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Cambodian History in the Making

A little bit of history was made at World Mate Emergency Hospital in Battambang recently when Mark Lander, paper-maker extraordinaire from Amberley, arrived from New Zealand with one of his Hollander Critter machines for my use at the hospital. My project, “Twer Daoee Dai”  (Made by Hand) was born! Our machine, purchased with funds raised while back in New Zealand last year, is the 402nd one Mark has made over the last 15 years or so. He seldom gets the opportunity to travel to set up the machine as he did by coming to Cambodia and the presence of one of his machines in Battambang is a first for Cambodia.

The bulk of the machine was sent by courier, arriving safely a week or so before Mark did. It arrived in Phnom Penh, then completed its journey by bus to Battambang. Instead of travelling with 'normal' luggage, Mark came with a large aluminium vat on wheels, in which were other items for the paper-making process he knew would not be available in Cambodia. His personal belongings were limited to what he could carry in his hand luggage.

Mark flew into Siem Reap and we went up to meet him, then travelled back with him by bus to Battambang. What followed were seven days of frantic activity, during which Mark purchased wood and other materials to make accessories for use with the papermaking machine and proceeded to make, from scratch, 50 molds for paper, a box to mount the fabric cutter he brought with him. Anthony and I worked alongside him at times, Anthony sanding the frames of the molds, me cutting the special nylon wire which Mark then stretched over the frames, before attaching them with the help of his trusty thirty year old air-driven staple gun, brought along specially for this purpose.

Making the frames was a time-consuming and tiring activity, especially with the heat increasing daily. It was at the end of the week, with all the preparation done, that we were ready to make our first batch of paper.

I had been saving scraps of what I thought was cotton fabric to be the basis of our first batch – however, when Mark cast his experienced eye over it, it was declared unsuitable as it wasn’t pure cotton. Man-made fabrics don’t break down in the machine, so cannot be used. In the absence of any other suitable material, two cotton sheets I had covering equipment in my workspace were quickly appropriated for the job. It was a case of “goodbye cotton sheets” as Mark showed me how to run them through the fabric cutter safely to turn them into small squares ready to go into the machine. Some scrap paper was torn up to start off the batch, the cotton fabric added and the machine filled with water.

We then plugged the Hollander in and, bingo, after much anticipation and preparation, we were finally underway with making paper! The machine graunched and groaned as it started up and what had gone in as cotton fabric was quite soon turned into pulp. I poked and prodded the pulp with a long stick to keep the mix moving around the tub of the machine. It soon became apparent that there was a lot of soap residue from the many times the sheets had been washed, so we had to ditch the water to get rid of it and start over with a new lot of clean water! Approximately three and a half hours later, Mark declared the pulp to be the right consistency and it was time to transfer it to the molds.

The vat was half filled with water, several bowls full of pulp were added and we were ready to dip the molds into the mix, shake them gently – there is an art to this which I have yet to perfect! – roll them with a paint roller over felt attached to a suction box (in the absence of a wet/dry vacuum cleaner to do this part of the job), then stand them carefully against the fence in the sun to dry. Several hours later, we peeled the paper off. What we produced from our white sheets with sprigs of blue flowers on them was nice pale mauve, reasonably thick, textured paper.

Now it was time to experiment with some locally available natural products. We set off to find a sugarcane juicing machine on the roadside and asked the man operating it if we could have his discarded husks. He readily agreed and we grabbed several armfuls, purchased sugarcane drinks from him as a thank you, and headed back to the hospital to try our luck with another batch of paper.

The process for making paper from natural products is similar to that using cotton fabric, however, there is no need to assist the drying of the pulp once on the molds. Mark showed me how to break up the husks ready for boiling them in caustic soda and water to soften them prior to putting them into the machine. We were both amazed and delighted to discover that this process took only about 45 minutes – a considerably shorter time than when Mark makes paper from flax which has to be boiled for around 5 hours!

Once the husks were soft enough, they were rinsed in water and placed in the Hollander. Keeping the pulp mix moving around the machine is more of a challenge as the long fibers get tangled around the spindle quite easily. Once they were broken down enough to move freely, we left them and returned a few hours later to find the pulp ready to put onto the molds. The dipping of the molds into the pulp and water mix in the big vat happened again and they were put out to dry. We left them overnight and returned the next morning to find fifty sheets of lovely thin, opaque, golden coloured paper.

With two successful batches of paper made already (thanks more to Mark’s expertise than any skill on my part!), Mark disappeared off into the bushes at the end of our street before we went to the hospital one morning, emerging triumphantly with a trunk from a banana tree in his arms. This was to be the basis of another batch of paper. Mark showed me how to strip the coating from the trunk to expose the fibers inside. We then processed the fiber in the same way as for the paper made from sugarcane husks. This time, the result was thin, opaque beige paper with quite a sheen to it.

What we were doing generated a considerable amount of interest and, throughout the week Mark worked at the hospital setting up the machine and making the molds, many staff visited my workspace and were intrigued by what we were doing. Several expressed interest in participating, and plans are afoot to make this a reality – I certainly can’t do the whole papermaking process, along with everything else I do, with just one pair of hands!

Mark’s time here went all too quickly and before long, it was time for him to head to Siem Reap for his flight back to his family at home. The time Mark spent here was the fulfilment of a long time of planning and fundraising for me. It was a fun time and I was blown away by the humility of Mark the paper craftsman who was so willing to share his expertise, learnt over many years of papermaking, with me. He is passionate about what he does and was genuinely excited to be in Cambodia.

Thank you, Mark, for sharing your life and skills so freely with me for the ultimate aim of providing a unique leisure activity for patients at the hospital, many of whom will derive much pleasure from their involvement in the craft of handmade paper. It will be exciting to see what we can make with the paper we produce! I aim to make saleable products to generate income so that the activity programme at the hospital is eventually self-sustaining.

If you, or someone you know, would like a holiday with a difference and would like to come to Cambodia to volunteer for a period at the hospital, assisting me with paper-making and other activities that are part of my programme, let me know!

To see more images from the above story, click here.