Opinion: The Timeless Legacy of Cambodian Arts and Crafts

Opinion: The Timeless Legacy of Cambodian Arts and Crafts
Cambodian arts and crafts: painting of Angkor Wat

Cambodian arts and crafts are not something being invented recently. It traces back to the time of the Kingdom of Cambodia, centuries to the ancient times, but the most well-known period is without a doubt the Khmer art of the Khmer Empire from 802-1431; more specifically in the area around Angkor and the 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat, which was initially Hindu and subsequently Buddhist. Cambodia's arts and crafts are rich, diverse and unique on its own. Considered as one of its kind, from the impressive stone carvings of the Angkor period through to exquisite silk weaving, Cambodian or Khmer art is undoubtedly one of the most richly diverse in the history of mankind.

Cultural and Religious Influences Around Cambodian Arts

Much like Cambodia’s neighboring countries like Thailand, Laos even with a little further down south neighbor, Indonesia, the country’s arts and crafts were greatly influenced by culture and religion that took shapes for centuries in the region. Those two have become the principal guides and inspirations in the Cambodian arts. More importantly, Hinduism and Buddhism are two religions, which shared similarities with a unique Khmer style of art. Not only that, Sanskrit language and other elements of Indian civilization also influenced the arts and crafts in Cambodia for the past centuries. And later after the 15th century, frequency of wars occurred and reduced the territory, wealth, and power of Cambodian monarchs; during which the Cambodian arts and crafts had taken into another phase of reshaping and reinvention.

Surviving the Test of Time

Cambodia also suffered from centuries long of colonization and wars. The French colonial empire began governing Cambodia in early 20th century and rediscovered the temples at Angkor and worked to preserve them. Furthermore, the Communist Khmer Rouge organization contrasted and mistrusted religion and education in the country during that period. They forbade all of Cambodia’s traditional arts and written language. As a result, Cambodia’s traditional culture and the monuments of Angkor were endangered between 1970 and 1990 due to civil war. When Cambodia’s warring factions signed a peace treaty in 1991, international organizations had assisted the government of Cambodia restore the sites at Angkor and recover Cambodia’s traditional crafts. Today, the National Museum of Cambodia houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Khmer cultural materials including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods, where visitors can learn more about Cambodian arts and crafts and its long history and how they could survive the test of time.

Modern Touch of Cambodian Arts and Crafts Today

Nowadays, Cambodian arts and crafts have evolved to cater the growing travel and tourism industry in the country, to allure not only foreign tourists to buy those as souvenirs, but also the domestic Cambodian tourists. It has become lucrative business activities for many in the past decades and it also has encouraged the younger generation of Cambodian to step into the arts and crafts industry, to preserve their cultural heritage and to promote it to the world. The young people in Cambodia will be able to add modern touch and creativity to the centuries old arts and crafts to make it more attractive and up-to-date. When I was first visiting Angkot Wat in 2011, I bought this beautiful painting from a local arts seller that was made on a piece of leaf rolled and put in a unique tube made of woven coconut leaves, which to me it was a fascinating package of arts that I still have in my workspace at home.

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