After exploring the temples around Siem Reap, one of the real pleasures for those interested in the traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia is to visit the workshops, ateliers and silk farms, where stone and wood are carved, silk is hand-woven, and handicrafts are made by Cambodian artisans as they have long been.
One couple can be thanked for the revival of traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia that has been such an inspiration to other artisans, craftspeople and designers around the country.
These days, beautiful boutiques, shops, ateliers and pop-ups are literally springing up all over Siem Reap each week, offering authentic handicrafts, woven textiles, refined clothes, handcrafted jewellery, elegant accessories, original art, and quirky design products.
But they wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for one couple who paved the way, Cambodian-French entrepreneur, researcher and hotelier, Nathalie Saphon Ridel and husband Jean-Pierre Martial, who also own beautiful Maison Polanka.
The couple did everything from identifying the traditional arts and crafts and seeking out the old master craftsmen to establishing training schools, workshops and co-operatives that created the circumstances for the revival of traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia.
We asked Nathalie about the creative renaissance that became her life’s work.
Traditional Arts and Crafts in Cambodia – The Story of Cambodia’s Creative Renaissance
Q. The last fifteen years have seen a slow but steady revival of traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia, including artisanal crafts such as stonemasonry, woodcarving, lacquer-ware, and silk painting, along with folk handicrafts, like weaving and basketry, all of which are flourishing now. You and your husband played a key role in the revitalization and renaissance of these traditions – can you tell us about that?
A. In France, I had been a buyer and importer for a small yet famous collection of contemporary Chinese and Iranian crafts stores. My project when I returned to Cambodia in 1994 was to establish an inventory of Khmer crafts after twenty years of war. I met Jean Pierre Martial who made the project happen.
I spent a whole year with a team of designers and managers from the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts, systematically tracing the masters and craftspeople in the countryside, in all the provinces, at a time when communications and security was a major obstacle to any survey.
The research extended to private and museum collections, both in Cambodia and overseas, including the inventory of Khmer traditional patterns. The aim was to gather information that would help revive ancient crafts and bring back to light the lost traditions before they completely disappeared.
After the inventory was created in 1996, I contributed to helping establish a project that Jean-Pierre (who had become my husband by then) had already began – the Chantiers Ecoles, a pioneering vocational training school that was established in 1992 with the Ministry of Education. The Chantiers Ecoles trained young uneducated people in all building techniques, from sandstone and wood carving to silk weaving.
As the sculptures and textiles that the apprentices were creating were beginning to pile up, I created a basic collection of stone and woodcarvings, traditional stoles, cushions, and woven mats, to be sold to the rising tourism market. At that time, in 1996, there was absolutely nobody selling crafts in Siem Reap.
In 1997, as the project had grown, we decided to form a semi-private company that would sell these things and soon established Artisans d’Angkor. But we needed a design team.
Two months before the troubles of July 1997 (when the Cambodian People’s Party, led by the second prime minister Hun Sen, ousted the first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, of the ruling royalist party FUNCINPEC) I met a painter in Psar Chas who had a very special eye for colour and I convinced him to join the project.
That is how I met Theam, who became and remained for more than 10 years the artistic director of the Artisans d’Angkor. That same year, in November, Eric Raisina who had travelled here and fallen in love with Siem Reap, created the first clothing collection for Artisans d’Angkors and Chantiers Ecoles.
We prepared a fashion show – the first one in Siem Reap maybe ever! I remember being backstage trying to convince the models, who were all weavers, to get on the catwalk. That was the very beginning of crafts and fashion in Siem Reap.
Theam and Eric can confirm that it was a world away from what the crafts and fashion scenes are today in Siem Reap. We have watched the revolution and evolution and are more than ever convinced that this is the place to be.
A lot of this development happened thanks to the vision of my husband, Jean Pierre, and his capacity to develop a sustainable model of development, and his talent in getting a group of people with different skills together to achieve a goal, which was sustainability and employment for under-privileged young adult Cambodians.
Q. On top of your role in revitalising traditional arts and crafts in Cambodia, you have also been responsible for identifying and nurturing creative talent and distributing and promoting beautiful products. Tell us about your work, your elegant retail spaces and your exquisite products, and how you sourced and developed those.
A. When I returned to Cambodia in 1992, there were not much left in terms of traditional crafts. Attention was focused on survival. It was a time when NGOs and the goodwill of individuals helped to provide basic designs and create products inspired from the region to give employment to communities. But at the time there was not a need for quality.
Still, artisanal skills were kept alive and there were good materials and fine products that could be sourced. We could buy silver, silk, stonework, and woodwork.
I had met the designers Romyda Keth, Theam and Eric Raisina, so when I opened Khmer Attitude in the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor in 2000, I wanted to show that our products would stand apart in terms of quality and design and could compete on the international scene.
I could only create a retail space in a hotel that had a history. I had always traveled in countries for their old hotels – they were my destinations – the Old Cataract in Egypt, the Galle Face in Colombo, Le Crillon in Paris, Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, and Le Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap. So as I was living in Siem Reap, I opened Khmer Attitude in the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
It was a window for Khmer excellence in crafts that had a distinctive style, that were made with perfection, simplicity in its form, luxury in their material, and excellence in their craftsmanship.
That first space and the set-up were innovative for Cambodia in 2000, with the boutique’s strict lines, warmed by the materials and colors.
Then in 2010, also in the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, I opened Galerie Cambodge, a conceptual store, alongside Khmer Attitude. My aim was to uphold Fair Trade values and promote good design and a high quality of craftsmanship.
Galerie Cambodge was thought as a balancing partner to Khmer Attitude. Galerie Cambodge was about natural blended colors whereas Khmer Attitude was bold and colorful. Galerie Cambodge was light wood with textured materials, whereas Khmer Attitude was strong and metallic. Galerie Cambodge was raw silk, Khmer Attitude was fine silk. Cambodge had a men’s collection whereas Attitude was very feminine.
For Khmer Attitude I worked with the best master silversmiths and the best designers in fashion and fabrics. With Galerie Cambodge, the collaboration was with Sirivan Chak who is very sensitive and prefers to remain in the shade.
It was a new story, because time had passed and things had progressed – it was a chic, urbane showcase, conceived for the global nomad.
We strong recommend consulting our guide to travelling responsibly in Cambodia and why it matters before you begin shopping Siem Reap. Lara also crafts bespoke Siem Reap itineraries and hosts Siem Reap shopping tours.