IF you can't afford the more exotic toad wine or gecko wine, try the palm wine -
the poor man's drink - available at a stall near you virtually anywhere in Cambodia.
Palm "water" - or Tuk thnoth chou - is the cheap, home-brewed liquor of
unknown alcoholic content that has a culture all of its own.
Brewed and sold from distinctive bamboo tubes, palm wine is something of a cottage
industry for thousands of Khmers.
With a reputation as the liquor of last resort, it has spawned many an argument between
its drinkers and other people who say they would never touch the stuff.
Sold for around 1,000 riels per bamboo container (about a liter), it's cheaper and
more popular - not to mention ecologically more sound - than its toad and gecko rivals.
To many people, palm wine is known as Kor-Khor-Ko beer - a name using the first three
letters of the Khmer alphabet, in a Khmer version of ABC beer.
Others call it Carsbair choin theang - Carlsberg beer - from a climber who choin
theang, or 'steps on palm tree branches', to collect palm juice.
But to those who prefer a real ABC or Carlsberg, or toad wine, palm wine and its
drinkers are a target of mirth and mockery.
Exchanges between palm wine drinkers and toad wine drinkers, for instance, have gone
like this: the palm wine sippers strike their bamboo tubes together and say Leuk
dach sach sa'ath (to wish themselves nicer skin), while the toad winers respond with
Leuk dach ach minbach srath (suggesting the palm winers will soil their trousers
before they finish their drink), and the palm wine drinkers retort with Leuk dach
prakach sa'ath (to say that toad wine gives you convulsions).
It may all be said in jest, but palm wine brewers and tipplers are often stauchly
protective of their product.
"Even doctors come to drink my palm wine," says brewer Seth Soth, in response
to claims that consuming the drink is an open invitation to be struck down with diarrhea.
And he dismisses the suggestion it is only poor people who drink palm wine, saying
"some people even drive a car to drink here."
Soth's product is on sale at one of many open-air stalls near Pochentong airport
that do a healthy late-afternoon trade in palm wine for passing motorists.
Like toad and gecko wines, brewers claim that palm wine increases appetite - which
might help with the grilled snakes, fried frogs and roasted sparrows also on sale
at the Pochentong stalls - and provides energy.
The alcohol content can presumably vary greatly, but one regular drinker reckons
a liter of the stuff makes him feel as tipsy as one can of ABC beer.
The wine is made from the juice of flowering palm trees, left in the sun for a day
or two to ferment, with a few herbs thrown in.
Climbers scale the trees, cut the end of the flowers and hang up a bamboo tube to
collect the juice over a matter of hours.
The juice is commonly collected by farmers in the dry season, after the rice harvest
is complete and the trees start flowering.
According to Soth and fellow climber Thou Peung, palm trees are usually rented from
land owners for 7,000-8,000 reil each a month.
Soth, from Kompong Speu, says the money earned from selling sweet palm juice and
palm wine is not much different from what a moto-taxi driver get for a day - between
7,000 and 15,000 riels per day.
It's dangerous work - Peung talks of a neighbour who recently fell to his death -
but climbers typically say they have few skills to get any other jobs in the dry
Some palm wine supporters proudly claim that palm wine has been the most popular
alcoholic drink for centuries. They say even the builders of Angkor Wat temple drank
But Siv Thuon, professor of history at Phnom Penh University, suggests that the palm
wine fans might be getting a little carried away.
Thuon says palm wine is not mentioned in any of the inscriptions on the ancient Angkor
temples. Nor was it mentioned by a Chinese envoy who visited and wrote about Cambodia
in the 13th Century, though he did refer to wine made from rice and tree leaves.
Regardless of when it was invented, the professor suggests that palm wine might have
become popular under French colonial rule, when drinkers could not afford the rising
price of other wines.
In fact, the French were so astonished by palm juice collectors that they exempted
them from paying taxes, he says. They considered that anyone willing to scale 15-20
meter high palm trees, without so much as a rope, was "on the way to death"
and deserved a tax break.