Visitors to Siem Reap should set aside some time to see something other than the temples and pub street. Of course you should allow plenty of time to see Angkor Wat but there is only so much temple you can do each day. There are lots of unique experiences to have in Siem Reap to give you a greater insight into Cambodian daily life, culture or history. Knife making in Siem Reap offers a unique insight into the life of a local blacksmith.
A great place to start is to have a look at what Backstreet Academy have to offer. Backstreet Academy are a for-profit, social impact, peer to peer organisation. Connecting travellers with local artisans, craftsmen and women wanting to share their skills and generate income to support themselves, their families and communities. In many cases the artisans have stories and knowledge to share with travellers but no English to communicate and no access to infrastructure such as the internet to create ways to monetise their skills.
Facilitators support the connection between the traveller and the backstreet artisan, serving as guides, translators and cultural ambassadors. These trained facilitators are often students who gain practise in English and income to support themselves and sometimes their families too. Money spent on a Backstreet Academy experience is having a positive impact for artisans, their families, and wider communities. They offer a range of experiences that are unique to their booking platform including hands on workshops and visits to local villages and families. Read about some of their Siem Reap experiences here.
Read more about our time in Siem Reap and our visit to Angkor Wat.
Medieval Knife Making in Siem Reap
After much deliberation we decided to try Medieval Knife Making in Siem Reap with backstreet blacksmith My Ty. It turns out Paul has always had a secret interest in blacksmiths and I appreciate a good knife so it seemed like a fun idea to make our own. This workshop isn’t for children under 12 years but they kindly let us bring the kids to watch and it was only for 2 hours so that worked out fine. We’ve sat through a lot of lessons on this trip so it was time for the kids to watch the parents learn something new!
A few things struck us about this experience. Firstly it is 100% genuine, the lesson takes place in Mr Ty’s blacksmith workshop in the backstreets of Siem Reap. We used the pick up option to save the stress of finding our way there. The skill of knife making in Siem Reap has hardly changed since the ancient times of the Khmer Empire. Although now days many tools are imported from places such as China, here at Mr Ty’s they still do things the traditional way.
You see every stage of the knife making process from a piece of metal to a finished, sharpened knife. During the day customers come to the workshop to buy axes and knives that are used in harvesting and agricultural work. This isn’t a workshop that makes tourist souvenirs. One apprentice had the task of hand sharpening nails with a file!
Hot and difficult work!
It wouldn’t be realistic to think that after a 2 hour workshop one would be a trained blacksmith, of course you get a lot of help from Mr Ty and he takes over some of the more difficult or dangerous parts. It is hot, difficult and heavy work and depending on your strength you may get tired and be ready to take a break, while Mr Ty refines your knife. But you won’t be bored as you watch the comings and goings of the workshop and the neighbourhood. Or chat to the facilitator and learn more about Cambodian daily life and culture.
Making the Knife
First up we chose the shape of the knife we wanted to make. A piece of metal was selected by Mr Ty. He showed us how to heat it in his charcoal fire and how to control the fire by adding air or water to heat or cool it. When the metal was glowing red we extracted it from the fire with tongs, this was quite tricky.
Then Mr Ty showed us how to hold it steady and hit it with a heavy hammer. Sometimes we would have to hold a sharp tool while one of the Blacksmiths banged it with a hammer to cut out the shape of the knife. This is what we are doing in the pictures below.
After a lot of in and out of the fire and banging into shape, Mr Ty took over for a few minutes to refine the shape. We add a makers mark, then the knife is sharpened on an angle grinder. Paul had a go at this but the blacksmith did most of the sharpening. At the end of this process we had these 2 knife blades.
We chose the option to have wooden handles added for an additional cost. The end of the knife is heated and pushed into the end of the wooden handle. Finally the knives were polished.
A few more photos and a big thank you to Mr Ty. We left knowing we’d had an experience that gave us insight into traditional blacksmithing and local culture. By spending our tourist dollars with Mr Ty, in a small way we supported the continuation of this tradition.
Taking the Knives Home
The first question many people ask about the Medieval Knife Making in Siem Reap is ‘can I take my knife home?’ The short answer is ‘Yes’, but it probably depends on which country you are flying into and of course you need to put it in checked luggage not hand luggage. It seems that many countries have limitations on the length of the blade that you are allowed to carry.
Singapore Customs with a knife!
From Siem Reap we flew to Bali and there were no problems. Arriving in Singapore 3 weeks later we were stopped for a random bag x-ray at customs. They saw the knives straight away. Customs officials led us to a backroom. They questioned us “why are you travelling with these knives?” “Where did you buy them?” At this point Paul and the kids are freaking out!
When I explained about the tourist experience of making the knives in Siem Reap I received some funny looks, like ‘really lady that is your idea of a holiday activity’? But I was prepared and able to show photographs of us making them. In the end the knife blades were under the required length so we were allowed to enter Singapore with them. You need to check the requirements and laws of the countries you will travel to. If in doubt always declare and use common sense. Don’t argue with the customs officials!!
We travelled fully prepared to give the knives up if necessary. They arrived at London Heathrow with no more questions. Next challenge is to get them through NZ customs. For us it was more about the experience than the end product, although we are really proud of our finished knives and they will serve as wonderful reminders of our trip. If we get to keep them!
If knife making isn’t your thing, have a look at Backstreet Academy, they offer loads more options for Siem Reap. Just remember to book in advance if possible. It can take a couple of messages back and forwards to confirm a booking or answer questions.
What else to do in Siem Reap?
See our post about Social Enterprise in South East Asia for some places that we enjoyed visiting in Siem Reap. Marum Restaurant for delicious modern Cambodian cuisine for a cause and their shop, Friends n Stuff, for socially responsible souvenir shopping.
Also see this post, Worldschool Art Craft Culture for more about our visit to Artisans Angkor which we recommend to learn more about the traditional crafts of Cambodia.
In Siem Reap we stayed at the Treasure Oasis Hotel.
Visit Pub Street for bars, happy hours, restaurants, cafes, shops, nail salons, fish pedicures… All the things you expect to find in a popular backpacker destination.