Painting in Chinese

My Wednesday in Siem Reap was dedicated to sourcing out painting supplies.  I came to Southeast Asia with brushes - in a lovely carrier gifted to me by my cousin - but that’s about it.  The store in the Lucky Mall that we were able to get our paints and canvases last year is now an empty shell.  I was prepared to try a couple of different things when I mentioned to Nabil, our Landlord, that I was looking for art supplies.

“I am heading over to the Wat Bo Bookstore,” I said.

“No, no, no,” he said.  “You need to go to IBC.”

“I know. But it closed in the Lucky Mall. It’s not there anymore.”

“They moved,” he said.  “They are now just around the corner on Highway 6.”

My long day of searching became a $3 return trip tuk tuk ride to get everything I needed.

As I was intent on stretching my legs and wanting to explore the neighbourhood, I stashed away my big bag of paints and canvases and left the condo for a modest walk toward Wat Bo, the Siem Reap River, and the royal gardens. I wanted to try out my 32 Gb SD card for my camera, which I got for $23 USD, so I took a few snaps as I walked along.  These are a few things that caught my eye.

Across River Road I saw an artist setting up his paintings in the royal gardens.  I couldn’t resist.  As I admired his work and he eased into his sales pitch, a real conversation broke out and I found myself getting to know Kong.  

Living to the north of city, near the Angkor Wat ruins, Kong has been painting since 2013.  Recent times have been particularly tough for him, and so many other artisans, as tourism from China has dropped precipitously adding impact to the drop in tourism from other parts of the world.  While I had no intention of being art this trip, I couldn’t resist supporting this fellow artist and bringing a piece of his artistry back home.

This is a painting of the floating village, a popular attraction that Rob and I will visit during our time here.  Kong untethered it from the frame and rolled it up in a handmade weaved tube.  Once we are home, I will get it restretched and ready to hang.  We may keep it, or we may auction it off to raise more money to help these lovely people in the next building season in 2021.  We’ll see.

To start painting, I was still missing some wiping rags, palettes, and a brush rinsing cup.  I decided to brave the Phsar Leu Thom Thmei Market, or what we call the “Big Market” or “Old Market”.  This is where the locals shop for most everything they need.  As I walked around I saw clothing, audio equipment, fruits, vegetables, meat, dry goods...everything you can possibly imagine contained in darkened and jammed stalls.  It is an open air market but protected from the sun (and rain) by a roof.

I also saw the styrofoam plates that I was looking for, except that they were in bags of many hundreds, intended to be sold to other vendors for food service.  After walking for what seemed like hours, I saw a package of plates that was of a size that would perfectly suit my purposes.  I looked around for the vendor to make my purchase, but she was nowhere to be found.  I asked the fellow across the way, using a series of hand gestures, and he pointed behind the large pile of goods.  There she was....enjoying her midday siesta in a hammock.  I wasn’t going to interrupt that so I decided to throw in the towel and grabbed a tuk tuk to take me to the grocery store near the Lucky Mall where I knew I would find something that would work.

In the end I got three old towels (thanks to Nabil), a package of 50 paper party plates (for palettes), and an old water bottle cut in half.  I had everything I needed to paint, including time on my hands to do so.

I went with my first idea, which was to paint an elephant.  A store a few doors down on Wat Polanka Road has a pair of elephant statues with their trunks up out front.  I used these two images to get me started.

Painting in a foreign country, using unfamiliar paints, and managing both the heat and humidity is challenging.  It’s almost like painting in a foreign language that you can speak sparingly - I have enough to get by, but I generally feel lost.  The selection of colours is very different from what I normally use, so I spent a lot of time exploring the range and seeing where it would take me.

I’m not sure how many hours I sat at the kitchen table with the easel propped up again a box, but it was probably most of the day.  I kept at it long after Rob and Kent returned from the village having done a couple of blessing ceremonies.  With the exception of painting the sides of the canvas and adding a signature, this painting is almost done.  It is 30 cm x 40 cm.  

We grabbed another tuk tuk and returned to Khmer Kitchen Gate, our favourite restaurant just a few blocks from the bustling tourist section of Siem Reap.  Located just around the corner from the hotel we stayed in back in 2017, it offers excellent food, a strong WiFi signal, and low prices.  Rob and I enjoyed a wonderful meal and several beers for about $12 USD.  Incredible.  As soon as we walked in for the first time, Kaeng recognized me immediately.  We have probably been there over a dozen times in the last three years.  We are not alone. Eating there the second evening in a row, we identified a number of different couples sitting in their same spots from the night before.

I’m excited to head back out to the village with my painting supplies today.  Rob is intent on building me an easel built out of bamboo.  If it works out, we’ll ask Heng to store it for our next trip over so we can continue sharing our love of painting with the villagers.  He may even join me and paint something of his own. It’s going to be a great day. 


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