rolea ba’ier district, Kompong Chhnang province—Hitting soft, saturated dirt against the wooden plank into a flat shape, Chuon Sok Chan turns the charred earth into a pot and a vase that could one day decorate a home in Phnom Penh.
Not just a job, it transcends even a craft. At 13, the girl hopes her ability to turn dirt into art will inspire her younger sisters.
Chuon Sok Chan learned pottery through a three-month course organized by PRASAC, an NGO that opened a training center in her village.
She has been in business for herself for a few months, throwing clay pots to earn extra income for her family. She makes about 10 pots and vases per day.
Although Chuon Sok Chan is the first in her family to throw pottery for a living, she says she wants to teach her sisters the skills she has learned.
She is teaching her younger sister, Chuon Sok Cheat, 10, the craft with a $65 handmade wooden shaping machine she keeps in the family’s home.
“I think I can make pots of good quality without any bad shapes. I am trying to teach this skill to my sisters,” Chuon Sok Chan said.
Throughout Andong Russey village, smoke from the kilns floats everywhere as the potters burn their wares until they become rigid. They load their ox cats with finished pots, vases and lumber for the trip to the northwest provinces or to Phnom Penh, 96 km away.
Once they reach the nation’s capital—a trip that can take up to 15 days—the potters wheel their carts around the city, hawking their wares until the last one is sold.
A cartload of the best clay dirt costs $1.31 and can make dozens of pots. The potters dry it under the sun before grinding it into powder.
Sem Soriya, another potter from Kompong Chhnang, sometimes peddles his pots and vases to Phnom Penh buyers. But he says he prefers to take his wares to Poipet commune in the Thai border province of Banteay Meanchey.
He said he can earn as much as $131 selling his products to Thais and Cambodians in Poipet, compared to the $78 he gets in Phnom Penh.
Sem Soriya, 37, of Trapeang On village, learned the craft from his parents. His family has made pottery since 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge, and he hopes to keep the tradition alive.
“I will pass on my pottery skills to my children in order not to let it be forgotten, because it is an ancestral skill,” he said.