In the first instalment of a three-part Tuesday teatime series, we trace the legacy of a royally ordained Cambodian tea plantation – plus a local strain of the popular plant
There's no need to travel to the himalayas – a day trip to kirirom will do.”
Does the plant name Camellia sinensis parviflora ring a bell? Probably not. Although you may not have heard of it, you probably have drunk it. It’s the Latin name for one of the world’s three main varieties of the Camellia sinensis, more commonly known as tea. Furthermore, sinensis parviflora is known as the “Cambodia plant” in English.
The two others are the China plant (sinensis sinensis) and the Assam, India, plant (sinensis assamica). Yet with the Cambodia plant’s being one of the three main varieties of tea on earth, how come Cambodia isn’t one of the world’s leading tea-producing countries?
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Cambodia variety is “a single-stem tree growing to about 5 metres in height, it is not cultivated but has been naturally crossed with other varieties”.
Botanist David Ashwell said there’s no real indication that the parviflora variety is native to Cambodia, as the plant is often referred to as a hybrid of the Chinese and Assam varieties.
It’s not known when the first tea was cultivated, but there is a general consensus that it was discovered in China. “It’s possible [parviflora was] hybridised in China and brought here. The hybridisation could have occurred in nature or in horticulture,” Ashwell said.
In the book Useful Plants of Cambodia by Dy Phon (2006), there’s mention of tea plants in Kirirom National Park and in Mondulkiri. Ashwell says he has no idea where in Mondulkiri the plant may be growing, but in Kirirom, overgrown remnants of an old tea plantation can still be found.
During the inauguration ceremony of Kirirom Park in 1995, Ashwell remembers how now-King Father Norodom Sihanouk referred to a former tea plantation in his speech.
Ambassador Julio Jeldres, Norodom Sihanouk’s official biographer, said via email that “the tea for the plantation was offered by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China.
“The land for the plantation belonged to the state and was made available by the King Father,” he said.
Chay Teuth, Director of Kirirom National Park, also said that the planting of tea started in 1962.
Today, many tea plants can still be found growing in the wild in Kirirom Park, where the old plantation used to be, not far from the King Father’s former summer residence. All teas – whether a grassy green, a buttery oolong or a hearty black – come from the same species of plant.
It’s the variety of the plant, soil conditions, altitude, rainfall and the processing that make the difference in the end result: the most-consumed beverage in the world after water.
But what happened to the tea plantation after the war?
A 1996 article in the Post recounts how 1,500 hectares of Kirirom were signed over to a private Cambodian investor, who planned to establish a tea plantation, despite the region’s being declared part of Cambodia’s system of national parks by Royal Decree in 1993. The old prewar tea plantation, which measured some 300 hectares, was part of it.
One year later, in 1997, the Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper reported that the investor had sold many hectares of the park, installed a sawmill and destroyed the plantation.
Nowadays, it’s believed that some of the surviving tea plants are harvested opportunistically, on a small scale, by locals.
One of the park rangers, Thy, explained that a big fire destroyed a lot of the plants sometime around 1990.
He also mentioned that a French-Cambodian entrepreneur, who owned the plantation at one stage after the war, passed away and nobody took over from him.
It’s not clear whether this is the same investor who acquired the 1,500 hectares in 1996, but his passing resulted in the growth of many tea plants in the wild.
The tea plant is an evergreen tree that grows well at a certain altitude in tropical and subtropical regions with plenty of rainfall. Kirirom’s high-altitude plateau is ideal for it, and the tea plants there produce a beautiful white flower.
Along with the fact that fresh tea leaves contain about half of the amount of caffeine found in coffee, the natural antioxidant properties of tea have helped it to become one of the world’s most popular drinks.
The global acceptance of tea is attributed to Chinese Buddhist priests, who travelled to Japan and took their valuable commodity to Russia and Europe via the trade routes of the Silk Road.
That eventually resulted in the worldwide popularity of tea and opened the trade routes to America, Great Britain, India and Africa.
However, if you’re feeling down in Phnom Penh and fancy some fresh tea leaves for an uplifting brew, there’s no need to travel to the Indian foothills of the Himalayas anymore – a short day trip to Kirirom will do the trick.
Picking your own leaves may equate to one of the more labour-intensive ways of brewing a cuppa – but it would also surely make one of the most satisfying cups you’re ever likely to taste.
The second part of this tea series, to be published October 13, will delve into Phnom Penh’s only two premium tea shops.