Standing in red soil surrounded by leafy, sticky tobacco plants on the Mekong River island of Koh Paen, farmer Lieng Ly, 34, takes a moment to light a cigarette. Another single red-brand ARA is waiting in a plastic dish by his belongings, for later.
The British and American Tobacco-owned ARA cigarette factory is located nearby, not far from Koh Paen’s famous rickety bamboo bridge, which, like this field in Kampong Cham province, is flooded every year by the mighty Mekong.
Ly and neighbour Lang An, 60, are together funneling a water pump deep into the parched, dry-season soil. Both smoke store-bought filtered ARAs, manufactured from the thnum kantab (mild tobacco) growing at their feet. But they also grow crops of traditional, smaller-leaved thnum Khmer: a powerful, pungent tobacco that, once dried, emits a sticky tar and when smoked the local way – loosely rolled in a strip of copy paper – a thick cloud of smoke.
Fetching up to 15,000 riel a kilo, thnum Khmer can sell for three times the amount of the mild tobacco that cigarette companies buy, but the market is in decline, with only older people maintaining a taste for its overpowering flavor, Lang An says.
“It’s too strong for the younger generation,” agrees Tha Chab, a lean, bare-chested 74-year-old tobacco farmer from Koh Luang, whose voice is thick with a tobacco timbre. For decades he puffed on “10 to 20 (thnum Khmer) a day”, before giving up both farming and his smoking habit – but he is lucky to have kept relatively good health, he says.
For my benefit, he tears himself a cigarette wrapper from some scrap paper, squashes a thick wad of roughly shredded brown leaf inside and happily lights up. As a rural man over the age of 45, Mr Chab is typical of the last of the thnum Khmer smokers, according to the Ministry of Planning’s National Tobacco Survey, which found 39 per cent of Cambodian men were smokers.
With at least five cigarette brands costing just 30 cents a packet, including ARA, the survey found companies were pricing cigarettes to attract the youngest and poorest in Cambodia.
Not far up the road from where Mr Chab sells his strong tobacco, local shops stock packs of Crown, ARA and Luxury in dusty red display cases, where most in the village buy their cigarettes from.
For the rough-edged thnum Khmer, leaves are picked at three to four months, then stripped and dried indoors, before being finished off in the warm sun. The dried and chopped product is not commercially packaged, but sold locally as well as to some out-of-town buyers, whose Kampong Cham parents might have passed on a preference for it, Mr Chab suggests.
Pesticide is used on the leaves but after one or two weeks it washes away, he insists.
“I never get sick,” he says.
Despite the added chemicals in manufactured cigarettes, the belief that off-the-farm “natural” tobacco is better is a deadly one, says Dr Yel Darvuth, from the World Health Organisation’s tobacco-free initiative.
“The nicotine and tar that causes cancer is in the leaf itself… (some people) think that if they dry it and cut it themselves it’s ok - but hand-rolled, ready-made… it’s all the same,” he says.
After a lifetime of growing the traditional “strong” tobacco, decreasing demand has finally made thnum Khmer a wasted effort, Koh Luang farmer Ly Son says. Before her last and final crop, she was only growing one to 2,000 plants in the fertile valley fields of Kampong Cham’s Koh Sotin district.
The cigarette company she sells to gave her seed for the milder ‘Malay’ version that they needed and she grows more than 10,000 plants of it, though she’s unhappy with the price.
Sitting next to their towering mud-walled tobacco kiln, Son and her daughter say smoking is not for them, but her 43-year-old son Ly Chan draws on an ARA in the shade. In two months the crop will be ready and the family will go out and harvest the next lot of leaves, destined for the lungs of others like him.
Additional reporting by Buth Gideon