Taking the Cambodian handicraft industry to global heights

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Nestled within the heart of Southeast Asia, Cambodia boasts a rich history and a vibrant handicraft industry. Cambodian arts and crafts draw great influence from Traditional Cambodian art from the Khmer period (802-1431 AD). This was when many of the Angkor Temples were built and inhabited by Hindus, then Buddhists, scholars, and artists.

With its famous Angkor Temples and other wats around the country, modern Cambodian art reflects the style of the carvings and bas-relief on the temple walls – a surrealist style unlike any other in the world. From intricate silk weavings to exquisite wood carvings, the country's artistic heritage is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered by the world. With the quality craftsmanship Cambodian artisans deliver in every piece of their work, Cambodia’s arts and crafts industry has great potential for global expansion.

In this exploration, we delve into Cambodia’s arts and crafts industry, its potential for global expansion, and the challenges handicraft businesses face when marketing overseas.

Famous arts and crafts in Cambodia

Cambodia's artistic heritage is filled with creativity and cultural significance. Generations of the country's artisans have mastered a range of crafts that continue to captivate the world with their intricate beauty and workmanship. Here are five popular Cambodian art and handicrafts:

1. Silk

One of the most important textiles in Cambodia is silk. Silk weaving in the country has a long, rich history. The practice dates back to the first century during the Angkorian times when textiles were used for trading. Moreover, Cambodia was known for its unique gold thread silk, which dates back more than 1,000 years. The silk was produced to create garments for Cambodian royalty, which were passed down from mother to daughter. Today, Cambodian silk comes in many vibrant colours, and the common motif of the clothing has details similar to ancient stone sculptures. According to the Business Scouts for Development in 2022, the silk-weaving sector has around 5,000 active looms that produce silk fabric, scarves, cloth and other silk items.

There are two main types of Cambodian weaving. The first, known as the ikat technique (referred to as Chong kiet in Khmer), is responsible for crafting intricate patterned fabrics. The second weaving technique, distinctively Cambodian, is termed "uneven twill," which produces fabrics in single or dual colours. Aside from silk, Cambodia also produces other textiles, like ones made of cotton, banana, lotus and more. Learn more about how Cambodia is transforming the textile industry.

2. Wood carvings

The theme of Cambodian woodwork is commonly religion and history. Sculptures of Buddha, celestial maidens known as “Aspara,” Angkor tales and other stories are regularly made of wood, adorning temples and even homes. Khmer wood carving designs typically have four main styles since the Angkor period: wind, water, land and air. 

3. Ceramics

Cambodian pottery traditions date back to 5000 BCE, when it was mostly used for domestic purposes, like holding food and water. Though ceramics are still made for domestic use, they have expanded to different types of kitchenware, tableware, and even toilet articles. Many of the ceramic pieces made by artisans are hand-turned and fired on an open fire without glaze. The major centre for ceramic production in the country is Kompong Chhnang Province.

4. Paintings

According to Widewalls Magazine, in the past, the famous mural paintings that adorned Cambodian wats were the life stories of the historical Buddha, Ramayana, and other folklore stories. However, after the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia’s contemporary paintings expanded and explored different themes. Paintings began being centred on change, displacement, melancholy, identity, and spirituality, delving into the country’s history and modern-day concerns. 

Value of the craft industry

With the re-organisation of the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft in 2020 to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution, non-profit organisations (NGOs) are leading the promotion of local handicraft goods.

In a sector brief written by Business Scouts for Development, the handicraft industry in Cambodia provides a livelihood to 20,000 professional artisans, which includes suppliers, end producers, and traders. What sets Cambodian artisans apart from their competitors from other countries, like China and India, is that they use locally sourced, natural products, which provides jobs inside their communities. Furthermore, their handicraft production focuses on quality and environmental impact. 

Silk, rattan, and sedge weaving provide the most employment, with about 5,000 active weavers in each product group. Weavers produce mats, baskets, furniture, scarves, and home textiles. On the other hand, those employed at the production level for general handicrafts, like ceramics, lacquers, and even fashion items, are about 3,000. 

Moreover, the Compound Annual Growth Rate of Cambodian handicrafts is expected to reach 10.9% during 2022-2027. 

NGOs at the forefront of handicraft promotion and expansion

Communities and associations are the major stakeholders of Cambodian handicrafts. One of the major NGOs is The Artisans’ Association of Cambodia. They work with handicraft producers, and other stakeholders to leverage the potential of high-quality handicraft products and export them overseas. Another NGO that helps local artisans in Cambodia is the Angkor Handicraft Association, which specifically helps those in Siem Reap, connecting them to local and international markets. The organisation has a Wholesale Trade Center that was designed to promote local handicraft products and oversee commercial connections between national and international traders and participating local handicraft businesses. 

The challenges and benefits of Cambodian handicrafts expanding horizons

For the artisans and SMEs of Cambodia, the allure of international markets beckons, promising new avenues for growth and recognition. However, handicraft businesses must also be aware of the different challenges they may face when venturing into the overseas market:

Benefits of global expansion

Here are some of the advantages you can get when you expand your arts and crafts business to other countries:

Increased exposure and recognition

International expansion offers Cambodian arts and crafts businesses the chance to showcase their cultural heritage to a global audience. This exposure not only leads to increased recognition but also fosters a deeper appreciation for the traditional craftsmanship and artistic skills inherent in their creations.

Diversification of revenue streams

Relying solely on domestic markets can be limiting. Expanding to global markets helps these businesses diversify their revenue streams, making them less susceptible to fluctuations in local demand or economic conditions.

Cultural preservation

Global expansion can inadvertently become a vehicle for preserving and innovating traditional Cambodian arts and crafts. As these businesses adapt their products for international markets, they often infuse modern elements while staying true to their roots, breathing new life into age-old techniques.

Skills development

The demands of global markets may require artisans to learn new techniques or adapt their crafts to meet international standards. This continual learning process can enhance the skills of Cambodian artisans, ensuring the longevity of their craftsmanship.

Job creation and economic growth

Successful expansion can lead to increased employment opportunities within the local communities, thereby contributing to economic growth and improved livelihoods.

Navigating global expansion

When you are prepared and informed, you can successfully take your business to greater heights. Here are quick tips:

Make sure to plan carefully

Shipping delicate and often unique art pieces across borders requires careful planning to ensure they arrive in pristine condition. You can avoid added costs by planning and calculating fees for transportation, packaging, and customs procedures ahead of time.

Be informed of the regulations of your export country

Different countries have varying regulations related to imports, exports, and intellectual property. Mapping these out early will benefit you.

Practise cultural sensitivity

Balancing cultural authenticity with the preferences of global consumers can be a challenge. Businesses must carefully consider how to adapt their products without diluting their cultural significance.

Ensure proper quality control

Maintaining consistent quality across a range of products is vital for building trust with customers. Having proper processes to ensure this can help.

Unveiling new possibilities for exporting handicraft

As Cambodian handicraft businesses venture into international markets, the future holds exciting prospects. Local businesses can establish a global footprint that increases their revenue and improves the livelihood of Cambodian artisans. However, this expansion doesn't just open up economic avenues; it fosters cross-cultural exchanges, allowing the world to appreciate the intricate beauty that Cambodia nurtures. With this, a reliable and efficient logistics partner becomes the cornerstone of this transformation, ensuring that Cambodian artistry reaches its audience with care and precision. 

This is where DHL Express can help. With our extensive network spanning over 220 countries and territories, we are a catalyst for Cambodian handicrafts to reach the far corners of the world. Leveraging years of expertise in international shipping, we offer solutions that ensure the safe and reliable transportation of your products to your target country. As a result, you can provide quality customer service and improve customer satisfaction. With this, choose DHL Express for efficient and reliable deliveries worldwide.