Cambodia’s traditional marble and sandstone sculptors still carve by hand

Machine-made sculptures threaten the small businesses that line the highway in Kampong Thom province.
By RFA Khmer
2024.05.30

As they draw closer to Ko Koh commune, drivers and passengers traveling on National Road 6 can spot the thousands of marble and sandstone statues and sculptures set out along the highway in central Cambobia’s Kampong Thom province.

The sculptures – mostly of Buddha, various animals and the Angkor-era’s King Jayavarman VII – come from the area’s numerous hand-carving businesses. The traditional art dates back centuries. 

About 50 families in Ko Koh commune’s Samnak village are engaged in the local industry, which also provides employment opportunities to about 200 people from other nearby villages, commune chief Chap Thin told Radio Free Asia.

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Statues of the Buddha. (RFA)

Stone sculptor Tep Thean said apprentices can earn from 600,000 (US$146) to 800,000 (US$195) riel a month, while skilled craftsmen are paid up to 100,000 riel (US$24) per day. 

But the craft is less popular these days, he said. 

“Carving is very difficult. It affects our health. Sometimes it breaks,” he said. “It is very dangerous if we are not careful.”

For years, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has sent trainers to the area to help local sculptors hone their skills and to follow certain practices that make the works uniquely Cambodian, he said.

Four steps by hand

One has to go through four stages of stone processing. During the first stage, the sculptor trims a stone down into the desired shape of the sculpture, with outlines of the shoulders, arms, legs and face.

The second step is to create six corners on the stone, and the third step is to sketch out the face of the sculpture. During the last stage, the sculptor polishes the face and cleans the sculpture before putting it out for sale. 

A major selling point for the sculptures is that they are produced by hand, Chap Thin said.

“Those who love Khmer sculptures will differentiate those made by hands and machines,” he said. “They won’t value those made by machines.”

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Undated video screenshot of Stone sculptor Em Ri Phon. (RFA)

The sculptures are sold in Cambodia and in areas of southern Vietnam where ethnic Khmers live – often referred to as Kampuchea Krom. They are also shipped abroad to the United States, Canada and Australia. 

Although Cambodian sculptors are skilled and meticulous, they can’t carve stone surfaces as smoothly as those made by computer-guided machines.

Some of the sculptors in Ko Koh commune are worried that machine-operated stone carvings from Chinese and Vietnamese-owned companies could tarnish the reputation of Cambodian stone carvings.

Master stone carver Em Ri Phon said his family is earning 50 percent less from orders than they did a year ago.

“This artistic work – I want to promote our art culture as well as Khmer sculpture,” he said. “We want to preserve this culture for a long time.”

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed.

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