Walking through the Killing Fields was probably one of the most moving and memorable experiences of my life. Although the site has been preserved as a memorial, it doesn’t feel like a peaceful place.
You instinctively know that something unspeakable has happened here, and that was confirmed as our guide (herself a survivor of the brutal Pol Pot regime) took us around.
Pol Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge movement led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, around 1.5 million Cambodians (out of a total population of 7 to 8 million) died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork.
The Khmer Rouge aimed to create a classless society and targeted intellectuals, city residents, civil servants and religious leaders – persecuting anyone who would object to the regime.
Doctors, teachers and professionals were stripped of their possessions and forced to work in the fields. Many were tortured and then killed.
We visited the infamous S-21, a former high school which was turned into a Khmer Rouge prison.
Only 7 of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived. We were honoured to meet one of the survivors, and the whole day was overwhelming.
All I could think was how recently in history this had happened.
If it had happened in the UK it would have been my family and friends who were tortured and killed. Our guide had lost the majority of her own family and had only survived as a small child by hiding in the countryside. When she told us how she coped with what had happened to her, she talked about her education.
She had gone to University to learn to be a tour guide, and she was pushing her own children to become as educated as possible. Despite growing up in a society that punished and killed the educated, she had defied the odds to rebuild her life.
A few days later, we visited Silk Island for the day. Here we went to a silk farm, to learn how the silkworms are used to produce fibres which are then woven by hand on looms.
Travelling around the island several people invited us into their homes to meet them. Most homes here have looms, and the local women produce beautiful silk fabric to sell wholesale or at the market.
One lady, Emma, invited us to watch her weaving, and even let us have a go – it’s very difficult! She told us how the fabric she makes allows her to send her 4 children to school, and how she is teaching her daughters to weave to make sure the skills are passed down the generations.
The silk scarves she produced were just beautiful, and of course we couldn’t resist bringing several of them home! They were even more special because we had met Emma and seen her weaving.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on how lucky I have been to grow up in a safe and secure environment, and to be able to go to art school, practice art and be surrounded by creativity.
It could have all been so different if I had just been born at a different time or in a different place. Yet despite the horrific experiences people in this incredible country had been through, here they were celebrating their skills, passing them through the generations and thriving. It was inspiring and humbling.
I absolutely love photography, so I’d been documenting our trip on my camera and my iPhone. I work in marketing so I spend most of my life plugged into social media – so on this trip I’d promised myself a ‘digital detox’.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m absolutely addicted to Instagram, so my detox didn’t last too long once we got to the hotel and I discovered the free wifi!
I began uploading the photos I’d taken each evening with several hashtags about travel and Cambodia and little anecdotes about what we were seeing and experiencing – it became my travel diary.
When we returned from Silk Island I uploaded a short video of one of the ladies weaving on her loom. That evening when we got back from dinner I checked in to see how many likes I’d had that day and I noticed one of them was the ‘Angkor Handicraft Association’, a fair trade village supporting rural artisans in Siem Reap.
They sounded interesting and we were due to head to Siem Reap the next day so I checked out their website and started to form a plan.
A few days later we had a free afternoon in Siem Reap. A few people in our tour group wanted to browse the markets for some souvenirs, but I’d learnt from AHA’s website that most of the products in the city markets were actually mass produced in Vietnam.
Over lunch I mentioned the artisan village and suggested a tuk tuk trip out to visit them. The group came back with some gorgeous, authentic souvenirs and I came back with an idea!
The association supports rural artisans, giving them the support they need to sell their products and earn a fair wage.
I had a chat with Robert, one of the volunteers at AHA, and he explained that they could co-ordinate wholesale orders and overseas shipping. It all got me thinking. What if we imported some of the beautiful silks and sold them in the UK?
The money we paid for them would go to the artists who made them, contributing to social recovery in Cambodia and ensuring that these amazing artisan skills continue to be passed from generation to generation. Then we could re-invest the profits into other charities and projects empowering women and artists in Cambodia.
Like the lotus flowers that grow in the pools at the sides of the roads all through Cambodia, this country and its people had risen up through the darkest times to celebrate their heritage and traditional artisan skills.
It is so inspiring and beautiful, and by purchasing an authentic, traditional piece of hand-woven silk from the artist who made it, I could capture a tiny part of that.
I wear my silk scarf whenever I need reminding of that inspiration and creative energy that I felt in Cambodia, and now with Little Lotus Boutique we hope we can bring you a piece of that too.
Our first range of hand-woven silk scarves is currently being made by the very talented artisans we work with in Cambodia. Watch this space!
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