Kompong Speu’s Firework-Makers Risk Danger for Healthy Profits

Chea Chok had done it many times—putting the explosive ingredients together into the makeshift tubes in the intricate way that turns it into a firework.

For five years, the 31-year-old had sat every day in the shade of a tree in his yard, making his fireworks, one by one. This dangerous craft is how he has earned his living.

But one day, more than a year ago, was different. Chea Chok was making a custom-ordered firework the size of a coconut. He wasn’t paying attention, even though he knew well the risky nature of his work. Instead, Chea Chok let his mind wander about life’s other problems.

Looking back, Chea Chok thinks he may have added too much of one kind of explosive ingredient. Or, perhaps he aggravated the firework when he drilled a hole to attach the fuse.

Whatever the reason, the firework exploded, badly burning Chea Chok’s left hand and right eye.

Unconscious, he was driven by motorcycle to a hospital 40-km away, where part of his arm was amputated. His eye, turned light blue, is now useless.

He stayed at the hospital for two weeks, recovering and wondering whether doctors were too hasty in deciding to cut off his arm. Then he returned to his home in Kompong Speu province’s Bavet district and—with the use of his good arm and the help of his wife—resumed making fireworks.

It is the work of many families in Kompong Speu. Past Pochentong International Airport on Route 4, there are families like Chea Chok’s who are devoted to making fireworks. For many, it is a trade that has been passed down through generations.

Prak Morum, 51, learned how to make fireworks from his father in the 1960s. His father probably learned the trade while stationed as a soldier in Japan, he said.

Prak Sam Nang, the son of Prak Morum, gazed at his own five-month-old son on a recent day in Kong Pisei district. Despite his fear that he or his son would also have an accident, the 22-year-old said he would continue his trade and would probably, someday, teach his son how to make the explosives.

Despite the obvious downside, Chea Chok said he also will teach his children how to make fireworks once they finish school. “We can make a lot of money,” he said.

Even though he spends parts of some days farming rice and teaching children traditional Cambodian music, Chea Chok said he has “no choice” but to continue making the explosives. “This is my career,” he said.

And it is a career that brings his family about $17.50 for every 100 fireworks. Each month, he can produce up to 5,000 fireworks, he said.

There are the round-shaped fireworks, which usually come in two sizes and are set off inside a metal tube. And there are the smaller fireworks, which are shaped like a fat cigar.

The fireworks are used during celebrations or big ceremonies—anniversaries, funerals, holidays, the opening of a new pagoda or at Khmer New Year, according to 19-year-old Prak Vibol, the brother of Prak Sam Nang.

Buyers come to his family’s home in Kong Pisei district about twice a month, he said. The smaller fireworks sell for about $0.25 to $0.50; the larger ones for about $2 to $3. When the explosive ingredients are available and ready, the family is capable of producing hundreds of fireworks a day, Prak Vibol said.

For a rice farmer with few opportunities for lucrative work, the money that comes from making and selling fireworks, it seems, is just too good to pass up. Kong Pisei district resident Reach Ravuth, for one, said he can make about $250 a month

Reach Ravuth, a soldier during the 1980s, said he is not afraid of having an accident like the one his friend Chea Chok had. He weighs the ingredients carefully and takes his time, he said.

Maybe his bravado comes from his long experience. In the past, Reach Ravuth specially made a one-half meter wide firework for one high government official. There were no problems, he said.

And besides the money, there’s the thrill of experiencing the explosion.

“I like the sound of boom, boom,” he said.


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