Tens of thousands of Cambodians migrate abroad every year, searching for new opportunities and new skills. One such example is Hang Sokhoeun who has returned home not only with the skills to build a successful business, but to share them with the young people in his community.
Sokhoeun runs a small business which manufactures leather and crocodile skins into belts, bags and wallets. His operation is based in O’Kandol Tbong village, Damrei Poun commune, Svay Ontor district, Prey Veng province, but he travelled along way to get here.
Born into a family of poor farmers, and wanting to relieve their burden, Sokhoeun left home in 2012. He said goodbye to his family in Prey Kandeang village and commune in Peam Ro district, Prey Veng province and found work in Thailand. Through a recruitment agency, he was assigned to a large factory in Chonburi province which produced all kinds of large bags.
Although he had never experienced the hard work of a factory job, he strived to learn all he could during his time there.
Sokhoeun told The Post that even as he was sweating over the machinery in Thailand, he was dreaming of establishing his own business back home.
He worked hard and continued to watch the manufacturing process as closely as he could, studying the machines that made the backpacks, handbags and luggage that churned out of the factory.
The most common materials the factory used were cowhide and crocodile skin.
While he was working, he would gather leather off cuts and use them to create small bags and wallets of his own. He showed one of his wallets to his colleagues. They told him he had real skill, and encouraged him to make more.
“I remembered thinking that if I knew how to sew a wallet, surely I could make them myself when I returned to Cambodia,” said Sokhoeun.
He said that because his colleagues had not questioned the quality of his work, he reasoned that the public would also accept it.
He returned to the Kingdom in 2020 and planned to begin using crocodile skin to make belts and handbags, but the world had other plans for him. The onset of the Covid-19 meant that he was forced to put his plans on hold.
In early 2021, Sokhoeun finally opened his business, using a single sewing machine to turn cowhide and crocodile skins into handbags and belts.
He said that his initial finished products attracted positive attention on social media, and then the business began to grow.
He currently has a team of 12 working to produce several styles from cowhide and crocodile skin, and sells his products – which can last up to five years – for up to $25.
He said when he worked by himself, he was only able to create two wallets per day. When his staff are working as a team, each member is far for efficient than they would be alone.
Most of his goods are stamped with the word Khmer, and feature the shape of Angkor Wat. He receives many orders from Cambodians abroad, often from such places as Canada, the US, Australia, France or Japan.
While he previously obtained his raw materials from Thailand, he now purchases them locally, from Khmer owned farms.
Sam Phary, a Phnom Penh customer, said he ordered a wallet and a belt after seeing an online video by Sokhoeun who goes with his Facebook name Fang Tong. The video showed the quality of the manufacturing process, and explained how Sokhoeun had returned from Thailand to follow his dream.
“I bought them, and I am very happy with them. I want to encourage more people to support locally made goods. I like the idea that I am helping Sokheoun to help himself,” he said.