Judging from the way it treats its forests—really unique woodlands that are part of a world heritage, one would not think that Cambodia values them much. They are regularly and routinely sold off, cut down, and abused by the rich and powerful, protected by the military (when the military themselves are not stealing the wood); and the poor, worried only about survival and without the larger vision of a future legacy and a diminishing resource, invade, cut down, and squat on lands that were once verdant forests.
On the other hand, wood has a high symbolic value. It seems to mark one’s ascent up the social ladder and acquisition of large pieces of luxury wood as furniture or as ornamental objects give evidence that one “has arrived.”
The social value of the wooden objects surpasses their practicality. Cambodian furniture is insanely bulky, solid, and heavy! For example, the wooden Cambodian bed in my room in the house Maryknoll rents weighs more than a quarter of a ton and took six men to move it to the other side of the room when we moved in. The average wooden chair around a Cambodian wooden table will weigh 25-50 pounds. A child or a smaller woman cannot move it. And they aren’t comfortable!
The weight, though, is a sign of prestige. It means the family has moved from their “starter” house of split bamboo slats up on stilts to a solid house of wooden beams or concrete which is substantial enough to support a set of the wooden furniture. They have “made it.”
In the third section to come, I will show pictures of the many and varied uses of the luxury wood items at all levels of Cambodian society.