The air in Prosat is thick and oppressive, the usually lethargic roadside town swarming with verve and activity as hundreds of people return home for the rice wine and revelry of Cambodia’s annual Festival of the Dead.
Ensconced in the Parrot’s Beak of Svey Rieng province—a triangle peninsular jutting into Vietnam—local children with sun-bleached hair loop around dusty market stalls on bicycles and motodops jostle with each other as a Saigon bound Sorya bus screeches to a stop and a group of young families and suitcases spill out.
The bus ride to the small town has taken hours longer than it usually would, I’m told, due to the capital’s congested roads, recurrent stops in obscure towns along National Highway One and a raging rum-induced hangover, but we eventually climb off the vehicle and lug our bags through heaving, fetid fruit and meat stalls
We’re a few days shy of the 15th day of Pchum Ben and thousands of young Phnom Penh pilgrims are flocking back to far-flung villages they once called home, one of the few times per year many can afford to take a holiday and return.
Our travelling companion Ye Sara, a 30-year-old tuk-tuk driver from the capital and his younger brother, 28-year-old Ye Sa Nin, have brought us to their “motherland” for the holiday break with promises of pagoda celebrations, picturesque countryside, feasts, beer in abundance and shots of the potent wine.
They’ve observed our tentative smiles and swiftly plonk us on to the back of motorbikes lingering nearby and whisk us through the market, down a rust-hued road.
Not even a kilometre from the dishevelled Prosat roadside stalls, the landscape shifts dramatically.
Fields of shimmering, rippling rice crops stretch out to the horizon, a chartreuse, endless sea only interrupted by a cluster of palms or a grazing buffalo.
The following day, a languid and dreamy Sara drifts through a knee-deep paddy, creating a swell through the undulating blades—it’s a postcard pretty, idyllic image seared into my memory forever.
He glances over his shoulder and wistfully admits he often pines for the fields, a symbol and memory of home and childhood, an emotion often stirred.
“I feel different when I’m back. When I visit rice fields in other provinces my homesickness is heightened, I think of what I’ve given up, sometimes I cry. I wonder what life would have been like if I had of stayed in Svey Rieng,” he muses.
“Most of the young people have left the villages around here, and our aging parents are tending to the rice fields—agriculture is important to Cambodia and I wonder what will happen in 20 years time.”
Faint wrinkles feather out from the edges of Sara’s eyes. At the age of 15 he left school and his impoverished Poom Prey village home, knotted a Krama around his head and hitched a ride in a crammed pick-up truck to a Phnom Penh construction site.
Nin followed six years later, and they’ve lived and worked in the capital ever since.
Their older brother had migrated to Pailin when he joined the army and their younger sister would, years later, move to Cambodia’s other border town, Bavet, to work in a garment factory.
Sara says during Pchum Ben, Poom Prey is alive with over 1000 people, yet the usual population has dwindled to about 500.
A detailed report by the Ministry of Planning and United Nations Population Fund, investigating the migration habits of Cambodians, last month highlighted that an unprecedented deluge of young people like Sara and Nin have relocated to Phnom Penh for work and the chance of a better education.
On average, four per cent of a village’s population migrate away each year.
Yet according to the Cambodian Rural Urban Migration Report (CRUMP), government policy needs to be implemented to deal with the ways in which migration is both hurting and helping individuals, villages, and communities.
It stated 90 per cent of villages had experienced a fall in population, with rural chiefs saying a shortage of labour has created a major disadvantage to rural economies and the agriculture sector.
“Other than sheer ‘brawn’ required for work in agriculture, knowledge about land management also becomes more scarce,” it states.
While the Kingdom’s baby boom in the 1980s and early 1990s created a large cohort currently aged between 15 and 30, the report suggested a “greying” of rural Cambodia would be the inevitable and eventual consequence of the rapid migration of younger adults.
Sara can clearly recall the sleepless night before he left for Phnom Penh, giddy with the excitement and promise of a salary and big city life.
“Life growing up in the village was beautiful, I really miss it, but I won’t go back. When I left in the mid-nineties, there was an extreme shortage of rice… we’d have to borrow rice from others and the village became quite collective, but poor. I hadn’t really seen a car or motorbike before and nobody owned buffalo. I guess I’ve changed a lot since then… everyone must surely? I’m aware I look different when I go back now,” Sara says.
While he speaks to his mother up to three times a week, Sara says he is farily sure he will not return to live in Poom Prey.
“When I started work at the construction site I was earning $1.25 a day and I really thought I’d give up and go home. I can earn up to $30 as a driver now and there wouldn’t really be any work for me in my village to support my family.”
Swiss Red Cross Coordinator for Cambodia, Ron Bannerman, says that in a globalised world, rural migration was a natural process.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing—the villages are often sent money and have access to funds they wouldn’t otherwise have, but the fact is the villages will decline.
“For the first time in this country more than 50 per cent of the population are in urban environments, so the government does need to recognise this and boost services for the people left behind—vulnerable people have to be protected.
“In terms of the survival of the village, people stand on both sides of the debate—some have romantic notions of village life but others may argue urbanisation is vital to [reduce] poverty,” he says.
Yet They Kheam, a migration researcher form the National Institute of Statistics, believes more incentives and services should be in place to prevent mass migration.
“The government does have a strategy but we’re unclear whether the budget is there…although villages are often sent money from relatives working in cities there needs to be better health services, schools, clean water sanitation, better electricity.”
Throughout the holiday, Nin helps his mother make Num Orn Som, an offering to the monks and dead spirits of Pchum Ben.
Together they mould and massage lumps of sweet, sticky rice around pork, wrapping the meals in banana leaves.
Nin, unlike his brother, plans to return to Poom Prey to tend to the family’s rice fields when his parents are unable to.
“I miss a lot about this place, but I’m confident people will return to work the land and I’m hopeful services will be there to support them. There is already a university in Svay Rieng town, but we need health services, a better school…I’d like to open an electronics shop—there’d be a market for it here with the Khmer weddings and festivals.”
“I think investment will continue, some people will go back to the village, their roots and ancestors and pagodas are there… it’s home.”