When the temples start to all look alike and souvenir shopping palls, consider spending an hour or two sinking your hands into some genuine Cambodian clay. A pottery class at the Khmer Ceramics and Art Cente is hardly an in-depth encounter with traditional Khmer craft, but it’s an entertaining couple of hours that will leave you with a personal bit of handicraft and perhaps some appreciation for a real potter’s skill.
Classes run a bit less than two hours and are given seven days a week throughout the day. You can choose to learn how to shape clay on the pottery wheel or try your hand at ceramic painting. Each class costs $20 and includes the firing of your finished piece, plus free pick-up and drop-off at your hotel in Siem Reap. You can combine both classes for a four-hour experience.
In the pottery class each student has his or her own teacher, who sits across from you at the pottery wheel and shows you how to prepare the clay and shape it into a bowl, cup, or vase. The center provides an apron, but the wet clay spatters far and wide, so we advise not wearing your party clothes. (And since the foot-driven pottery wheel requires a wide-legged straddle, short skirts are also not a comfortable choice.)
Your teacher demonstrates making three vessels, encouraging you to reach in and help shape the whirling blob of clay into a finished piece. Then you make two more, on your own more or less, although our teacher couldn’t resist jumping in to help when our handiwork repeatedly spun out of control.
Khmer Ceramics is a social project whose mission includes training and employment to disadvantaged locals, including women and the disabled. Our teacher appeared to be deaf and communicated with others on staff via sign language, but he had no problem showing us what to do next.
Once you’ve completed the five pieces, you’re handed a wooden skewer and a laminated sheet showing a few dozen traditional Khmer motifs (snail, lotus, flame) and invited to incise designs of your choice into the still-wet clay. Like shaping clay on a wheel, this proved to be a lot harder than it looks.
When you’re done you can choose one of the five vessels to be fired and given back to you (or delivered to your hotel) by the end of the following day. If you’re pleased with what you’ve made you can have additional pieces fired for $5 each. Since ours looked like the work of a singularly untalented child, we were content to keep just one. It was returned to us with a handsome diploma hailing our “courage, understanding, and tenacity” in attaining “the degree of Angkorian Potter,” a bit of flattery that seemed excessive even by the standards of Cambodian politesse.
The center has a shop with many handsome dishes, platters, and pots that we admired all the more after we’d fumbled our way through making our own. The class was fun, but clearly the real Angkorian potters still know a lot more than we do.
Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Center
130 Charles de Gaulle (Temple Road), Siem Reap
T: 063 210 004