After settling into Phnom Penh, I had the opportunity to take a few side trips outside of the big city to a nearby silk farm and lunar new year harvest festival. What quickly becomes evident in Cambodia is that families and communities stick together – solving problems together, listening to elders, and pooling resources. The extended family comes together during times of trouble and times of joy, celebrating festivals and successes and mourning deaths and disappointments. There are always a lot of people together – evident in both our visit to Silk Island and the Lunar New Year Harvest Celebration.
Learning About Silk Production from Cambodian Widows
My first side trip was to Silk Island (Koh Dach), a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride from the center of the city to a ferry landing. In sweltering heat, our group boarded a ferry bustling with motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and people to cross the river to a peaceful, pastoral island.
Silk Island is home to a silk weaving village and silk center, where our group had the opportunity to witness the entire silk production process. Mulberry-eating silk worms in golden cocoons are carefully raised before their silk threads are spun and woven into stunning kramas (traditional silk scarves) and other items.
The Cambodian silk industry has a long traditional heritage and is increasingly becoming an important export item. Cambodia has long since supplied China and Japan’s strong demand for silk and now counts the silk sector as one of the 10 most important sectors for economic development in the country. Prior to the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was producing 50 tons of silk per year (by hand). Today, the silk industry makes up less than 1% of the economy but is growing, and the majority of silk thread comes from China. The main silk weaving center is home to a collection of beautifully constructed homes where weavers patiently weave their looms, turning out simple but finely crafted silk wares. The farm employs a number of widows who can live in the homes and support their families while raising children.
After a tour of the factory and shops, we had the chance to enjoy the beautiful grounds and tour a few traditional wooden huts along the river and tour a nearby school built almost entirely of recycled materials.
Celebrating the Rice Harvest with Cambodia Teenagers
On a separate excursion outside of Phnom Penh, I had the opportunity to go to a rice harvest celebration to welcome the new lunar year, Khmer-style. Youth in Cambodia (under thirty) make up nearly 70% of the Cambodian population, and that was evident from our first step into the village festival.
Despite sweltering heat, our group (which was the only group of westerners at the festival), was welcomed by the locals with open arms.
We danced with a local group of teenagers, watched as people strung colorful new year stars around the festival grounds, cheered on participants of a pinyata-like game where participants had to strike a clay pot while blindfolded, and shopped at a social enterprise store run by inspiring teen boys.
We also ate plenty of the delicious street food on hand – hard fortune-cookie flavored crepes filled with coconut cream, mango with Chili sugar salt, fried bread, and sticky rice. I was not, however, brave enough to try the salted seasnails, honey roasted cockroaches, or half-cooked chicken eggs.
Amidst the song and dance, we also witnessed poverty. A little boy singing and beating a drum to gather money for his family, several elderly women and men selling food. Cambodia is a land of contradictions – light and dark, life and death – all visible throughout the country. I continue to be amazed by the richness of this beautiful culture and its persevering people.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Cambodian culture and the way of life, check out my friend Kathrin’s post on a Khmer Wedding celebration she partook in here.
5 Tips for Connecting with the True Cambodia
- Take a side trip to a local village or festival during your visit to Cambodia
- Dare to eat some of the delicious street food available all around you
- Visit a local workshop – weaving, blacksmithing, and pottery are common trades in Cambodia
- Chat or dance with a group of local teenagers – they love foreigners and will likely take a lot of photos with you
- Travel by tuk tuk whenever possible