Saving the temples of Angkor for tomorrow, we backtrack sixteen kilometers out of town in order to see the free Artisans d'Angkor silk farm and workshop. I love most anything that involves crafts and textiles, especially when it's a behind-the-scenes sort of deal, so I'm pretty excited.
It's another clear, sunny day in Cambodia, and the roadsides are abuzz with people tending to their fields or animals, cooking, basket weaving, and a plethora of other activities. Time passes quickly with so much to look at, and soon we turn off the main drag onto a red dirt road. A short, bumpy ride deposits us at the professional-looking grounds of the silk workshop.
Rolling in to the gravel parking lot, we are greeted by a man named Yoan. After helping us find a safe place for our bikes, he informs us that he will be our guide for the visit. I am impressed by his English skills, his professionalism, and the kind, gentle radiance he exudes.
Yoan leads us through a lush palm garden, and then we find ourselves in front of a simple wooden outbuilding. He pushes open the screen door, and welcomes us to the first exhibition room, where nicely printed signs explain the beginning processes involved in making silk. Here, Yoan teaches us about the silk moth's life-cycle.
First, the large, fuzzy moths lay pin-head sized eggs. These are so tiny that in order for the artisans to be able to see and collect them, they must be laid on a piece of white paper. These eggs are then kept safe in flat woven trays under cloth covers, laid on a shelf in a screened cabinet, free from drafts and bugs.
When the eggs are mature, they hatch into fuzzy, grey, beady-eyed worms. The creatures are fairly delicate at this phase, and need a lot of careful observation. Something as benign-seeming as a camera flash or a loud noise can cause them to die. They have a small display which we're allowed to take pictures of, but the rest are off-limits.
For their duration of their short lives, they will subsist on a diet of mulberry leaves:
The fragile little moults grow into large worms over the course of a few days, devouring an enormous amount of mulberry leaves on the way. The artisans dump bucketfuls of foliage on top of them, and within a day the worms eat their way upwards through the cover, just in time to be fed again.
When the time comes for the worms to make their cocoons, they are placed in a woven tray of concentric rings, where they each find a home and begin wrapping themselves up like mummies.
Remarkably, a cocoon is made of one completely intact silk thread, something like half of a mile long, wound around and around and around to form a fluffy yellow bundle. Inside its little pod, the worm rotates almost half a million times in a figure eight pattern as it extrudes filament to make its home.
When they are ready, the artisans collect the cocoons, and boil them in hot water, killing the live pupa inside (who would destroy the cocoon and its precious silk fibers if allowed to hatch). Next, they harvest the long, thin golden strands. As the wet material is spun together to form a more substantial thread, the cocoons unravel.
It takes about 10 pounds of mulberry leaves to feed 200 worms, which in turn produce a full pound of cocoons. Collected and harvested, they provide more than 100 miles of silk thread. When all of the fiber is removed, the crysalis looks like this:
Inside this watery capsule is the silk worm pupa. At first, I was disappointed by the fact that they kill these creatures to get the silk off the cocoons, but then Yoan informed me that everyone here eats the boiled pupa. Workers share a joke that if you eat too many, you'll start pooping out threads of silk.
We're laughing as Yoan pantomimes his joke, but our chuckling stops immediately when he plops a pupa into Tyler's palm, offering us a taste. We visibly shudder and grimace, but he just laughs, encouraging us to try it as he pops a few into his mouth like candy. Waste not want not!
Apparently it tastes like corn.
It takes a minute of squeamish head shaking, shuddering and mental wrangling before I can quell my queasiness. We resolve to eat it, so Tyler slices the bug in half. The outside is like the tough translucent skin of a corn kernel, while the inside is watery like corn that's been boiled for too long.
With the two milky halves rest on his palm, we take our bisected boiled silk pupa pieces, and pop them in our mouths. Chew, grimace, chew, swallow. It's not so bad, really. Just like corn!
I'm still picking silk pupa casing out of my teeth, when Yoan brings us over to the weaving facility. There, we see how gorgeous silks are made. We start by watching women prepare for elaborately colored work, binding off various warp and weft threads with plastic ties.
They follow nothing but a design on a photograph!
Then, we watch people spinning:
…and weaving too:
When Yoan completes our tour, we thank him and give him a generous tip, shaking our heads in disbelief that this place is free. We've paid so much more to see so many things that weren't nearly as cool or well-presented as they were here.
As we browse through the gift shop full of colorful, silky scarves and purses and clothing, we're so impressed with this place. Unless there's some behind-the-scenes sweatshop we don't know about, it seems like a very pleasant environment in which to work.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of the organization is that the employees come here from surrounding villages to learn the silk trade, and once they've mastered it, they are given their own silk worms and mulberry plant to return home and start their own business. Providing jobs and educating people in traditional skills: awesome!
Riding home, we talk about how unexpectedly uplifting Cambodia has been so far. Though we've only had a few days to know it, this is hands down the most heartwarming country we've visited yet.