banh chhkol village, Kompong Chhnang province – Prum Sakhan, 53, wishes he could have gone to Phnom Penh for the Water Festival.
“I am sorry to miss it; I would like to attend. But I have financial problems,” he says.
About 1 million provincial Cambodians head to Phnom Penh each year for the Water Festival, which ended Wednesday. Millions more stay behind—most too poor to go, or unable to leave their rice fields.
Many villages host mini-Water Festivals, for the majority of people who stay home. That doesn’t stop them from longing for the excitement of the overcrowded capital and the boat races that last throughout the three-day holiday.
But in Banh Chhkol—100 km north of Phnom Penh, in Rolea Ba’ier district—the makeshift festival is more impressive than usual.
Folk and classical dance, comedy and drama performances blare from a curtained, lit stage. Music booms from enormous speakers and karaoke videos are projected on a huge screen. Many villagers have never seen a big-screen film before.
Banh Chhkol has been singled out by Phay Siphan, a former lawmaker expelled from the CPP and the Senate last December for deviating from the party line and criticizing CPP-sponsored legislation.
Since his dismissal—which has been called “illegal” by an international lawmakers’ group—Phay Siphan, a mustached Cambodian-American, has been looking for a way to serve his people, he says. Banh Chhkol is his project. He wants to help the villagers turn their traditional craft—clay pots—into a viable cottage industry.
Son Soyeng, 23, makes pots by hand, working a lever back and forth with her foot to make the potter’s wheel spin and shaping the red clay with moistened fingers.
It is the craft from which Kompong Chhnang province gets its name—“Port of Pots.” But the Banh Chhkol villagers, who get assistance from a German-funded NGO called the Cambodia Crafts Corporation, say they can’t make a profit.
The women have to borrow money for raw materials, and money lenders charge high interest rates, eroding profit margins, Son Soyeng says. They can’t afford to transport the pots to market, so they pay middlemen, losing more profits. And pots made in Thailand and Vietnam are cheaper, setting prices too low.
“We want to sell our pots for a good price so we can improve our village,” Son Soyeng says, looking at the village’s unfinished pagoda. Construction had to stop several months ago because there wasn’t enough money.
Through activities like this week’s festival, as well as a karaoke song and video, the former senator wants to draw attention to the town.
If an investor offered start-up capital, he says, the villagers wouldn’t need money lenders or middlemen.
He envisions a “community bank” that would pay up-front costs and reinvest profits in the village and business, gradually improving everyone’s life. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy did his part, stopping by Tuesday afternoon to donate a tractor.
“Villages all around buy pots from Thailand, Vietnam or China, when this village is right here,” Phay Siphan says. “They just need exposure, and laws to protect them.”
—written by Phay Siphan, with lyrics about a pot-making woman who falls in love—