Fireworks in Cambodia

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In Cambodia, fireworks say "Kam Chroch" in Khmer language, use for celebration during traditional ceremonies.

If you are a foreigner and can read the Khmer language you might well be horrified to read signs along Cambodian roads saying, "All kinds of kam chroch are sold here", as in English this literally means, "All kinds of missiles sold here".

That may sound frightening, but these are not like the missiles that kill people, because it is when Cambodians organize special ceremonies or during Khmer national celebrations, that these "missiles" are exploded.

Kam chroch may be translated into English with two different meanings. Sometimes, kam chroch does mean "missile" or "rocket"--rockets that Cambodians saw kill and maim many people during the civil war. But the second meaning, and by far the more frivolous, is "fireworks".

From the early 1980s until the 1990s, Cambodians seldom saw kam chroch because they were too expensive and their sound too similar to that of bombs and missiles. Before 1990, Cambodians launched kam chroch only in Phnom Penh on Victory Day (January 7), when the country celebrated the anniversary of the collapse of the Pol Pot regime. Now kam chroch are let off on public holidays, such as on King Norodom Sihanouk’s birthday, at The Water Festival (Bon Om Touk) and on Independence Day. They are also used at small community and private celebrations such as Banh-chos Ceima (pagoda inaugurations) and at cremations.

Prak Nol, a 52-year-old villager of Cheoung Sdock in the Batheay district, Kampong Cham province, organized his sister’s cremation. He says people used to misunderstand the noise. "But now it is okay, because we have peace. The launching is one of prestige in the village," Mr. Prak says. "My sister’s cremation cost $200 with meru and the firework launching." Meru is a product of the banana palm used as an accelerant when cremating bodies.

Srey Ny, 18, a sweets vendor near Prak Nol’s family cremation told her neighbor the fireworks were good because she could see them close-up. "It was a fantastic view," Miss Srey says.

Say Seang, a 45-year-old villager in the Batheay district says because lifestyles are better now there is enough money to buy the fireworks. "This is a kind of prestige in the village, because if they were poor they could not do a cremation like that," Mr. Say says. "The cremation, with meru and fireworks, is not cheap. It is expensive to hire it, sometimes costing between $150 and $300 per ceremony."

Doeur Inn, 53, has known how to make kam chroch since he was about ten. He produces and sells the fireworks in Kang Pisey district, Kompong Speu province. He made fireworks during the war but business was difficult.

"It became better business in the early 1990s after King Norodom Sihanouk returned to our home land," Mr. Doeur says. And nowadays, Mr. Doeur says there are many kam chroch makers throughout the country.

Most of his clients are Cambodians. Often, they are wealthy and high-ranking government officials who buy his products and hire him to launch the fireworks for their ceremonies. "My business is good when the rainy season stops. I am hired to launch fireworks nearly every week in the dry season when Cambodians have harvested their crops," Mr. Doeur explains.

The fireworks are numbered from one to six, according to price and fire power-one being the cheapest and least powerful. Mr. Inn says the "Number One" firecracker costs 1200 riel (about US$.30) and the most expensive, "Number Six", is 40,000 riel (US$10). He says compared to fireworks made overseas Cambodian fireworks, which are made by hand, are of a poorer quality. However, he believes they give value for money.

Generally, at private and small community ceremonies the kam chroch launched are produced in Cambodia, often made in Kang Pisey district, Kampong Speu province. At official national ceremonies such as The Water Festival and the King’s birthday, imported fireworks are used.

Mr. Doeur's father learnt the art of kam chroch making from his father who learnt at a pagoda. Mr. Doeur has himself become experienced. When he was ten he only knew how to make the fireworks fly in one color. "But now I can make them in three colors such as red, white and light blue," he says.

He further developed his art from fireworks brought over from Thailand and Vietnam. Now he can make all kinds of fireworks from numbers one to six.

Mr. Doeur adds that because kam chroch are now being produced by machine, the technology produces more colors and better pictures. "Some look like the areca flower." These kam chroch can be sold more expensively than the local hand-made varieties. "But I never disappoint," he says.

Manufacturing fireworks is far from safe. "They must be made away from flames. The firework components burn easily and it’s dangerous," he says. Although he has never been to the hospital, Mr. Doeur has suffered burns to his hands, legs and hair.

He has profited from his work and because of his success, he owns a truck, three motorbikes and employs six people.