Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This report is the outcome of the research commissioned by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In this research, I visited more than 36 villages in 8 provinces between January and March 1995. Because of the civil war disturbance beginning in 1970, few information relevant to textiles remained in Cambodia. Even maps, which are indispensable for a field survey, were not available at first. My research, therefore, began with asking shopkeepers at the markets in Phnom Penh, "Where did this fabric comes from?" Then, I arrived at remote villages, where I heard weaving activities still continues. When I finished interview at such a village, I always asked the interviewees whether I could reach other weaving villages if I was to proceed. I headed to other villages if they gave me directions.
The origins of Cambodia can be traced back to 7th century CE with the first Khmer kingdom. The Angkor Empire flourished at its peak in 12th century CE during the era of King Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII. The empire encompassed a large part of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and became a major trade center whose route was connected by the "ocean silk road" connecting South India and China. However, the Angkor Empire declined due to frequent attacks by the Siamese in Thailand. The empire collapsed in the 15th century CE and has been subject to political and military intervention by its powerful neighbors; Thailand and Vietnam. French imperialism and then the power game between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc have been affecting the stability and independence of the country.
The present Kingdom of Cambodia covers a land area of 181,035 sq. km. Excluding the mountains in southwest Cambodia, the country's topography is almost flat. Tonle Sap Lake is in the center of the country while the Mekong River flows through the eastern part of the country. The Mekong runs from the northern Lao border via Phnom Penh, down to the southeast, and then reaches the Mekong delta in Vietnam. Before 1970, when the country was involved into the war, fertile land and abundant water resources brought prosperous rice production to the country. Village life was based on self-sufficient agriculture, which depended on the monsoon climate. In this setting, sericulture and weaving have survived as a part of rural people's life.
Types of Traditional Silk Fabrics in Cambodia
The vestiges of the Angkor Empire at Angkor Wat and the Bayon offer clues to the origin of Cambodian silk fabrics. On the bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the people during that time, I have noticed that there are costumes with floral motifs or geometrical border patterns that very much resemble the Indian ikat or resist-dyed textiles, patola, of the same period. According to the book The Customs of Cambodia written by a Chinese diplomat, Chou Ta-Kuan, who visited Angkor Empire in the 13th century, textiles with spaced floral design were imported from India and considered the very valuable. Moreover, Angkor people began raising silkworms and weaving.