Silk Roots in Cambodia

Silk weaving in Cambodia is bursting with new energy: visitors to Angkor will discover great new designs.

War and the Khmer Rouge reign of terror nearly extinguished one of Cambodia's great traditions. But now a silk renaissance is underway - appropriately adjacent to Angkor, the ancient capital where silk garments were first woven and worn some 14 centuries ago.

For an impression of its early importance, just gaze on the carvings of dancing girls in gorgeous costumes that decorate the walls of the Angkor Wat temple.

The busy town of Siem Reap, near the complex of magnificent temples, is not only a prime place to buy this superb, timeless material but to observe its making and hear the story of Cambodian silk.

Hot to Shop
Shopping for silk and other treasures is all part of the Angkor experience, whether in the chic FCC beside the river or at the old market, where textiles sit alongside strange-looking cuts of meat.

Many go-ahead new companies are springing up. Artisans d'Angkor, employing more than 380 weavers, is the town's most successful enterprise. Visitors can first drop by its Angkor Silk Farm just outside Siem Reap for a free tour that explains the start of the silk-making process - the mulberry tree and silkworm cocoon-and then proceed to the downtown complex to observe highly skilled weavers at work.

The end products can be purchased at the adjoining boutique - exquisite scarves, handbags, silk paintings and accessories (make a fashion statement with an elegant fuchsia pure silk mobile phone case).

Dancers in gorgeous costumes carved in stone on Angkor Wat; silks on show at Artisans d'Angkor; dancers at Belmond La RĂ©sidence d'Angkor.

Art design director Lim Muy Theam explains how the company is keen to develop: "The weavers are open - they want to try, to test and to create by themselves. They start by reproducing traditional patterns that they used to see and appreciate. But to each item they bring their own sensitivity and ideas, so in the end they can say, 'This is mine.' "

He believes Cambodians are already able to achieve the dense, rich textures that were produced in the days before tragedy engulfed the country in the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, Kikuo Morimoto, Japanese founder of another silk company - the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles - says there is still a way to go.

To get there, he has built and supports an entire village of weavers near Siem Reap in an effort to recreate the natural and social environment from which Cambodia's traditional silk sprang - down to planting trees that yield natural dyes. His unique, costly fabrics - each can take up to a year to complete - are on sale in town.

"Natural materials and technique are important but the most important thing is heart," Morimoto says. As this is an ingredient in rich supply throughout Cambodia, it would seem that the country's silk industry as a whole can look forward to a bright future.

By David Brandt, a writer based in Bangkok who works throughout south east Asia

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