Siem Reap

Pottery and Smiles at Siem Reap’s Khmer Ceramics Centre

November 21, 2017

Never did I thought I would actually be able to throw a pot on the wheel to make some creative ceramics, but, like the old saying goes, “You’ll never know unless you try”.

I love traveling because I believe a life well lived is more valuable than any amount of possessions. I am always eager to try doing new things, tasting new food, learning a new language, making new friends and finding opportunities to give back from my travels. During my recent trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia, I decided to do an afternoon activity to fight the jet lag on the day I arrived and chose a pottery class at the Khmer Ceramics Centre because I thought it was something different and hands-on.


Classic scene from the 1990 movie “Ghost”

Whenever I hear the word “pottery”, the first thing that comes to my mind is the intimate scene from the Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s 1990 hit movie, “Ghost”. Here, Demi Moore is comfortably seated at the potter’s wheel with clay all over her arms and thighs, her fiancée, Patrick Swayze, seated behind her, together massaging a very misshapen lump of clay.

The Khmer Ceramics Centre is a non-profit organization with a team of eight pottery instructors who are all hearing impaired. It is the centre’s vision to provide employment opportunities for disabled or orphaned Cambodians. Although I arrived my class twenty minutes late, my instructor, 25-year-old Oun briefed me on what I will be learning in the 2-hour class where I had to complete 5 pieces on the potter’s wheel and carve them with all the necessary tools with the guidance from the friendly instructors.
Oun showed me how to mould and craft the circular shapes with the clay. I couldn’t tell if it was a waste of clay or not, but it appeared very soft and yielding; each time what I began as an impenetrable raw material became more fragile with each spin of the wheel before its final transformation back into solid form. Anything less than a firm touch failed to leave a mark.

I had to take into consideration the potentially ruinous effects of a misplaced forefinger, the amount of water that needed to be added since it was the only way to keep the clay malleable, it also allowed me to maintain the shape of the mould to my desire. I made sure the clay was nice and wet, if not, the pressure from my hands on the clay dried it out and when this happens, the clay can easily catch due to friction, and the bowl will no longer look like a bowl. But, then again, it’s also important to understand when to apply pressure, and when to be light as a feather. When centering the clay, I had to apply a great deal of force and pressure downwards upon the clay with both my forefingers. But when I wanted a good, smooth, edge or lip on the bowl, cup, or whatever, gentleness was imperative. Dry clay is completely useless! You leave a loaf of bread out in the open and a day later it’s not bread anymore, it turns hard like concrete. Similarly, if you leave clay out, it hardens and when it takes solid form, it is literally impossible to sculpt anything. Every time I complete moulding a clay piece, I made sure to scrape off the excess clay and kept the working environment clean and tidy.


Playing around with a ball of clay

The instructors left us to potter away with our chunk of clay. After a sticky start, I was soon on a mission to create my not-so-artistic masterpieces. I moulded, added on, took away and shaped my bowl using an array of implements. Soon I forgot how difficult wheel throwing was, then I engraved and Khmer carved the five clay pieces and the instructors let me select one piece to fire and glaze, they do it themselves during the night, so that we could collect it the next day.


There are the 5 pieces I made on the potter’s wheel with the carvings.

I had wonderful memories of sitting behind the pottery wheel at the Khmer Ceramics Centre, and carry home my own handmade Cambodian souvenir. The store at the centre had lots of beautiful earthenware for sale, I couldn’t even imagine the level of skills required to craft the mammoth ceramic water urns.

If you ever visit Siem Reap, make sure you throw a pot on the wheel at the Khmer Ceramics Centre. The two-hour pottery class costs $20 if you book it through their website, they also provide FREE pick-up or drop-off to/from your accommodation in Siem Reap, one fired piece to take home along with the potter’s diploma.

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