There are many day trips by bicycle from Phnom Penh. One place northeast of the capital is Koh Dach; known as “Silk Island” by foreigners. It is a pair of islands in the Mekong River about five kilometres from the Japanese Friendship Bridge. So, leave the hustle and bustle of the capital for the day and take a ride into the countryside and explore Koh Dach where you can enjoy a peaceful rural retreat, the chance to pick up some beautiful silks and cottons, and take a swim in the Mekong.
Cyclebodia: Koh Dach
The way there is straightforward: Cycle over the Japanese Friendship Bridge onto the Chroy Changvar Peninsula then follow National Highway six to the ferry crossing. In fact, there are a couple of points to cross by ferry to the islands, it depends on what you want to see first.
You can also cross to the other side of the Mekong if you want to explore that side of the river. However, for the main silk village use the first ferry crossing. On the way there, you can also cycle along the road running parallel to the highway as the traffic on the main road gets a bit hectic. It is also easier to spot the ferry crossing from this road. The ferry costs about 700 riels for a bicycle.
Sleepy Khmer Villages
The road around Koh Dach is about 30km, and passes through sleepy villages, pagodas, paddies and silk weavers. You can also cycle to the northern tip of the island where there is a beach complete with huts and vendors selling food and drink. And if Cambodian roads fill you with dread, have no fear, apart from a few motorcycles and cars the islands’ roads are quiet and safe.
Koh Dach or Silk Island gets its name from the many silk weavers who live on the islands. You’ll meet them as soon as you arrive by ferry. They’ll want you to visit their house and see the weavers in action. They will also want you to buy a scarf or other silk item. If interested, then take a look and if you see something you like buy it. On the other hand, if you are not interested continue on your journey; there is no obligation to buy.
Cambodian Silk History
Cambodia has a lengthy silk-weaving history that stretches back to pre-Angkorian times. Early records of the silk industry date from the 13th century. Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan visited what was then the Khmer Empire and reported on silk production. Bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and Bayon reveal Apsara costumes displaying geometrical patterns similar to the Indian Ikat style named Patola.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, the weaving style developed. As the skills had evolved, Cambodian Ikat, the dyeing technique to produce unique patterns, gained universal recognition.
Khmer Rouge and Mulberry trees
In the 1970s, The Khmer Rouge destroyed the mulberry tree population which are the exclusive food of silkworms. The regime also restricted the colour of clothing to the black pyjamas. This destroyed the Cambodian silk industry. Even the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s didn’t see a revival of the industry. A slow recovery started after the 1993 transitional government.
The two major silk-fabric styles are Ikat and uneven twill. This is also Pidan, used as tapestry during religious ceremonies, and one of the most refined fabrics is Hôl Lboeuk, Chorebap used for weddings, and Sarong and Krama using cotton.
While the craft is dwindling, efforts are being made to rekindle the craft. To this end, Koh Dach has become a centre for silk production and has many weaving communities.
Visitors to Koh Dach can learn more about the silk process from the silkworms and mulberry leaves, spinning and weaving, and dyeing techniques to seeing the final product at the Silk Centre and a visit to the silk weaving village.
Silk Weaving Village
The main silk weaving centre of Koh Dach is only a one-kilometre bicycle ride from the ferry terminal and is home to beautifully constructed stilted houses under which weavers sit with their handmade wooden looms turning out silk fabrics. You actually hear the weavers before you see them as the shuffling of the weaving looms turning out simple but finely crafted silks scarves and skirts can be heard from a distance.
There is a small shop at the end of the row of houses where you can buy the silk scarves and skirts, as well as cotton scarves and kramas. If you feel like staying the night then the houses are available for homestays for just $5, though they are totally unfurnished. There are other options as over the years a few guesthouses have popped up. In fact, the island’s oasis of calm has people staying for more than just a few days.
To visit the picturesque silk weaving village, as you come out of the silk centre, turn right to go back towards the ferry, and then take the first left to follow the road on a long arc around which takes you past typical Cambodian wooden in which some have looms set up; you can step in to watch the process and buy their wares. Prices will vary and be prepared to bargain.
Back to Phnom Penh
Just past the village is the bright yellow Koh Dach Pagoda. Here, the locals keep some of the island’s Water Festival boats. You can continue along in a circular route to bring you back to the bridge. Continue around the big island and drop by the beach at the northern end. Once you’ve had a dip and relaxed you can cycle back to the ferry then onto busy Phnom Penh.