In the village of Prek Toal at the tip of the Sangkae River in north-western Cambodia, a collective of women has created a sustainable livelihood by producing homeware and fashion accessories out of destructive water hyacinth plants. CL Seng makes a trip to meet the women and learn more about the craft
As purple rain clouds gallop across the late afternoon sky, our motorized longtail boat shudders to a sudden stop. The tall, wispy reeds and trees that sprout from the surrounding mangroves quiver and quake in the wind; it’s as if they, too, are aware and anxious of the looming deluge.
We’re at the start of an overnight tour with ecotourism outfit Osmose in a tributary of Southeast Asia’s biggest freshwater lake and biodiversity hot spot, the Tonle Sap, in the fertile north-west of Cambodia. We’ve become stuck in a thick carpet of water hyacinth — an aesthetically pleasing yet invasive weed that clogs many of Southeast Asia’s waterways — right as a monsoon storm is about to let loose.
As the gust picks up, we wobble wildly from side to side. I shoot an alarmed glance to my friend, Charley, who doesn’t notice — she’s consumed with photographing another longtail passing us by that is, incredulously, towing an entire home and family of nine behind it. Our driver, Ro, scrambles to the rear of our boat and begins pulling endless tangles of hyacinth out of the propeller, like that magician’s trick with the never-ending silk handkerchief. “Don’t worry, this happens all the time; you’ll get used to it,” offers our relaxed guide Barang.
Our mission on this tour to Prek Toal’s biggest central floating village — a community of about 1,200 families living on bamboo rafts or houseboats — was to meet the weavers of Saray Tonle, a collective of 15 local women who create striking mats, bags, bowls and other beautiful homeware out of dried water hyacinth for some of Siem Reap’s fanciest and design-driven resorts, restaurants and ateliers.
I first saw Saray’s mats at Siem Reap’s Maison Polanka, a lush and almost secret (it’s tucked down a laneway behind Wat Polanka and has no signage) bed and breakfast. The mats were laced throughout the estate in striking shapes — crescents, circles and squares — and sizes; some even covered an entire room. They gave off an herby, earthy aroma, and were supple to the touch, unlike the stiffer bamboo ones that adorn most Cambodian homes. The time and detail that had been invested into these textiles were palpable.
On the great Tonle Sap
Back on the boat on this stormy morning, however, I begin making mental notes for a survival plan should the boat flood and we sink. But the storm skirts around the edge of the great lake and never reaches us.
Once we overcome that first unnerving hurdle and navigate our way through the dense mangroves, the one-hour trip to the floating village of Prek Toal is a feast for the eyes. We glide past glittery pagodas and schools, floating vegetable plots and even floating chicken coops. Shops are mobile too — vendors stuff small rowing boats with produce and ply their wares out on the water. “Prek Toal village itself is the only village that stays where it is through the year,” Barang tells us. “All of these channels get parched in the dry season, so inhabitants move their homes out on to the lake itself where they have fish to catch.”
Traveling on the Tonle Sap in the rainy season — which runs from May through to November — has its perks. The lake’s size, length and water volume vary considerably with the seasons: its area of just 2,500sq km and volume of 1 cubic km at the end of the dry season in April expands to 16,000 sq km and 80 cubic km during the monsoon season. Now, the Tonle Sap is so vast and endless it seems like the middle of the ocean; there’s no land in sight. The water is glassy and still as the prow slices through it — it feels like scissors cutting through silk.
We reach Prek Toal village — which is actually on the tip of the Sangkae River, rather than the lake itself — after the sun has set, and feast on a simple dinner of rice, grilled chicken with ginger and garlicky, fried pork ribs at a floating restaurant set up and funded by Osmose.
We stay in the humble home of Da, a fisherman with chiseled cheekbones and warm, friendly eyes. Da was born on the water and grew up in a nearby floating village but, like all of Cambodia’s villages and towns, was evicted when Pol Pot’s regime took power in 1975 and sent to brutal work camps. He moved to Prek Toal when the regime was toppled in 1979, met his wife and raised his two children, who, on the night of our visit, split their time between watching Cambodia’s version of The Voice (yep, most houses here now have antennas and the WiFi signal is one of the strongest I’ve had) and gawking at us in fascination.
While Prek Toal is an isolated place, it’s incredibly hard to get any sleep. Mosquito nets are provided, but a fan is not and the air is thick and sticky. The channel of water outside our bedroom sounds like an airport runway, with fishing boats roaring down it throughout the night.
Meeting the weavers
After a restless, noisy night’s sleep, we wake at dawn to gobble up a breakfast of borbor (rice congee with fish) and iced coffees before heading to the Saray weaving platform. We’re introduced to Na and Toen, two of the collective’s more experienced weavers who take us out in wooden kayaks to harvest the hyacinth.
The species likely originated in South America, and, like all weeds, spread like wildfire when it was introduced in the United States, Africa and Asia. For the last 100 or so years, hyacinth have thrived on the northern fringes of the Tonle Sap. As the plant floats on the water rather than having roots in the lake’s floor, it can survive in both deep and shallow water and, according to a 2013 United Nations report, can release more than 3,000 seeds a year. Toen tells me that in the dry season, the hyacinth is so impenetrable they find it difficult to even maneuver a boat from their homes to the weaving platform. The weed also depletes oxygen levels in the water, making it harder for fish to survive, thus lowering yields.
The women of Prek Toal say they have been using the hyacinth for generations — mostly creating hammocks — but it wasn’t until the Saray initiative started that they realized its full potential. In 2004, Osmose brought out a group of Indonesian hyacinth weavers to share their techniques. “I had no idea tourists would want such a thing,” Toen says as we paddle through layers of emerald green.
Nathalie Saphon, owner of Maison Polanka, remembers the first time she visited Prek Toal village with Osmose’s French founder, Frederic Goes. “I’d never seen poverty like that before — these people just had nothing. But when I saw the detail of the hammocks, I thought it could be very useful and successful in a place like Siem Reap, where tourism was on the rise,” she says. Sure enough, luxurious hotel brands such as Aman, which had been using similar mats from the Philippines, expressed interest. Word spread quickly around the hotel circles of Siem Reap and other boutique properties placed orders. Several of Nathalie’s designer contacts took notice of the textiles, and Saray then began taking in wholesale orders from Australia and Canada. “It’s just such an adaptable material and made sense in such a poor community. They didn’t need a loom, and as long as they had a big platform they could weave any shape or size,” she said.
Back on the weaving platform, we meet Socheat, an animated young mother of two with a wide grin. She’s been with Saray for five years. She explains the process to me: once the material is harvested, it’s laid out in the searing Cambodian sun for two weeks to wither, then stored in a dry, air-tight space for another two weeks. Once it’s ready to be woven, she breaks off strands that are discolored or too wispy before punching out any air with a pair of scissors. She then starts the weave — on this morning she uses three strands, folding them over and looping them around in a circle to create a placemat. “Working here has meant that my husband is not under as much pressure to catch so much fish,” she says.
We then wander over to Sokha, a grandmother who has been with Saray since it began. She’s working on a striking, oversized tote bag with threads of fuchsia and navy material woven through it in what she calls a “coconut flower” weaving technique. This bag will take her three days to finish, which makes its retail price of just US$17 seem ludicrous.
“I’m older with slower fingers these days, but being part of Saray has made a difference to my life. I make about US$50 a month now but years ago could make more than US$100, which was the same as working in a garment factory. But instead, I could stay in my home village and care for my grandchildren while their parents were working in Siem Reap,” she says. “I also have the power to choose when I want to work. There is less stress on my body.”
While the project was kick-started by Osmose and several others in the vanguard of Cambodia’s handicraft scene, Saray has become a fully-fledged co-op business for the weavers of Prek Toal. All 15 of them have an income from three streams — the direct sales of products on show at the floating village workshop; through wholesale and direct orders; and through the classes they teach as part of Osmose’s eco tours. In the first half of 2017, they made US$4,500 from direct sales, US$4,800 from orders and US$860 from classes. What I notice most, though, are the weavers’ energy and sense of ownership — they’re proud of what they do. They’re also creative, whipping up products such as headbands and iPhone cases after watching how-to videos on YouTube.
“We are changing the meaning of something,” Sokha muses as we say our goodbyes and climb back on our vessel. She’s using the hyacinth as a metaphor for her community’s greater plight. “We’re turning a pest that is annoying and damaging into something beautiful and useful. That makes me feel very pleased… I feel like I am helping to change our situation — we all need to work together.”
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.