My dear friend and colleague, Melissa Chapman, designer of the amazing jewelry line Stone + Smith mentioned to me a while back that she would be spending some time in South East Asia. Since I've not had the privilege of traveling to Cambodia, I thought I could at least live vicariously through her and connected Melissa with one of our longest partners, Sapbay from Craftworks Cambodia.
She's graciously agreed to reflect upon her trip and give us a glimpse into the lives of these artisans we've been proud to support since 2011.
Phnom Penh is lawless compared the already lawless land of SE Asia, to which we were already accustomed. Our first stop in Cambodia, we spent most of our time walking the streets around our hotel eating street noodles and staying hydrated to beat the heat. I remember being pretty silent and hiding behind my sunglasses for the first few hours. The poverty in Cambodia is in your face. We spent an entire meal in silence as a 5 year old boy with no shirt or shoes on slept on the sidewalk next to our chairs. It wasn't a place that I remember for the relaxation!
On day two, we went to the monuments to the Khmer Rouge and fully took in the palpable tragedy and hardship that was already crawling on our skin during the first day. Phnom Penh, as recently as 1975, was swept by leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea, forcing two million people either to flee or into cruel service to the state including mass genocide.
I know, it's already getting pretty heavy for a Tuesday.
The leader of the Khmer Rouge, Paul Pot, wanted to get rid of anyone suspected of "involvement in free market activities."
There's no way to talk about the loveliness of what we experienced next without setting this stage.
Sapbay started Craftworks Cambodia, tagline
"Working towards a better future for our people and the planet"
as a part time labor of love.
He established the company after the Khmer Rouge left Phnom Penh in 1999 and he was able to return from a refugee camp on the Thai border where he learned English, Thai, and, according to him, "all of his cooking skills." The guy is a renaissance man!
Anyways, Jen had put us in touch via email a few months before and, upon arriving, we made a plan to meet in our hotel lobby on day four. The three of us spent four or five hours together on day three. Let me tell you. It was one of those experiences that addresses the severity of the situation in a real, actionable way that is both true and hopeful.
Our first stop was a room of ladies, two of whom spoke English and could talk to us about the process. They were designing, cutting and sewing wallets, purses, clutches and messenger bags from upcycled fish bags. Seriously cool designs. The lady in charge built this operation on the third story of her home because she can't leave the house due to her foot that was blown off by a land mine. Just recently, however, because of the profits made through selling handbags - got a prosthetic foot and is now able to more of the deliveries into town!
The second stop was a large, beautiful patio with two women sitting at a low table making beads while kids ran around playing with dogs and a few men sat nearby enjoying their afternoon snacks and bia cambodias who joined the ladies at the table when done. They wrapped silk around wooden beads of all shapes, sizes and bright, gorgeous colors. Both of the women, Sapbay explained, have polio and can't leave the home.
They started laughing really hard about something and apparently they just got a ton of money knocked off their rent because of the polio. Laughing! About what keeps them tethered to their home. It was such a humbling thing.
Sapbay explained there are 40-50 more home offices just like these. All he does is create channels of distribution for these families and their crafts. It's the first fair trade of it's kind operating in Cambodia.