On the afternoon after our first tour of the temples, Allison, Stacy and I decided to take a ride out to the Angkor Silk Farm, to see how the beautiful Cambodia silk scarves were made. According to the website, the factory offers free transport to and from Siemreap, but since we were leaving late in the afternoon and Stacy had yet to ride in a tuk tuk, we opted against the shuttle and for a tuk tuk instead. Our hotel booked a tuk tuk for the 3 of us for $15 round trip, about 20-25 minute ride each way, so it was very reasonable. We left the hotel at about 3:30 and headed west out of town. The factory is located in the village of Puok, about 16 kilometers from Siemreap. Besides the capital of Phnom Penh, Cambodia is a very poor, rural country, so we were taking in the sights as we rode along. Small huts and shacks lined the edge of the road beside a small stream, and it was interesting to see the tiny towns along the way.
We arrived at the factory at 4, and one of the guides immediately came from the entrance to greet us. This silk farm produces some of the best silk in the country, including clothing, ties, scarves, and other accessories. You can also see all of the stages of production of silk here, and walk through the factory as the people are working. Our guide informed us that not many people were working that day because it was International Women’s Day. If only we had off in the U.S. for the day that celebrates women!
Our first stop was seeing the actual silk worms, which are housed in a building on silts that sit in boxes of water. This is to prevent ants and other bugs from climbing up the silts and into the silkworm keeping area. There were large bowls of silkworms feeding on the leaves of mulberry trees, which are also grown onsite. A diet of mulberry leaves helps produce the best silk. The silkworms form their cocoons on a large, spiral shaped straw wheel. Our guide informed us that 80% of the silkworms are then killed in order to make silk and 20% are kept to reproduce. The cocoons are placed in large boxes and set outside to dry out in the heat, which kills the worm inside. The cocoons are then taken to the silk spinning building.
To spin the silk, the cocoons are placed in a bowl of water and a fork-like instrument is used to stir the cocoons and start pulling the silk up onto a spool. The outer layer of the cocoons forms the raw silk. The inner layer later forms the fine silk, and scarves arewoven out of both types.
The next step is dying the silk. After the are wound onto smaller spools, the silk is dyed various colors. Sometimes natural products are used, such as banana leaves or seed pods, but more often they use artificially colored chemical dyes. The raw silk is then wound again, after workers pull out all the imperfections and little balls of knotted up silk. The fine silk is wound onto large spools where each strand is evenly separated to make it easier for the weavers.
There are many different looms where the scarves are woven. Some ladies work on single colored scarves with raw silk while others use the fine silk to weave intricate patterns on multicolored pieces. Each scarf takes between 3 and 5 days to finish, and are usually about 5-6 feet in length. The ladies do all of the weaving by hand, separating the silk strand by strand and moving the shuttle through the threads at lightning speed. It’s amazing how efficient and talented he workers are and the beauty of what they produce.
After the tour, we were led to a showroom, where you can buy pieces that were made at that factory as souvineers. Obviously the products are much more expensive than you would find on the street markets, but then again, you can’t be sure those are pure silk (even though every seller will assure you it is). I splurged and bought a beautiful scarf for myself, even though my selection was nothing compared to the $125 price tag on the fine silk woven scarf with a stunning pattern and 5 different colors. But I was very happy with my purchase, knowing I got a true hand-made silk scarf in Cambodia, and an appreciation of the hours that went in the process to make it. The entire tour took about 30 minutes, plus 15 in the store afterwards, so we were on our tuk tuk back to the hotel by 5pm. If you have a few hours to spare while in Siemreap, definitely make a trip to the silk factory for a great cultural lesson.