Kampong Chhnang farmers scale lofty trees to collect sap for the production of palm sugar
Every morning Long Lonh wakes in the predawn darkness, washes his face and loads his bicycle with plastic containers. With his trusty knife hanging from his belt, he pedals slowly along the paved road from his house to a rice field where thousands of palm trees grow.
Despite the early hour, Long Lonh isn’t alone in the field. Other men have arrived before him, some climbing to the tops of the swaying trees, others walking from one trunk to the next carrying containers of sap they have already collected from the palms’ highest reaches.
Long Lonh parks his bicycle near one of the trees. He ties a plastic container to his belt and starts climbing, using a bamboo ladder that he has permanently tied to the trunk.
Once at the top of the tree, he removes a plastic container filled with sap that has collected overnight, and replaces it with the empty container he has brought with him. Then he descends to the safety of the ground.
Long Lonh, who lives in Dorkrong village in Kampong Chhnang province, has worked as a palm tapper since 1979. Every day he climbs some 20 palm trees that average about 15 metres in height.
“Yes, it’s a dangerous job, but my father taught me to repeat the Balinese saying ‘ascend carefully or fall to my death’ every time I climb up,” he said.
The process of making palm sugar is not complicated but does require special knowledge, and different tappers are able to collect different quantities of palm sap, depending on their technique. Sap can be obtained from both male and female trees, but in either case only trees in bloom can be tapped because the liquid is normally collected from the flowers.
Long Lonh usually collects sap from male trees. Using two flat pieces of wood, he squeezes the flower and then cuts the top. This process must be repeated for three consecutive days before sap starts to flow.
“After three days the flower begins to drop sap, and then we can use the plastic containers to catch it,” he said. “If there’s still no sap after three days, it sometimes means the flower is sick. But if we keep repeating the process of putting pressure and cutting the top, it will eventually drop sap.”
“The taller trees usually give more sap,” he added. “I guess they’re stronger than the short trees in producing sap.”
Long Lonh said it is possible to collect sap throughout the year as long as the flowers stay in blossom, but during rainy season he usually stops climbing the trees and turns his attention to his agricultural work.
Another tapper in Dorkrong, 31-year-old Uch Thanith, said he has been climbing trees since the age of 18.
Most tappers in Dorkrong learn their skills from their fathers, but as Thanith’s family were newcomers to the village, his father knew nothing about the trade. Thanith therefore had to learn for himself, a process that did always go smoothly.
“Once when I was near the top of a tree I accidentally broke the bamboo ladder. Fortunately I was able to grab hold of the trunk and save myself from falling,” he said.
Thanith said he was a bit scared to climb trees after his near-accident, but he took the incident as a warning to be more careful.
“I would rather be doing other work, but I don’t have any other options,” he said, adding that he also kept the “ascend carefully or fall to my death” mantra in mind while he was climbing.
The head of Dorkrong, Ros Chhong, said there are 86 families in the village. Most of the men are tappers, and the women make sugar from the sap they collect.
“The palm trees in our village are very useful because people can make money from them every day,” he said.
He added that despite the dangerous nature of collecting sap, no tappers have fallen from the trees in Dorkrong. However, he said that a few years ago one man in the neighbouring village of Andong Por fell to his death from a 30-metre tree.
Long Lonh said he has also had an experience similar to Thanith’s, once losing his balance when a step of his bamboo ladder broke beneath his feet. He was also able to hug the tree trunk before he fell to the ground.
Although he works slowly and carefully while climbing, once he has collected the sap from his 20 trees Long Lonh gets back on his bicycle and pedals home as quickly as he can.
Once there, Long Lonh’s wife, Phang Sim, pours the sap into a big pot and boils it for about two hours, until most of the liquid has evaporated, leaving a viscous and very sweet sugar. Some of the sap can also be used to make palm wine.
Long Lonh collects nearly 30 litres of sap every day, which yields 2 to 3 kilograms of sugar. The product sells at the market for about 1900 riels per kilogram.
“We can produce at least two tonnes of sugar a year,” said Phang Sim.
How to get there
Dorkrong village is located in Pong Ro commune, Rolea Paea district, Kampong Chhnang province. From Phnom Penh, drive on National Road 5 for about 100 kilometres. Just past the town of Kampong Chhnang, turn left on the concrete road that leads to the local airfield. Dorkrong is about 10 kilometres from National Road 5.