providing benefits for the artisans, opening new workshops and providing more apprenticeships.
The workshop was in the centre of Siem Reap and Lonely Planet mentioned that there was a free tour, so we decided to check it out.
When we got there it was clear that the place was aimed at busloads of tourists, there is nothing wrong with that, to be honest it is quite a shrewd way of making money for the workshop, it just made it a bit different for the two of us just wandering in off the street.
There was no clear reception, we could have just wandered into the workshops, however we eventually found it and were given a sticker for the free tour. We kind of guessed where we were going as it wasn’t terribly clear and I wasn’t sure if we would end up wandering into an area that wasn’t meant for tourists. It seemed to by a quiet time of the day with not many other tourists around, but we saw a few and decided to follow the way they were going.
We found ourselves in a workshop for wood carvings. There were people at work, however I felt slightly awkward interrupting people to ask if it was ok to take their photo, so I just kept to photos of the pieces themselves and the clear display items. The most interesting to me where the ones that showed all the stages culminating in the finished product.
You may recognise this figure and much of the other work from the Ankorian temples for two reasons, firstly this is where they have rediscovered much of their heritage from and a lot of restoration for the temples is done at this workshop. Obviously most of the restoration work for the temples is done in stone, which explains why so many of the workshops here are dedicated to masonry carving.
The smaller scale stone carving was also sold in the shop. In this last stone workshop there was even a place where you could try your hand at following a template with the stone mason tools. The stone looked as though it had been chewed on as many people had probably tried already, however my husband also decided to have a go, although I am not sure how he could see past his hair.
We also visited metal work, silk painting and lacquer work workshops. It was a slightly odd atmosphere, we were just walking through peoples place of work with the occasional display, it felt a bit awkward although the products were beautiful.
Just before coming to the shop at the end there was a display about the silk farm also owned by this company and a potential tour there too. I think it would have been interesting, however we didn’t actually go on that tour.
We did however look around the shop. Photographs were not allowed in there, I guess to stop copycats of the artists work, however there is an online shop as well. The shop had all of the works that we had seen being made in the workshop as well as many more as there are workshops all over the region. We bought a beautiful bookmark, as we didn’t want to get anything too heavy or bulky that we would be carrying around for the next three months.
The other social enterprise we went to see, was the Phare Circus. The Phare Circus, is also a school, which gives children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to learn a skill from the arts. They can if they wish learn circus skills, however the school also teaches theater, dancing, music, painting and are even getting involved in animation and graphic design. The graduates of the school are given the chance to perform as a part of the circus. The show that we saw was performed by students doing some amazing circus skills, as well as acting, but the students were also providing the background music and there was an amazing artist who painted some wonderful pictures between scenes.
I was not allowed to take photographs during the show, however they were allowed at the end. The show we saw was called Sokha and told the story of the circus’ founder: from before the civil war; through the times of Lon Nol; her suffering during the Khmer rouge as she lost everyone and the nightmares that followed even after the liberation of Cambodia; how she found circus skills as a release and eventually how she saw that teaching them to others could help them escape their troubled lives.
It was an incredibly moving performance, with fantastic displays of acrobatics and heart wrenching acting. In such a heavy subject it is hard to believe, but there were funny parts too, with clowning forming part of the performance. Everything was communicated using only a few words shown on a screen as preface for each section of the show, there was a tremendous amount of symbolism from popping the balloon of her nightmares with a bow and arrow used by her feet, to a young boy struggling with his troubles through juggling. There was the odd mistake here and there, including one where someone missed the human tower they were meant to land on, but it just showed that they were real people.
I mentioned before about the painter who came on between scenes, he helped with the few words projected to set up for the next scene. His art was in itself a performance and you could feel the passion he put in to the pictures as they came alive in front of your face as he took each picture he had painted the last scene and change it to show what was about to happen. Because of this not all the pictures survived to the end, however those that did we could take a photo of and luckily my favourite was one of the ones on display.
We almost didn’t go to see this performance at Phare, but I am so glad that we did. If you go to Siem Reap, make some time amongst all the temple exploring for this wondrously moving circus show. It is in the evening anyway so you have no excuses.
This post is in no way sponsored, links are included to help people find the relevant information if they are interested. I have only included links that we have used, I am sure there are other services that would work in their place.