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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Man About Town: 31 Jan 2014

Man About Town: 31 Jan 2014

Man About recently obtained a plot of land containing two stately sugar palms conveniently placed at the rear of the property. But the mere presence of these trees has triggered outrage amongst some new neighbors, resulting in complaints and demands stretching over almost a year.

Firstly a neighbourhood man volunteered to cut down the trees, pointing out that several other neighbours who had sugar palms on their land had done ‘the right thing.’ He was quite taken aback when Man About declined this generous offer. As a sweetener he stressed that he would not take the timber, leaving it for Man About to do whatever one does with fallen sugar palm timber which, if nearby activity was anything to go by, was simply to burn much of it on the spot, leaving black sooty husks to slowly degrade in the elements.

A stand was taken and the trees remained standing. Subsequently a succession of people urged for tree removal. One Khmer man said the trees were simply unsightly, presumably ignoring the fact that these elegant iconic palms are, according to the Royal Embassy of Cambodia, a “national symbol” for the Kingdom.

Then a woman who was building a house next door demanded instant tree removal on the basis that an errant frond had blown onto her land injuring a labourer. Patently bullshit because if the worker had even the hint of the scratch a medical bill would be waved in Man About’s face faster than Hun Sen’s eye could blink.

But having read that the Khmer Rouge used the fronds to inflict assorted and unspeakable punishments, Man About attempted to alleviate rogue frond fear by investing $5 to get a man to shimmy up the trees and lop off any gust-threatened ailing threats.

To no avail. Complaints continued and while some people bothered to contrive arguments based on putative practicalities – such as a tree might topple and injure someone, or fall and “break” a house – most complainants simply suggested the presence of the trees was some sort of non-defined disgrace.

Never mind that the sugar palms, according to Cambodia Uncovered, represent “the 'real' Cambodia.”

Man About then raised the matter with an academic who chuckled softly and posited a theory about what may be the root cause of the problem. He explained that Man About’s land was in the middle of an aspiring middle class enclave where many inhabitants were intent on removing themselves from any hint of a rural or peasant past.

Sugar palms are normally associated with rice paddies and indeed, as the tract of land in question was reclaimed rice paddy, the last thing the newly emerged burghers wanted was to be tainted with was symbols that possibly hinted at déclassé origins.

“In other words,” the academic said, “You’re lowering the tone of the joint. And you’re a barang.”

And again, never mind that the sugar palms are a national icon.

By this stage, Man About, intent on keeping the trees, gritted teeth and prepared for battle, possibly even to the point of being chained naked to a tree in protest in the manner of activists of yore deep within the enchanted ferny forests of faraway Tasmania.

But this week came good news, with two reports – one from Samuel the realtor and another from Kaliyann the Khmer journalist – that local government has decreed that sugar palms can no longer be hacked down in Siem Reap without written permission from relevant authorities. This apparently follows a recent attempt to lop five sugar palms in the Angkor Park protectorate.

Can sweet victory be declared? Never presume because this is after all Cambodia. But for the moment, the susurrating sugar palms stand, gently waving their raggedy mop tops in the cooling breezes on a tract of land now dubbed Sugar Palm Haven.



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