All that remains of the great Cambodian tea experiment on Kirirom Mountain are a few stray plants picked by opportunistic villagers.
While coffee is widely grown in the Kingdom, tea cultivation is almost unheard of, except in the forests of Kampong Speu. There, in the 1960s, King Norodom Sihanouk launched an ambitious enterprise after being given plants from China.
The plant, camellia sinesis parvi-flora, is thought to be a hybrid of the Chinese and Assam varieties – a mix that could have occurred either in nature or horticulture.
According to Sihanouk’s book, Sangkum Reastr Niyum Le Development General du Cambodge, the plantation initially spanned 24 hectares but was later expanded.
After the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, tea cultivation in the area continued apace under a private investor.
About 500 workers lived together in a commune, former tea-pickers recalled. “The difficulty was food, not enough rice, but it was a happy time because we lived with each other and played together,” said Mei Soth, 60.
When the manager died in 2000, the tea cultivation came to a halt. According to Soth, hundreds of families left the area in search of other work.
“I felt so much regret because I had no way to earn money,” said Kim Loan, another former employee of the plantation.
The land once used for the plantation was bought by Sokimex and crops were cultivated for a few years.
Now the land is only weeds. A few tea trees continue to grow in the wild and Loan continues to collect and sell the tea.
She sells it on the roadside – mostly to visitors. “Not many local people buy it because they have other things to drink and they don’t have much income.”