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As Siem Reap strains under the economic weight of the pandemic, one family business struggles to keep their tradition of catching butterflies alive.
SIEAM REAP--Cambodia is known for its traditional sericulture businesses which produces silk, but an older profession exists here in the form of butterfly catching. Hery Ra and her family, who live in Siem Reap Province have been practicing the art of butterfly catching for over twenty years.
In 2000, Ra's family a business began catching butterflies and selling them to restaurants in the city. Every day, Ra and her children share a common goal to catch as many butterflies as possible—the pursuit of this goal can take them very far from their home.
Living in Veal village, Kok Chark commune, Siem Reap city, Ra’s family captures butterflies from place to place to supply many restaurants that need butterflies for decoration, as well as for tourist attractions.
“During some specific seasons there are fewer butterflies in the forest located in the East of Angkor,” said Ra. “So [I] need to go on a bike with my children to capture [them] near Bakheng mountain. However, during rainy season, I can catch them near my house.”
Her family have been accompanying her since they were young, Ra said, so for years they have learned the skills needed to catch butterflies without harming them. In the beginning, Ra went to catch butterflies with acquaintances because she had nothing else to do, but now it has become a fully-fledged family business.
It is a job that requires many tools—Ra uses a meter-long bamboo pole with plastic bags sewn onto the end. The captured butterflies—which are often a mix of sizes and colors—are kept in another gauze bag, which Ra's son normally carries on his back.
The butterflies are then sold by the basket and, depending on the restaurants, usually fetch 20,000 riel, but Ra noted that this tends to vary and there is no real way of knowing exactly how many butterflies are in each basket.
In addition to capturing butterflies for sale, Ra, in her late 50s, also collects and raises caterpillars, which then turn into butterflies. She said that the hatching period depends on the types of worms, as some take seven days while others require two weeks to turn into butterflies.
While Ra admits it is not a business that has made her or her family rich, it has provided for them and allowed Ra to meet all her basic needs, including feeding the family.
However, due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, her butterfly catching business also faces financial difficulties as restaurants feel the strain of a Siem Reap devoid of tourists.
One of Ra’s customers is Duke Deth, the owner of Butterfly Restaurant. He has been buying butterflies from Ra’s family since 2006 when the restaurant started operation in the city.
He explained that he chose butterflies to decorate and increase the attractiveness to his guests, saying that the butterflies bring in a calming and tranquil atmosphere for his guests while they dine.
Deth also revealed that he intends to organize some advertisements with an aim to attract more local guests, encouraging them to be more interested in eating at a restaurant while being entertained by butterflie.