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A one-of-a-kind wearable art

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
Prom Ponleu does not just offer t-shirts to his customers. He uses his talent to create unique designs on wearable and affordable art tees. Jean-Francois Perigois

Siem Reap, being the country’s major tourist hub, has an upbeat and colourful vibe brought by locals and foreigners enjoying both the sanctity and vibrancy of the place. But aside from the seemingly endless flow of people, what’s Siem Reap without the night markets that purvey an overwhelming number of traditional stuffs and souvenir items? Rama Ariadi takes a tour in one of the famous night markets and discovers a shop that gives ready-to-wear goods a different touch.

Navigating Siem Reap’s night markets – which by last count, tallies in at six and is increasing – could be a daunting task, especially for those who are already worn out after a day’s worth of exploring the majestic ruins across Angkor Archaeological Park or are still feeling a little wobbly after a night of partying in Pub Street. Without a sound body and mind, the entire experience can be almost hypnotic – if not psychedelic – as each turn seemingly leads to the exact same point where the same goods and trinkets are sold. Not to mention the screaming and pulling by vendors who want to customers to stop by their stalls.

From the paintings of temples imbued with orange hues of the setting sun to the dancing apsaras in their sampot sarabap in a plethora of shapes, sizes and forms, the quantities are vast. But chances are still pretty high that two tourists that enter the same market from two different entrances will end up with the same products, with price points being the only differentiating factor.

But tucked in the winding alleys of the much quieter Angkor Night Market just behind Wat Damnak, there is a workshop whose shopkeepers seem to be rather impervious to the throng of tourists that take a gander on their apparel, while other vendors shout at the top of their lungs to attract people to take a look at their products.

“Screaming like that will only get you so far because it annoys potential customers and distract them from what a vendor is actually offering,” said Prom Ponleu, the owner-cum- designer at Lyly.

And his approach is probably the correct one, as what he offers in his workshop is not something that a customer could decide at a moment’s notice under duress from overly enthusiastic shopkeepers.

Hidden behind his hand-painted postcard and some paintings (this, after all is still a night market in Siem Reap), is a selection of customised tees. But these are not the silk-screened, mass-produced kind whose doppelgängers can be seen all across the country. All of Mr Ponleu’s t-shirts are hand-painted by himself. And since each design comes only in one size, his creations could almost be categorised as bespoke – so chances of bumping into another person with the exact same design is practically impossible.

“I never set out to make mass-produced artworks. There are more than enough people doing that already as you can see across the markets,” said Mr Ponleu. “And there are factories that employ hundreds of people that are capable of churning out thousands of counterfeit paintings, which reduce our value, our roles as artists.”

And Mr Ponleu, whose outputs are tangible proofs of great artistry, has the right to say so.

As a child who received education at an orphanage in Siem Reap, he took up painting as a hobby, which turned into a life-long passion that led him to study the works of master Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. In cognisant of his talents, he was told to pursue his studies further, and he now teaches art classes for Siem Reap youths who are facing adverse circumstances like he did.

The influences of Monet and Van Gogh, with their dream-like and poignant reinterpretation of reality can be seen in each brushstroke that Mr Ponleu applies on his preferred medium.

To him, the rough brushstrokes and the use of vivid colours do not only create a textural contrast that is so prized among lovers of the Impressionist period. “It also assures customers that the product that they hold in their hands are not made on a dehumanized, assembly line,” he explained.

Mr Ponleu then excused himself for a while to continue working – as fabric paint behaves differently compared to acrylic paints. “The colours have to be worked on while the paint is still wet, so speed is of great essence,” he explained. “It won’t be easy to re-work the colours and the strokes when the paint has dried up.”

And so he returned to his work – a Munchian re-imagination of a monk walking towards the horizon with a Buddhist symbol for protection as his praetorian guard on both sides. But as soon as he returned to his drawing board, a little maestro suddenly appeared and started scribbling on a piece of paper, not far from where Mr Ponleu is working.

“This is my five year old nephew, Hanglay,” explained Ms Lyly – Mr Ponleu’s wife and the namesake of his store. “Do you know that earlier today, he sold a t-shirt that he made himself? He made $10 from the piece he sold, he really is talented!”

“It’s a good thing that my brother-in-law lets him explore his passion with us,” concluded Lyly.

“Some people are just not meant to become academics. For as long as anyone perseveres, nothing is beyond reach.”

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