During its peak the city of Angkor was a mega city supporting a population of 1 million within its borders with a complex system of temples and religious monuments. It is difficult to appreciate that the area has always had a thriving community of locals that call Angkor Wat home given the hordes of tourists and conservation sites set up to preserve the local temples, however to this day, among the ancient ruins are locals who have called the area home for generations.
I had the pleasure to take one of our Vespas out for a ride to a local village situated within the walls of Angkor. Here I met some local woodcarvers whose families have lived off the profits of their skill and expertise for many generations before them. The family mainly specializes in creating musical instruments traditional to Khmer music, as well as other wooden carvings that would not be out of place in any high-end boutique you’d find around the world.
Beneath a rickety structure, you’ll find the grandfather, father and his son all working furiously to carve out detailed instruments to be sold at the local markets. Beneath a corrugated iron roof, that gets extremely hot during the day, the family starts at 7 am where they prepare the Tuo Ng which is a local timber that is used for many different products. It is not an easy timber to work with, however, it is affordable and readily available.
The tools they use are old, simple and covered with sawdust but with generations of experience and skill these wood carvers are able to use what they have to produce some beautiful creations. Their main creation is an instrument called a Tro Un. This is a music instrument unique to Khmer culture which has a thin stem which attaches half a coconut shell at the bottom which is covered by cow’s skin. The music is produced by two silver wires which run from the bottom of the instrument and attach to the top handle.
The music from the Tro Un represents a young boy and is played together with a similar instrument called Tro Sau which represents a young girl. Both instruments complement each other to tell a story through soft melodic music.
The family works to complete 2 instruments per day to take to the market for sale. Given the labor intensive work that it involves, there isn’t exactly a high markup… they cost $5 USD. If you’re musically inclined, why not try something truly unique?!
Just around the corner from their working shed is another wood carver who is sitting comfortably on a wooden deck, scraping away at timber with a razor sharp knife. Here you’ll find an older man who uses the same timber to create toys, decorative pieces are really anything he feels like making!
With 20 years of experience and only two sharp knives, he is able to create some very intricate and detailed decorative pieces to provide an income for his family. He ran me through how he uses his knife to chip away at the wood to create the designs with nothing but a rag over his thumb as some sort of safety mechanism.
His hospitality was infectious as he was willing to demonstrate all the intricacies involved with his profession. He said that he wanted to show me as much as possible to show off the Khmer hospitality and welcome anyone who is willing to learn about their culture.
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