June 30, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Beneath the tropical sun in Southeast Asia, the Mangrove fan palm (Licuala spinosa), or Ph’av in Khmer, flourishes in both fresh and brackish waters. Cherished by Cambodian families for its nutritious heart and terminal bud, it plays a vital role in traditional Khmer medicine – soothing fevers, bolstering prenatal health, and even serving as a tuberculosis remedy.
In Siem Reap’s historic Angkor Thom district, around 400 families in the three villages of Leang Dai commune still weave Ph’av palm into beautiful mats. This age-old tradition, inherited from their ancestors, endures amid the modern world.
On the dust-swept grounds of Ta Prok village, one sees this history in motion beneath the shade of a stilted wooden house. An elderly woman, her face furrowed by time, meticulously weaves a Ph’av mat. Her name is Nam Vern, a 68-year-old mat weaver and proud resident of the village.
“The art of weaving Ph’av mats is something we Ta Prok villagers hold dear. I learned it at 14, but it’s a dying craft. The younger generation lacks the requisite patience,” Vern confided to The Post.
Sadly, Vern discloses, the mangrove fan palm, once plentiful in Siem Reap, is now hardly found in the province. Sourcing the palm’s stems entails an arduous trek into the dense forests of neighbouring Kampong Thom province.
According to Vern, the stems are purchased in bundles, grated, soaked and dried. They undergo a second stage of drying, followed by immersion in various natural dyes before finally being woven into the mats, a process that spans more than a fortnight.
“Crafting Ph’av mats demands patience, skill and dedication. My fear is that there will be no one to inherit this precious tradition from us,” Vern underscored.
Despite the challenges, Vern successfully sells her mats on Facebook, with the price fluctuating based on the mat’s size.
Meanwhile, Leang Dai commune chief Koeun Kerb reveals that the decreasing number of mangrove fan palms threatens this age-old craft.
“There was a time when mangrove fan palms were abundant here. But their survival depends on our forests. No forests mean no palms,” Kerb said.
Despite the hurdles, he reaffirms that Ph’av mat weaving significantly improves the villagers’ living conditions.
Echoing Kerb’s sentiments, Tea Kim Soth, director of the Siem Reap provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told The Post that areas once rich in Ph’av have been gradually encroached upon by urban development, triggering a sharp decline in the palm’s availability.
“Ph’av mats are particularly popular in Siem Reap because of the palm’s durability, softness and user-friendly nature. In areas where Ph’av is sparse, other palm varieties are used as a substitute, but they fail to match Ph’av’s quality,” elaborated Kim Soth.