Silk Road to a New Future

January 15, 2006

For the residents of the Cambodian town of Siem Reap and the nearby village of Chot Sam, the road out of poverty and past horrors is lined with silk. Here Rolex Laureate Kikuo Morimoto is working his quiet miracle, restoring the thousand-year-old Khmer silk tradition, along with the communities that support it and the forest that sustains it.

In the year since he received his Award, the Laureate, originally from Japan, has further developed Chot Sam, a new village which now has more than 100 inhabitants and a school to educate a young generation of silk-workers and farmers in the traditional skills that were almost extinguished in Cambodia’s wars. In all, Morimoto’s silk project now employs more than 500 people.

“Rather than a faithful recreation of a silk village, we consider it to be a new model of a village that utilises traditional wisdom,” he says of Chot Sam. One part pursues the crafts of silk-making, dyeing and weaving, the other recreates village life, based on sustainable farming and forest industries.

“It became apparent that the war had destroyed not only weaving, but also the traditional knowledge of the villagers,” he says. “To restore this knowledge, we need to raise a younger generation with the help of the elders who still possess this wisdom — just as we have restored silk-weaving techniques over the past 10 years.”

The villagers make organic fertilisers from the wastes of the silk-making and dyeing process to restore their arable land. They use rainwater for dyeing after discovering – to their dismay – that the local river water was so laden with pesticide that it prevented the natural dyes from setting properly.

The work of Morimoto’s Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT) at Siem Reap, home to his first workshops, and Chot Sam is garnering attention and visitors from across Cambodia and abroad. “Villagers from surrounding villages are interested in how we grow vegetables by irrigating during the dry season,” he says.

The traditional silk fabrics produced at Siem Reap and Chot Sam are becoming a source of pride for Cambodia’s people, Morimoto says, comparing the silk tradition to another key to Cambodian culture, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap.

“We have been greatly helped by the Award,” he adds. “Not only is there an increase in visitors and contacts from the Western world, but also sales of fabric are steadily increasing.”

Julian Cribb

Learn more about Kikuo Morimoto

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