The Lotus, the Silk Farm Tour & the lesson of gratitude

Terry Herbert

Each day of our 6-day retreat is devoted to understanding a different chakra starting with Muladhara, the base chakra and the core principle of “The Will to belong. The right to have.”
Day 3 of our retreat is Manipura chakra day, the 3rd of the 7 chakras with the core principal of, “The Will to Master. The right to act.” It’s also Silk Farm Day. That day I learned much more than I ever imagined.
With zero knowledge of how silk is made, I am bundled into a tuk-tuk with our peerless guide, Adele. The Angkor Silk Farm is located some 8 miles (14 k’s) from Siem Reap, along Highway 6, passed the Airport turnoff.
The road changes quickly from hotels and commercial buildings to rice paddies and open pasture (albeit water-logged).

A shining example in a neglected swamp

We stop on the way to look at Lotus plants growing wild on the side of the road. It’s a neglected patch of boggy, muddy swamp between the busy road and a fenced pasture. The Lotus is revered across Asia and beyond, not just for the beauty of its flower, but for its usefulness as a food (for humans and animals), water filter, shelter and so much more. In Wayism, it takes on a much deeper significance as a shining exemplar of how we should lead our lives: giving freely and selflessly without expectation of reward or acknowledgement.
The lessons that the humble Lotus can teach us are many and seeing these wild plants in their natural state somehow makes them more poignant. All of us, no matter where we come from, can rise up from the murkiest depths, discover wisdom from within and gaze at heaven above. Once more underway I quietly ponder the lesson of non-attachment on board the tuk-tuk (hoping the vinyl seat won’t stick to my butt), as the breeze gently cools me.

Angkor Silk Farm, reviving tradition

And here we are, Angkor Silk Farm near Pouk Village and barely 200m from highway 6. The Silk Farm is ably run by Artisans Angkor, a social-business enterprise aiming at reviving Khmer cultural heritage and teaching young Cambodians valuable skills in the process. We enter through the very impressive showroom and I’m immediately struck by the vibrancy of colors that adorn every item. My fashion sense extends to which baseball cap I choose to wear, but even an ingrate like me can appreciate the exquisite colors and tightly, finely woven traditional patterns.
Prices by Western standards are very reasonable, they start at $20, and once I knew how many hours of labour went into that beautiful hand-made scarf, they’re a bargain.
We walk along curving metalled paths, skirting the mulberry tree orchard (where I learn mulberry leaves are the sole source of food for the ravenous silkworm) and enter the first of several buildings. This is where we meet the silkworm and the adult moth.

But wait…they’re Silk caterpillars

The term Silkworm is really a misnomer. They’re silk caterpillars (original Telegu Indian name Bombyx mori) and they have been domesticated and bred for silk mainly by the Chinese for over 5,000 years. I got to see my first pair of adult moths up close and very personal. They were mating! Apparently, the pheromones are irresistible. Their abdomens looked glued together. I sincerely hoped it was great sex, because immediately after mating, the female lays her eggs and they both die.
If ever you’ve joked about wanting to die in the sack, be careful what you wish for, you could be reincarnated as a silk moth.
I watched silkworms in various growth stages and all they did was eat mulberry leaves (and poo). The Cambodian silkworm known as the “golden silkworm” for its gold hue is prized for its ability to add vibrancy to its dyed colors. The fattened silkworms spin their cocoons from saliva glands in their mouths. They can spin one strand of silk at a rate of 15 inches (40 cm) a minute.
Each cocoon is made of a thread of raw silk from 300 to about 900 m (1,000 to 3,000 ft) long. The fibers are very fine, about 10 μm (0.0004 in) in diameter and 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons are required to make 1 pound of silk (0.4 kg).
The exterior of the cocoon is courser and where “raw silk” comes from. The silk from the interior is “fine silk” and it’s easy to “feel” the difference. Personally, I prefer the texture of raw silk…more organic somehow.

You can really appreciate each step in the process

The process of taking tiny cocoons and spinning each one into a continuous silk thread is similar to wool, only way more skilled, and all done by hand. The yarn is made into loose skeins, and the only time I see men involved, is in the dying process, where the skeins are dipped into scalding hot vats of intense, steaming hot colors. Everything including the not unpleasant smell (imagine inhaling a woollen fleece soaked in boiling water) is earthy and real. The minerals and plant extracts that make the dyes are locally sourced too.
Once dried, the skeins of thin but incredibly strong silk thread are wound onto bobbins; in turn the bobbins in varying colors are mounted on a hand-loom and the delicate weaving process begins.
I watched several of these incredibly skilled women weave their magic and I’m still flummoxed by how such fine patterns are produced, just by throwing a spindle from one side of a loom to the other.
Click the link, if you’d like to watch a short clip of the weaving process.
We walk along the orderly rows of smiling women amidst the gentle clatter of the wooden looms and laughter. We pause, here and there, as they make tiny adjustments to their looms, some beginning and others nearing the completion of their intricate pieces, weaving love into each pattern. As we near the exit I can’t help marvelling at these women (and men) who have reclaimed traditional skills and I strongly suspect their confidence and self-worth too.
As for me, I have learned to appreciate gratitude. How can I ever tie my silk tie again, or put on a silk shirt, or give someone I love an Angkor Silk Scarf without being grateful to those tireless caterpillars, or the men who grow and tend the mulberry trees or those skilled women spinning, weaving and providing for their families.

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