Cambodia's tradition of modern (representational) drawing, painting, and sculpture was established in the late 1940s at the School of Cambodian Arts (later called the University of Fine Arts), where it occupied occupied much of the school's curriculum a decade later. These developments were supported by the government, which encouraged new areas of specialization (e.g. design and modern painting) at the school and purchased modern art for the Prime Minister's residences and for government buildings. Galleries opened in Phnom Penh during the 1960s, and cultural centers hosted exhibitions of modern paintings and provided art libraries. One important painter of the 1960s was Nhek Dim; he has become the painter of reference for modern painters. During the subsequent Khmer Rouge era, many artists were killed and art production nearly ceased. [Source: Wikipedia +]

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, artists and professors returned the University of Fine Arts to rebuild arts training. Socialist Bloc governments sponsored the education of young art students in Poland, Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union, and Hungary during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Other local efforts aimed to re-establish workshops, collect documents, and preserve traditional knowledge. +

Though several galleries present changing exhibitions in Phnom Penh, the vast majority of artists cannot support themselves through exhibitions and sales of modern work. Artists generally earn income from Angkor-inspired art for tourists or from painting commercial signs and large reproductions that in the West would be mechanically produced. +

Several broad schools of art exist among modern Cambodian artists. Some artists, including Som Samai (a silversmith), An Sok (a mask-maker), and Chet Chan (a painter) follow colonial traditions to produce traditional Khmer art. Chhim Sothy's work is also derived from these traditions.[18] Many young artists who studied abroad in the 1980s, including Phy Chan Than, Soeung Vannara, Long Sophea, and Prom Sam An, have presented a modern Khmer art forms combining subjects from Khmer art with Western modernism. Other notable Cambodian artists include Leang Seckon, Pich Sopheap, Svay Ken, Asasax, Chhan Dina, Lam Soeung, and Chhorn Bun Son. During the 1990s, Cambodia saw the return of many members of the Khmer diaspora, including several internationally recognized artists. Among these are Marine Ky and Chath Piersath. +

Post Khmer Rouge Artists

Robert Turnbull wrote in in the Wall Street Journal, “During the Khmer Rouge years of 1975 to 1979, a whole generation of Cambodian artists was more or less wiped out. (One of the few who survived was the late Van Nath, whose eyewitness paintings of Khmer Rouge brutality have been used as evidence in the continuing trials of former regime leaders.) Today, out of a national population of 14 million, there are probably only some 50 working artists. [Source: Robert Turnbull, Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2013 ++]

“The older generation of artists combines traditional symbolism with autobiographical imagery. The younger generation of Cambodian artists grew up in a world with less vivid memories of the Khmer Rouge and are more experimental, working with photography and video, sometimes in documentary form, and largely within a conceptual framework. They often use cheap, everyday materials, as do three artists in residence at various festival venues: Khvay Samnang works with human hair (from barber shops); Tith Kanitha, with wire and mosquito nets; and Than Sok, with incense sticks. These younger artists have their own strategies to cope "with ruptured histories and a present-day situation that offers very little support for their choice to be an artist," says Erin Gleeson, the curator of the visual arts component of Season of Cambodia. ++

Curator Erin Gleeson estimates that there are only 40 working artists in Cambodia and that this is a special, nearly innocent, moment in time because they seem to make things almost purely out of a need to express themselves. ''There is no art market because this is just the beginning. Artists do not produce for the market,'' she said. [Source: Alexandra A. Seno, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

Works by Modern Cambodia Artists

Describing works by modern Cambodia artists at a show in Hong Kong at the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery — entitled ''Forever Until Now: Contemporary Art from Cambodia,''Alexandra A. Seno wrote in the New York Times, “At the entrance of the main gallery, to set the mood, she hung ''Pray for Peace,'' an eerie but optimistic 2008 oil-on-canvas by Vann Nath portraying Cambodians worshiping under a stormy sky. Now very ill and in his 60s, Mr. Vann Nath is one of only seven survivors of Tuol Sleng, the notorious camp where Pol Pot's functionaries killed up to 20,000 people. [Source: Alexandra A. Seno, New York Times, March 19, 2009 ^^]

“Next to the piece, on a continuous loop, is ''S-21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine,'' the 2003 multi-award-winning documentary on Tuol Sleng, by a film festival favorite, Rithy Panh. The painting is for sale for 55,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about $7,100; the video is not, though it is widely available from DVD retailers. ^^

“Seven paintings by the late Svay Ken (from 75,000 to 100,000 Hong Kong dollars) occupy a place of honor in the Chai Wan gallery. They are scenes from daily life, made in the na?, folk style for which he became known. Mr. Storer, who chose him for the triennial, said that ''Svay Ken was a senior painter, self-taught, who lived through the turbulent history of the country and represented it through his work.'' He died in December at age 75. ''Forever'' also includes three amateurly rendered canvases by his 25-year-old granddaughter, Ouk Sochivy, who only began painting last year. ^^

Perhaps the Hong Kong show's most intriguing work — though not for sale — is by Than Sok, born in 1984. He constructs houses out of bright yellow incense sticks as installations, and then burns them, a commentary on how people become disposable commodities — once to the Khmer Rouge, now to eviction enforcers and factories. Vandy Rattana, another artist in the show, has a series of large, documentary photographs of a Phnom Penh slum as it burned down last April. Of his art, he said simply, ''I need to tell a story.'' ^^

Post Khmer Rouge Artists : Leang Seckon and Pich Sopheap

Robert Turnbull wrote in the New York Times: “Slowly but surely, Cambodia’s visual arts’ scene has been emerging from the shadow of the Pol Pot era, nurtured by a clutch of mostly Western-owned galleries dotted around the capital. Years of faith and investment are finally paying off. Moreover, among Phnom Penh’s 40 or so professional artists, two are fetching handsome prices in New York, London and Hong Kong. [Source: Robert Turnbull, New York Times, December 30, 2010 **]

“Born in 1974 and 1971 respectively, Leang Seckon and Pich Sopheap were infants when civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime combined to kill nearly three million Cambodians. Mr. Pich remembers the chaos that followed Pol Pot’s retreat in 1979, sheltering in ruined pagodas amidst the scarred rice fields of northern Battambang Province. Mr. Pich's broken Buddhas and undetonated bombs allude to a childhood wandering war-strewn countryside. The multimedia collages of Mr. Leang, also 42, reveal both a difficult childhood and multiple enthusiasms, including a deep love of his country, from the Cambodian pop idols of the 1960s to a nearly obsessive focus on nature and the environment. ** ++

“Mr. Pich and Mr. Leang share their generation’s concerns about the worrying speed of Cambodia’s development — both are being made homeless because the lake around which they have lived and worked has been drained for construction — but there the similarities end: They are wildly different stylistic and aesthetic characters. **

“Mr. Pich and Mr. Leang remain focused on their native land, but are equally comfortable with the surge of international interest. As someone schooled in the United States, Mr. Pich has a keen awareness of global art trends. Mr. Leang says he prefers at this stage to remain independent, has yet to sign any binding contracts and, like his beloved Mekong, seems content to go with the flow. But then he has little to worry about — almost everything he produces sells. **

Pich Sopheap

Sopheap Pich was born in Battambang in 1969 and left Cambodia after 1975, passing through a Thai refugee camp. His family resettled in the United States. After a spell in France, he graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1995 and received a masters of fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999. On his return to Cambodia in 2003 he and his partner at the time, Linda Saphan, formed Visual Arts Open to encourage local artists and organize an exhibition — the first group showing in Cambodia since the 1960s. [Source: Robert Turnbull, New York Times, December 30, 2010 **]

Describing works by modern Cambodia artists at a show in Hong Kong at the 10 Chancery Lane Gallery — entitled ''Forever Until Now: Contemporary Art from Cambodia,'' Alexandra A. Seno wrote in the New York Times, “Returning to Cambodia in 2003, he switched to sculpture. His rattan and bamboo pieces made an impact among the video and high-concept installations at the prestigious Best of Discovery section at Shanghai's ''SHContemporary'' art fair in 2008. Mr. Sopheap Pich was chosen for Fukuoka and Brisbane in 2009. He did a commission for a university in Saudi Arabia and held a exhibit at the Tyler Rollins Fine Art gallery in New York. [Source: Alexandra A. Seno, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

Art curator Erin Gleeson credits him for helping raise international interest in Cambodian culture. ''Sopheap is an icon for the younger artists,'' she said. Childhood memories of woven local baskets and handcrafted toys inspire works made out of natural materials, like ''Cycle'' and ''The Duel.'' Yet he employs a very contemporary approach Mr. Storer called a ''highly sophisticated yet a deeply grounded response to place and personal experience.''

Art of Pich Sopheap

Robert Turnbull wrote in the New York Times: ““The rediscovery of his country catalyzed a move from painting to sculpture. Using bamboo, wire and rattan, Mr. Pich “weaves” his pieces into a web or grid, a technique that is deceptively simple and, he says, rich in metaphor. “These indigenous materials have concealed strength,” he said, “not unlike Cambodia. One can see through my works and yet they are almost indestructible. [Source: Robert Turnbull, New York Times, December 30, 2010 **]

“These personal narratives hover between abstraction and representation, with suggestions of fishing-baskets and other staples of Cambodian life alongside allusions to organs like the stomach and lungs — symbols of strength and fragility for Mr. Pich. A series of “broken” Buddha heads emerged from childhood memories of the destruction of the nation’s religious heritage. At his show “The Pulse Within” at the Tyler Rollins Gallery in New York in 2009, many people were “blown away,” Mr. Pich said. “Some were crying and touching my head. They saw my art as transcending all the usual negative associations, the poverty and all the baggage of Cambodia.” **

“Here Mr. Pich touches on a sensitive issue. For all the talk of reconciliation and “moving on” after the murderous Khmer Rouge era, some complain that others are still milking the tragedy for what they can. Mr. Pich’s work speaks directly to those who have experienced trauma and loss, but is generally devoid of overt references to the Pol Pot era, images that make Cambodian art “too loud,” he said. He added: “Symbols and references cannot be avoided” in sculpture, “but a degree of abstraction allows more layers of interpretation.” Mr. Rollins agrees. “Some of Pich’s work refers to the body or bodily organs, so they affect the viewer on a visceral level. Yet however raw the emotional content, it is woven into the structure of the works and never on the surface.” **

Interest in Mr. Pich’s work is gathering momentum. The larger pieces at the New York show were sold for as much as $40,000, while a commission for a university in Saudi Arabia netted him $50,000, a world record for a Cambodian artist. Works by Mr. Pich are in museums in Singapore and Brisbane, Australia, and in two U.S. museums next year, starting with a group show at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. His large piece “Compound” appearred at the Singapore Biennale. **

Mr. Pich’s Wall Reliefs use burlap, beeswax, charcoal and earth pigments on bamboo and rattan grids. Among the 10 Pich works on view at the Met is "Buddha 2," one of a series of Buddha torsos in rattan and bamboo, that have been fetching up to $45,000 on the open market. Mr. Pich returned to Cambodia in 2003 to launch Sala Art Space to facilitate shows for over a dozen painters and three photographers. ++

Leang Seckon

Robert Turnbull wrote in the New York Times: “In contrast to Mr. Pich’s classical exactitude, Leang Seckon wants his work to express “all his feelings about life.” It is quirky and audacious, and in a peculiarly Asian sense, baroque. Traditional symbolism is fused with autobiography in collages and installations that overflow with references to his childhood years, the environment and a pantheon of personal gods and icons, sometimes painted, sometimes glued or even sewn on. [Source: Robert Turnbull, New York Times, December 30, 2010 **]

“Mr. Leang hails from the southern region of Svay Rieng, a place that was carpet-bombed by U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam War. His foremost memories as a boy tending buffalo are of his mother repairing clothes with fragments of material and of bathing in water he now believes was polluted with Agent Orange. **

“Mr. Leang graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 2002 and has shown his work in the United States, Japan, Hong Kong and Myanmar. He will be represented at Singapore’s Art Stage next month. Not all viewers will be familiar with the national and personal references in his work, but there is a joy in the execution, and a freedom of fantasy and eccentricity that is ultimately disarming. **

Alexandra A. Seno wrote in the New York Times, “Leang Seckon is the best-known artist of his generation, and Cambodians recognize him for his art collaborations with a 1960s pop icon named Dy Saveth, as well as for his solitary work. In ''Prison Guard,'' he narrates the life of Duch, the man in charge of Tuol Sleng who, while awaiting trial, converted to Christianity and became the only Khmer Rouge leader to publicly repent. [Source: Alexandra A. Seno, New York Times, March 19, 2009]

Art Leang Seckon

Robert Turnbull wrote in in the Wall Street Journal, “In the early 1970s, the mother of Cambodian artist Leang Seckon saw American parachutes carrying flares and pouring down from the sky, to the amazement of villagers. She was pregnant with the artist at that time of war and deprivation; some of the villagers used the parachutes to cover leaky roofs. Mr. Leang's installation "Parachute Skirt With Flowers" gathers detritus from Cambodia's succession of wars, including a French rifle and shoes made from rubber tires and worn by guerrillas of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. [Source: Robert Turnbull, Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2013]

Robert Turnbull wrote in the New York Times: ““In “The God of the Ricefield” (2007) he combines the bodies of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and miniatures of her six children — one of them Cambodian — with the most prominent features of Cambodia’s topography. “From her six breasts and ‘holy navel’ the milk of life flows into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, which in turn brings sustenance to the rice fields,” Mr. Leang said. The only Hollywood star to extend a hand to Cambodia, he said, Ms. Jolie represents a kind of ideal, an “earth mother” who will “take care” of Cambodia. “Cupped in the couple’s eight hands are objects that their children and many young people desire, cellphone, limo, computer factory and some Kentucky fried chicken.” [Source: Robert Turnbull, New York Times, December 30, 2010 **]

Among about 20 pieces at the Rossi & Rossi Gallery in London in March, most attention was given to “Heavy Skirt,” an installation named after the skirt his mother wore during pregnancy. The garment adorns a maquette of a soldier assembled from a skeleton and the paraphernalia of Cambodia’s numerous wars, from French rifles to U.S. Army helmets and Khmer Rouge shoes made from tires. At the gallery, Mr. Leang said that the genesis of the piece was an exorcism of his childhood fears, illustrated by a performance piece in which he plays himself as a baby emerging from the skirt. **

“Mr. Leang has a Buddhist’s empathy with the natural world. He was the first among his contemporaries to take the environment as an issue, with the “Rubbish Project,” a naga snake 225 meters, about 740 feet, long, that was made from recycled plastic, mostly discarded bags dumped in the Siem Reap. Now his work focuses on mourning the loss of the lake and its inhabitants. Eight pieces “giving thanks” to the 19 years he lived there. **


Traditional Cambodian arts and crafts include textiles, non-textile weaving, silversmithing, lacquerware, ceramics, wat murals, kite-making, metalware, silver boxes made with animal animals, stone carvings like those used at Angkor Wat, and even decorations on tools. Skills for many traditional crafts was lost or nearly lost in the Khmer Rouge years.

The history of Cambodian art stretches back centuries to ancient pottery, silk weaving, and stone carving. The height of Khmer art occurred during the Angkor period; much of the era's stone carving and architecture survives to the present. In pre-colonial Cambodia, art and crafts were generally produced either by rural non-specialists for practical use or by skilled artists producing works for the Royal Palace. In modern Cambodia, many artistic traditions entered a period of decline or even ceased to be practiced, but the country has experienced a recent artistic revival as the tourist market has increased and governments and NGOs have contributed to the preservation of Cambodian culture. [Source: Wikipedia]

Beginning in the mid-20th century, a tradition of modern art began in Cambodia, though in the later 20th century both traditional and modern arts declined for several reasons, including the killing of artists by the Khmer Rouge. The country has experienced a recent artistic revival due to increased support from governments, NGOs, and foreign tourists.

Silversmithing in Cambodia dates back centuries. The Royal Palace traditionally patronized silversmiths' workshops, and silversmiths remain concentrated at Kompong Luong, near the former royal capital Oudong. Silver was made into a variety of items, including weaponry, coins, ceremonial objects used in funerary and religious rituals, and betel boxes. During Cambodia's colonial period, artisans at the School of Fine Art produced celebrated silverwork, and by the late 1930s there were more than 600 silversmiths. Today, silverwork is popular for boxes, jewellery, and souvenir items; these are often adorned with fruit, fire, and Angkor-inspired motifs. Men produce most of the forms for such work, but women often complete the intricate filigree.

Textiles and Silk Weaving

Silk weaving in Cambodia has a long history. The practice dates to as early as the 1st century, and textiles were used in trade during Angkorian times. Even modern textile production evidences these historic antecedents: motifs found on silk today often echo clothing details on ancient stone sculptures. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are two main types of Cambodian weaving. The ikat technique (Khmer: chong kiet), which produces patterned fabric, is quite complex. To create patterns, weavers tie-dye portions of weft yarn before weaving begins. Patterns are diverse and vary by region; common motifs include lattice, stars, and spots. The second weaving technique, unique to Cambodia, is called "uneven twill". It yields single or two-color fabrics, which are produced by weaving three threads so that the "color of one thread dominates on one side of the fabric, while the two others determine the colour on the reverse side."Traditionally, Cambodian textiles have employed natural dyes. Red dye comes from lac insect nests, blue dye from indigo, yellow and green dye from prohut bark, and black dye from ebony bark.

Cambodia's modern silk-weaving centers are Takeo, Battambang, Beanteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampot provinces. Silk-weaving has seen a major revival recently, with production doubling over the past ten years. This has provided employment for many rural women. Cambodian silk is generally sold domestically, where it is used in sampot (wrap skirts), furnishings, and pidan (pictoral tapestries), but interest in international trade is increasing.

Cotton textiles have also played a significant role in Cambodian culture. Though today Cambodia imports most of its cotton, traditionally woven cotton remains popular. Rural women often weave homemade cotton fabric, which is used in garments and for household purposes. Krama, the traditional check scarves worn almost universally by Cambodians, are made of cotton.

See Clothes

Non-Textile Weaving and Lacquerware

Many Cambodian farmers weave baskets (Khmer: tbanh kantrak) for household use or as a supplemental source of income. Most baskets are many of thinly cut bamboo. Regions known for basketry include Siem Reap and Kampong Cham. Mat weaving (tbanh kantuel) is a common seasonal occupation. They are most commonly made from reeds, either left a natural tan color or dyed in deep jewel tones. The region of Cambodia best known for mat weaving is the Mekong floodplain, especially around Lvea Em district. Mats are commonly laid out for guests and are important building materials for homes. Wicker and rattan crafts (tbanh kanchoeu) made from dryandra trees are also significant. Common wicker and rattan products include walls, mats, furniture, and other household items. [Source: Wikipedia]

The height of Cambodian traditional lacquerware was between the 12th and 16th centuries; some examples of work from this era, including gilded Buddha images and betel boxes, have survived to the present day. Lacquerware was traditionally colored black using burnt wood, representing the underworld; red using mercury, representing the earth; and yellow using arsenic, representing the heavens. Lacquer on Angkorian stone dates to the 15th or 16th century.

In modern Cambodia, the art of lacquerwork nearly faded into oblivion: few lacquer trees survived, and lacquer was unavailable in local markets. Today's revival is still in its infancy, but 100 lacquer artists have been trained by a French expert under the guidance of Artisans d'Angkor, a company that produces traditional crafts in village workshops. Some artists are "beginning to experiment with different techniques and produce modern and striking effects."

Ceramics and Pottery in Cambodia

Cambodian pottery traditions date to 5000 B.C. Ceramics were mostly used for domestic purposes such as holding food and water. There is no evidence that Khmer ceramics were ever exported, though ceramics were imported from elsewhere in Asia beginning in the 10th century. Ceramics in the shape of birds, elephants, rabbits, and other animals were popular between the 11th and 13th centuries. [Source: Wikipedia ]

Potting traditionally was done either on a pottery wheel or using shaping tools such as paddles and anvils. Firing was done in clay kilns, which could reach temperatures of 1,000–1,200 ̊C, or in the open air, at temperatures of around 700 ̊C. Primarily green and brown glazes were used. In rural Cambodia, traditional pottery methods remained. Many pieces are hand-turned and fired on an open fire without glaze. The country's major center for pottery is Kompong Chhnang Province.

In modern Cambodia, the art of glazed ceramics faded into oblivion: the technique of stoneware stop to be used around 14th century, at the end of Angkor era. Today this technique begin a slow revival through a Belgian ceramist who founded the Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Center, in Siem Reap, the organization lead vocational training and researches about this lost skill.

Cambodian Singing Kites

Cambodia's kite-making and kite-flying tradition, which dates back many centuries, was revived in the early 1990s and is now extremely popular throughout the country. Kites (Khmer: khleng ek) are generally flown at night during the northeast monsoon season. A bow attached to the kites resonates in the wind, producing a musical sound. [Source: Wikipedia]

Kanharith Socheat of Associated Press wrote: “Sim Sarak fondly recalls the nights of his youth, when the whirring of Cambodia's singing kites filled the air during harvest season. "I was happy to watch the kite flying in the sky, to hear the beautiful sound of 'ek' and to learn how to make kites from the older people," said Sim Sarak, 55, a director-general at the Culture Ministry. Those kite-filled nights are long gone — the tradition was nearly wiped out during by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. But Sim Sarak and other fans of the "khleng ek" are leading efforts to revive its popularity. [Source: Kanharith Socheat, Associated Press, November 13, 2005 #]

“"Khleng" is the Cambodian word for kite, while "ek" translates as both "unique" and "musical instrument" — an apt name for an unusual kite fitted with a bamboo reed that can sound up to seven tones as it flies. Some Chinese kites have bells or whistles, while other Asian kites have strips that make buzzing sounds. But apparently the only other traditional kite that can produce multiple tones is a Vietnamese kite that carries a row of bamboo flutes, said Sarah St. Vincent, who spent nearly a year in Cambodia researching the khleng ek for a book. #

"Khleng ek are one of only a few kinds of musical kite in the world, and they're one of only a very few types that are capable of producing more than one tone," St. Vincent wrote via e-mail. Close up, the sound is similar to the buzz of a beehive. But to many Cambodians, it is music. "We always joked while we were flying kites, saying that ek's sound is beautiful and others are bad," Sim Sarak said. #

“It is thought the khleng ek originated around 400 BC. Ancient people in Cambodia apparently flew it to pray for rain for their crops and to give thanks for bountiful harvests. Thousands of years later, Cambodians still flew it in the spirit of that agricultural tradition, but also as a way to bond with their neighbors — the oversize kites can't be flown by just one person. "I found that kite makers love kites for two main reasons: First, kites are a symbol of Cambodia and Cambodian people; second, kites give these men a chance to spend time with their friends, relatives and neighbors," said St. Vincent, whose work was supported by the Drachen Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on kites made around the world. #

“Making the khleng ek was one of several arts that suffered heavily under the spartan regime of the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge. While watching a television program about kites several years ago, Sim Sarak recalled the khleng ek of his youth and set about promoting the craft. He founded the country's national kite museum and organized its first kite festival in 1994, with nearly 30 participants. In 2004 about 100 Cambodians and international kite fliers joined in that festival. Sim Sarak and some kite makers plan to teach rural Cambodian children how to make the kite. "I feel proud to keep Cambodian culture alive," Sim Sarak said.” #

Japanese Weaver Revives Skills Banned by Pol Pot

Tomoko Tsurumi wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “Call Kikuo Morimoto a smooth operator. He knows good silk when he sees it. But nothing, says the 56-year-old weaver, compares with the traditional ikat silk of Cambodia. Morimoto has spent the last decade ensuring the war-ravaged country's silk weaving traditions, banned by the Pol Pot regime, are not lost to history. Soon after he started out in his native Kyoto to learn the art of yuzen — traditional silk dyeing for kimono — Morimoto turned his interest to Southeast Asian fabrics. Eventually, he moved to Thailand where he worked within the local textile industry. The memory of his first glimpse of ikat has never left him. The fabric seemed to be alive, he says. [Source: Tomoko Tsurumi, the Asahi Shimbun, January 13, 2006 /]

“Ikat is created using silk threads that are individually dyed and woven in intricate patterns. It requires a precise technique that can only be done by hand.But after the dark ages of Pol Pot — when Cambodians were forced to wear nothing but black — and the ensuing civil war, there remained only a hint of the ancient silk fabrics the Khmer people had spent centuries developing. Determined to revive the art in a way that could also benefit the people of Cambodia, Morimoto moved to Phnom Penh and set up the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, now located in Sien Reap. /\

“With the help of UNESCO, Morimoto scoured the country in search of skilled weavers, most of whom were getting on in years. They would prove to be the key, passing on their skills to young apprentices. Now, about 500 people are involved in Morimoto's self-sustaining system of silk textile production. The project encompasses the entire silk-making process. Even once-barren land has been replanted with the mulberry trees favored by silkworms. /\

“Everyone gets paid. Parents can even bring their children to work. It's my job to keep their creative juices flowing, encouraging them to create even better products,'' says Morimoto. His products have gained recognition both at home and abroad. He recently became the first Japanese recipient of the prestigious international Rolex Award for enterprise. Morimoto likes to remind visitors that it has been an upward struggle. He once lost around 10 skilled weavers to a high-paying tourist facility that hosted live weaving displays. His core group, however, did not budge. Morimoto beamed,They told me, they like making the real stuff at my place.'' /\

Kikuo Morimoto’s Cambodia Silk Making Operation

Hiroko Ihara wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Kikuo Morimoto is a hardheaded silk fanatic who insists on making 100 percent natural, quality products. He believes they are more comfortable than chemically dyed synthetic fibers. In fact, he became so enamored with ikat, a traditional Khmer weaving art, that he launched a silk village project in Cambodia by establishing the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) in that country in 1996. Ikat is woven and sold by the institute's workshops. Now, about 540 Cambodians are engaged in producing ikat, which virtually disappeared during the 1978-93 civil war that racked the nation. [Source: Hiroko Ihara, Daily Yomiuri, May 21. 2005]

"Our project is slowly turning a profit as the quality of our products becomes known by word of mouth," Morimoto, 56, told The Daily Yomiuri when he briefly returned to Japan to speak at the Fair Trade Festa at the International House, Osaka in Tennoji Ward. "Encouraging local people to earn their livelihood by using their knowledge and materials is my mission."

He hires the poorest women in farm villages, half of whom are illiterate, as paid trainees to provide them with valuable skills. Due to good working conditions, thousands of job-seekers visit the workshop. He makes it a rule to refuse to take them at first, telling them to return in a few months. Two-thirds of them leave but the rest do not, knowing they would otherwise end up begging from rich tourists or taking menial work. "I hire these people because they desperately need jobs," he said.

He believes creating a good work environment is essential. For example, to help a woman commit to the time- and energy-consuming work without anxiety, he hires her husband as a carpenter and helps pay her children's school expenses. "Our products are too expensive for my employees now. I hope they can afford to buy a few for themselves ," he said. Morimoto and his employees must create marketable products to ensure that they earn a reasonable wage, a challenging reality. His employees learn what products are marketable from their customers, not from him. "As their products are on sale in their workshops, they can see when their products sell, and for how much," he said. "If they remain unsold for a long time, it means they're no good. Attractive products are sold in a few hours."

IKTT's handwoven scarves, handkerchiefs, coasters, tapestries and other items are sold in the workshops to foreign tourists. They are also sold annually at the Honen-in temple in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, in November and have occasionally been sold in Tokyo. "As elderly women have handed down the skills of craftsmanship to the younger generation, so we are producing goods more efficiently and at lower prices," he said. "I'm confident that our products are good enough to be displayed in a museum."

Unlike the Thai silk products by Jim Thompson that often feature Western patterns, IKTT ikat products bear traditional patterns in various colors such as red, pink, brown, green and yellow. Ikat robes are worn by local people for weddings and on other special occasions. Their deep colors and glossy, gentle textures give them a feeling of sereneness, attracting many Japanese and Western customers, including professional textile artists.

Kikuo Morimoto’s Cambodia Ikat Village

Hiroko Ihara wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “To make 100 percent natural products, the project embraces the entire silk-making process: growing plants for dyes and mulberry trees to feed silkworms, spinning and dyeing thread, and preparing wooden tools. Since 2003, Morimoto has also tried to help build a new village community. He realized that fostering a rich, self-supporting natural environment was essential to this effort. The civil war virtually destroyed the nation's raw silk industry, so at first he needed to import silk from Vietnam. Things were so bad that even trees to make tools were not available due to deforestation. "We are restoring the forest, the habitat of the lac insect, which produces the typical Khmer reddish purple dye material," he said. "About 140 people now live in the village. I want to increase the number to 500." [Source: Hiroko Ihara, Daily Yomiuri, May 21. 2005]

He has called this project Wisdom from the Forest. It now extends over 15 hectares. His employees comprise three age groups — teenagers, those in their 20s and those aged 30 and up. The oldest is 75. "Old women aren't always expert weavers, but they can pass along their knowledge of life," he said. "Although Cambodia today is stable, people still remember how to shoot guns and avoid being shot. But because of the disruptions caused by the civil war, those raising primary school children didn't learn how to live ordinary lives, such as growing vegetables, holding funerals and treating sick children. Old people can provide that knowledge."

Morimoto left his job as a dyer in the traditional yuzen silk-producing industry of Kyoto 25 years ago and moved to Bangkok, where he taught manual weaving for 10 years at more than 20 villages. In 1995, he was asked by the Cambodian arm of UNESCO to research Khmer traditional weaving. While visiting 36 villages, where weaving had been active at the time the civil war broke out, he saw middlemen forcing old women to make cheap products that were still striking in their craftsmanship. "It made me very sad," he said. "I then asked them to raise their skills to a higher plane and make better quality products. I told them it was all right to spend three or even six months to achieve this, and that I was ready to pay five times what they had received from brokers."

Respecting the artisan spirit is another perspective of this concept, said Goro Hasegawa, who coordinated a seminar at the Fair Trade Festa in Osaka. Hasegawa said: "Under the pressure of price-cutting competition, manufacturers usually end up reducing the quality of their products as invisibly as possible...In this throwaway era, consumers should try to be clearly aware of the value of good products when they choose them."


The house of the local people in ancient Khmer was more or less similar to those found today in villages of modern Cambodia. It was elevated about two and a half meters above the ground with the wooden ladder and was built by wooden piles which supported the floor, the walls and the roof. The wall was made up of either the straws or the bamboo with the roof covered with the thatched leaves of dry coconut palms. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The architecture of the dignitaries' houses and the palaces was somewhat different from those of the laymen, and differed in sizes, layouts and dimensions. The materials used to built the house consisted of stronger wooden planks, generally made up of teakwood, and the roof was covered with tiles for the inner rooms and with thatched leaves for the outer corners. These differences clearly identified the classes of the people by which the laymen were not even dare to put up a single tile on their roof.

There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: 1) stupas, bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture; 2) temples, place of worship somewhat similar to a church; and 3) monasteries, which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.

According to Hinduism, the gods reside in the five sacred mountains with central Mount Meru and these mountains are surrounded by the cosmic ocean. The structure of the Khmer temples mostly symbolizes the heavenly residence of the gods with five towers, called Prasats. The central dominant tower or Prasat represents the Mount Meru with four smaller ones, each at its corners, to represent the other four sacred mountains of the heaven. In some temples, there are galleries connecting the towers. The moat surrounding the temple symbolizes the cosmic ocean.

See Homes

Angkor Architecture See History, See Angkor Wat, Places

Phnom Penh: The City Built by Vann Molivann

Vann Molyvann is Cambodia’s most revered living architect. Matt Steinglass wrote in the New York Times: “It is hard to imagine a crueler fate for an urban planner than seeing his country taken over by a regime with a murderous hatred of cities. As Cambodia's pre-eminent architect and chief urban planner during the 1960's, Vann Molyvann laid out significant portions of Phnom Penh and designed dozens of landmark structures fusing High Modernist design with classical Khmer elements, including the Corbusier-influenced Independence Monument, the stacked-block minimalist Front du Bassac housing development and the National Sports Complex.[Source: Matt Steinglass, New York Times, May 15, 2005 /\/]

“Then, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and evacuated its entire population. They used the stadium for political meetings and mass rallies. In the southern port of Sihanoukville, they tried to blow up Vann's National Bank of Cambodia building (having abolished money) but gave up when the vaults proved too strong.''They took Cambodia from a country in the process of development to a communal society without the slightest vestige of the modern or the urban,'' says Vann, /\/\

“Among the first Cambodians to graduate from college, Vann attended Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and Ecole du Louvre in Paris, and retains the French intellectual's verbal athleticism. Vann fled the country in 1971 and soon after settled with his wife and children in his wife's native Switzerland. He spent much of the next two decades working on the development of third-world housing for the U.N.Vann spent the 90's as head of Apsara, an independent government authority created to safeguard the temples of Angkor Wat. By authoring a zoning plan that kept big hotels outside the borders of the ancient temple complexes, he was instrumental in preserving the area's authenticity and nurturing its tourism industry. Eventually the C.P.P. pushed him out of Apsara: he was deemed insufficiently friendly to development. /\/\

Vann’s “fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall and his State Palace building are mainstays of Phnom Penh's public architecture. The low-cost private houses he built in the west of the city are very much lived-in. In Sihanoukville, the showcase factory he designed for the SKD brewery is still churning out bottles, and the National Bank of Cambodia building is once again taking deposits. The Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh is in full use, though construction nearby will partly hide his original design from the street. /\/\

“Vann is concerned about the neglect of Phnom Penh's infrastructure. The city has a precarious relationship with water: each summer, the combination of monsoon rains and melting snow flowing down the Mekong from the Himalayas floods the farmland surrounding the city and causes the Tonle Sap River to reverse direction. The government has failed to build dikes to keep up with the city's expansion, while shortsighted development is filling in the lakes and canals designed to channel floodwaters. A particularly heavy flood year, Vann fears, could prove disastrous. /\/\

“It is one of the standard critiques of the Modernists of Vann's generation that their grandiose designs crushed the street-level urban fabric and ignored environmental sustainability. Vann's case stands this critique on its head. His 1960's vision for Phnom Penh epitomizes the grandiose optimism of ''la Ville Radieuse,'' the French version of midcentury utopian urbanism. Yet it was Vann's city plan that paid exquisite attention to Phnom Penh's environmental concerns and urban fabric, while the privatization and decentralization of the last 15 years threaten to scar the city's landmarks and wreak havoc with its water management. One of Vann's admirers told me that it would serve the government right if there was a major flood. When I clumsily repeated the wisecrack to Vann, he didn't find it funny. ''Three hundred thousand people would lose their homes,'' he said soberly. ''You can't imagine what could happen here.'' /\/\

Vann Molyvann’s Buildings and Home

Claire Knox wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, “Molyvann’s work during the ’50s and ’60s heyday of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk created some of the nation’s most iconic architecture: the National Sports Complex (now the Olympic Stadium), the Ministry of Finance, the White Building, the Institute for Foreign Languages, the Independence Monument and the fan-shaped Chaktomuk Conference Hall hugging the banks of the Tonle Bassac river to name but a few. [Source: Claire Knox, Phnom Penh Post, January 25, 2013 ==]

“He built the linear, public housing blocks under the Bassac area project (which included the National Theatre Preah Suramarit), which contained the Grey and White buildings (although Lu Ban Hap is officially credited for the latter) – the first and only attempt by a Cambodian government at a housing ownership scheme for civil servants. “I was very proud of this – each apartment was cross ventilated with cool, open space. But it’s the ideology behind it. It was very close to my heart – allowing those who rented the houses to then be owners after 15 years. The Cambodians are too poor for this to happen now.” ==

“Along with the Olympic Stadium, Molyvann says the design of his house is his magnum opus. Flanking the monolithic Tonle Bassac restaurant on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, the house, veiled by vines of purple Bougainvillea, is an example of New Khmer architecture at its best. The roof is feat of engineering which required painstaking calculation by his engineer brother-in-law, Walter Amberg. While its influence seems to lean towards the oriental, concave domes characteristic of Japanese pagodas, Molyvann says he was inspired rather by the traditional jungle huts of Brazil and rural Cambodian thatched roof huts, “for ventilation purposes”. ==

“Molyvann, as a man of design, is methodical and precise by nature. When asked about his inspiration for the home, built in 1968, he pores over its floor-plans and recites slabs of literature from his manifesto, Modern Khmer Cities. “This home is meaningful for me and my family. I was the most experimental I ever was, you see. Because I did not dare to impose crazy ideas on any of my government projects or for clients. It was a chance for me to play, but I was a little afraid,” he chuckles.“I wanted to see if this roof would be possible, if you could live inside a very modern, complex structure in Cambodia while keeping traditional features – such as the ventilation in the roof, and the lighting. The roof is concrete – two layers where one man can actually walk through.” ==

“Molyvann and his family lived in the cubic concrete and red brick home for four years before fleeing the Khmer Rouge, returning in 1992. The empty house watched the evacuation of the city in April 1975 and remained vacant until 1979, when it became a government office. “It was important for my large family to have a large space to spend time together,” he says. On the second floor, bedrooms are labyrinthine, tucked around corners and slotting together like a puzzle. ==

Vann Molyvann’s Life and Architecture Career

Claire Knox wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, “Molyvann was born in Kampot in 1926 to poor parents. He studied in Phnom Penh before being bestowed with a government grant to study in Paris in 1946. He had a go at law but found his true calling studying architecture at celebrated arts school L’ecole des Beaux Arts. He fervently absorbed the teachings of Swiss/French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, as did young students Lu Ban Hap, Chhim Sun Fong, Seng Sutheng and Mam Sophana. When the intensely patriotic Sihanouk, after independence from the French in 1953, called on them to spearhead the design of new, remarkable civic structures, the group became what is now known as the New Khmer Movement. [Source: Claire Knox, Phnom Penh Post, January 25, 2013 ==]

Molyvann, the most qualified of the group, returned to the Kingdom in 1957 and was appointed chief architect of the Kingdom and director for urban planning and habitat. In 13 years, he was responsible for the creation of about 100 buildings. When asked what it felt like to be accountable for the planning and design of a city at the age of 30, he shakes his head. Another smile spreads across his face. “Of course it was an exciting, humbling experience for a young man – can you imagine?” ==

“Molyvann’s eyes sparkle when he recounts his experiences with Sihanouk. “Sihanouk and I were colleagues. I had great respect for him. I can tell you a story about the way that he gave orders, which was inspiring. One day, in the ’60s, he called me, a French-trained Khmer engineer, a physician and a few others. We had a meeting at the Royal Palace, and he said he had just come back from Indonesia … He said: ‘they have just built independence but they have plenty of universities, why do we not? This is the future!’ He said, you, Molyvann, you will create the Royal University of Phnom Penh. And I received a small Italian car, and went on a hunt for students and teachers, scholars, to create the council for the university.” ==

“I was having my petit dejeuner with my wife one morning in 1967 when he announced on the radio that I would become the Minister for Education.” “Of course there were [political] criticisms of him. Yes, he was probably not concerned with much outside Cambodia. If we look at it in modern terms, he wouldn’t have been a politician but a nationalist. Above all he was a patriot.” ==

“Molyvann’s daughter Delphine, one of six children, was only four when she fled the Kingdom with her mother and siblings. Lon Nol had banned all movement in and out of the country at the time, and while her father’s passport had been confiscated, he was allowed to travel to a conference in Israel (after being secretly warned by the Israeli ambassador about deteriorating security and the threat he was under as a government worker). Although the Khmer Republic president was “holding [his family] hostage”, to ensure the architect came back, Trudy ordered Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff to extend her children’s passports, enabling them to flee, and herself escaped on a UN passport. ==

“Modern Khmer Cities (translated into Khmer and English) was born from Molyvann’s broad doctoral thesis on the development and planning of Asian cities he completed in France at the age of 82. He says he wrote the thesis as a kind of cathartic plea to the current government, to prompt better foresight into the planning of Phnom Penh and the construction and destruction of historical buildings. Molyvann’s ideas are to expand the city in a southerly direction towards Takmao. “Phnom Penh has no planning! A southern extension will link greater Phnom Penh to other parts of Southeast Asia and industry. This is something we planned that was never realised because of the war. But the government refuses to listen.” ==

“He says Sihanouk’s government had based the planning of Phnom Penh around the idea of a “garden city”. “There would have been a mixture of density and enough space for ventilation, to breathe, for green space. That’s what Phnom Penh would have had. Now there is no space, because the government is trying to sell any land they have. Why should they bother to make a public space out of 2000 square metres when they can have money in their pocket?” ==

Vann Molivan’s Work Threatened by Developers

The Grey building designed by Vann is now the Phnom Penh Centre. It is barely recognisable as Molyvann’s work, rendered and renovated beyond recognition. The National Theatre and Council of Ministers have been razed, and the Olympic Stadium was sold to a Taiwanese company in 2000, who have left it in poor condition.

Matt Steinglass wrote in the New York Times: “ Vann's legacy now faces a new menace: development. Indeed, ill-conceived development may do more harm to his structures than the Khmer Rouge ever did. ''The buildings survived being abandoned better than they've survived being misused,'' says Helen Grant Ross, a Phnom Penh-based architect and an advocate for the preservation of Vann's work. [Source: Matt Steinglass, New York Times, May 15, 2005 /\/]

“In the most egregious case, the government awarded a contract for the renovation of Vann's stadium complex to a Taiwan-based real-estate firm that threw up a clump of charmless low-rise retail and office buildings on its grounds. These filled in the network of pools that Vann had designed, like the moats around the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, to absorb monsoon-season rains. /\/\

''Now the streets next to the stadium are constantly flooding,'' Vann says ruefully. Meanwhile, part of the Front du Bassac housing complex has deteriorated into a slum, while the rest was transformed by a recent renovation into a dull, suburban-looking box. Next door, the 1968 Preah Suramarit Theater, an elegant brick-and-concrete wedge with angular staircases cantilevered over an interior reflecting pool, was gutted by fire in 1994. In February, the telecom magnate Kith Meng reportedly agreed to reconstruct the theater in exchange for construction rights on the surrounding land, but some fear a repeat of the sports-stadium fiasco. /\/\

“Asked how he feels about the plight of his buildings, Vann responds with a 20-minute soliloquy. He depicts his buildings' travails as part of a more general urban crisis: a ''guerre fonciere,'' or ''real-estate war,'' with roots in the 1979 takeover of the country by the Vietnamese and their Cambodian allies. ''They consider the property that they acquired after their entry into Cambodia as war booty,'' Vann explains. /\/\

One of the seized houses was Vann's own, an airy multilevel villa that he designed and built in 1969 — just a year before a U.S.-backed coup escalated Cambodia's civil war. When he returned to Cambodia in 1991, he found his villa serving, of all things, as the office of the national land-registration administration. ''It was completely neglected,'' he says, ''in a shocking state.'' He applied to the government to have his house returned. Amazingly, it was. /\/\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.