ponhea leu district, Kandal province – About 20 meters off National Road 5, the pounding of hammer on silver resonates along the laterite road leading to Por Touch village.
The constant tok pok, tok pok sound regulates life in this area of Kandal province, which for generations has been known for its silversmiths.
About 30 km from Phnom Penh, after the ferry pier of Prek Kdam on the way to Kompong Chhnang province, a sign on National Road 5 informs travelers they have reached the “Silversmith Village.”
If it were not for the local trade, Por Touch would be like any other Cambodian village, with its food stalls and small shops.
But as soon as one turns right off the national road, silversmiths can be seen everywhere, in front of small bamboo or larger concrete houses.
From morning to night, they are seen fashioning silver objects-from delicate chicken and fish boxes, to large fruit-shaped bowls.
At least 200 families live off their art in Por Touch and Koh Chin villages across the Tonle Sap river, said Seung Kim Yonn, executive director of the Cambodian Craft Cooperation, an association that supports crafts people in the country.
“I learned the trade as a child in the 1970s,” said silversmith Kim Thoeun.
His parents worked together as many couples do today, like Roeun Sokleng, who designs and produces the objects that his wife Prak Srey embosses.
For centuries, the Por Touch and Koh Chin silversmiths supplied the Royal Court that, at times, was in residence at Udong about 5 km away. Por Touch village makes for a quick shopping spot for travelers on a day trip to the Udong historical site, Cambodia’s 19th-century capital.
Silversmiths here flourished under the French Administration and during Cambodia’s first decades of independence. But the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 came close to eliminating this traditional art.
In the late 1990s, German support—both governmental and private—helped create the Khmer Silversmiths Association as a member of the Cambodian Craft Cooperation, and sent Cambodians overseas to attend workshops and exhibit their work.
Today, visitors can watch silversmiths working away, squatting on the floor of their houses built along the quiet Tonle Sap. The craftsmen welcome customers and are more than happy to negotiate prices for their ready-made wares or accept custom-made orders.
In the last year, however, an increase in the price of silver has forced some silversmiths to find other ways to earn a living. Prices rose from about $180 to $250 per kilogram, said Kim Thoeun.
This caused retail prices to rise so much that wholesalers, unable to sell at those prices, slashed their orders, Roeun Sokleng said.
Some silversmiths, who remained in the trade but can’t afford to buy silver, were reduced to working as craftsmen for people who could provide silver, Kim Thoeun said.
After paying their expenses—charcoal, acid to soften and carve the surface, resin—silversmiths are left with about $10 to $20 per month, she said.
According to Vuth Ravy, the manager of Kompong Luong Silversmith Center that displays and sells craftsmen’s work in Por Touch village, sales may have dropped by as much as 80 percent last year. The Western and Asian visitors, who make up most of the customers buying directly in the village, have for some reason become scarce.
However, last month, business improved before the Christmas and New Year holidays, raising hope for the coming months.