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In this Cambodian town, fair trade, employment and a cultural revival are spun together

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Taylor Weidman

(Read caption) A Khmer woman weaves at the Angkor Silk Farm.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Siem Reap, famous today for the temples at Angkor Wat, was once famous for something entirely different: silk. Now the city’s old artisan reputation is making a comeback. Not far from the monumental ruins is the quiet and leafy Angkor Silk Farm, part of a fair-trade initiative to employ rural Cambodians and revive a dying art.

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The 20-acre farm focuses on maintaining traditional methods of silk production. Every step – from growing the mulberry trees that feed the hungry silk worms to dyeing and weaving the silk – is done the traditional way, using native plant dyes and wooden hand looms. Even the woven designs are reflections of ancient Khmer patterns depicted on the walls of Angkor temples.

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While steeped in aesthetics, the primary purpose driving this revival is economic. The silk farm is part of Artisans d’Angkor, a company that provides handicraft training and employment for villagers ages 18 to 25 in Siem Reap Province.

“If she didn’t have this job, she’d be farming ... [for] little profit,” says tour guide Yi Yoan of a young woman working at a loom.

In contrast, work at the silk farm provides a healthy income and other benefits. Ms. Yoan says some workers, such as those who live far away or who have small children, are provided with looms so they can work at home. This has helped curb rural depopulation and brought a new flow of income to those regions. Thanks should also go to the hardest workers of all – the silk worms that have given both an ancient art and a rural population new life.