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World - Asia/Pacific

Former exiles tap into Cambodia's rich cultural heritage

Traditional Cambodian crafts fell by the wayside during three decades of turmoil  
August 1, 1998
Web posted at: 2:46 p.m. EDT (1446 GMT)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) -- Some of the tens of thousands of exiles returning to Cambodia are reviving a tradition of crafts that fell by the wayside during three decades of upheaval and uncertainty.

Off a dusty side street in the capital, a tiny store that serves as a workshop is one such place artisans gather to fashion pottery, clothing and sculpture.

The store was the idea of Nivan Cheng, who returned in 1992 after spending 20 years in the United States.

"The first time I came," she says, "there was no handicraft available in the country, or if it's available, it is very poorly made.... I realized it's not just people dying, it's a whole -- the arts, the culture -- need to be rebuilt."

Many of her employees are victims of land mines who craft artifacts in the finest Cambodian tradition. Cheng's hope is that one day, she'll be able to create a museum for Cambodian handicrafts.

Artisan returns despite political upheaval


Cheng and her family escaped the worst of Cambodia's troubles in the 1970's, when the Khmer Rouge was in charge. She decided to return home in the 1990's, reassured in part by the peace plan brokered by the international community.

"I waited every moment every day, every minute for the chance to come back home, but it is not possible. It is not like you take a boat, a plane. I even dreamed of walking -- how many days it would take -- but it's not that simple."

CNN's Riz Khan contributed to this report.

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