Take any road out of Phnom Penh into the
surrounding flat countryside, and there is one part of the landscape that, quite
literally, stands out. Punctuating the rice fields that make up much of
Cambo-dia are the tall, slen-der sugar palm trees. Every field and village home,
it seems, has at least one.
Palm fruit sellers ply their roadside trade. Sugar palms provide sugar, wine, fruit and timber.
You might think an order had gone out to the
people to plant them, and in a way you would be right. One hundred years ago,
King Norodom issued a Royal Decree ordering the people to plant Tnoat, the Khmer
word for the Borassus palm.
It is around Udong and Phnom Penh that most
palm trees are found. The observant traveler might notice there are far fewer in
the provinces of Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Preah Vihear.
Simply put, back then they belonged to Thailand.
Over the past century
the numbers of palm trees have increased from 500,000 in 1900, to around 3
million today in ten provinces: Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Cham,
Pursat, Kandal, Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampot, Svay Rieng and Prey
Ouch Sokhon lives in Bangkong Khmom village in Pursat province. In
his village, he says, palm trees are handed down by parents to their children as
wedding gifts. They are an important part of many villagers'
That is true in other villages too: in many rural areas palm
tree products are vital to the local economy. Their best-known products are
probably sugar and palm wine, but they are also valuable as a source of fruit
In the shade of a palm tree, Ouch Von, 34, pushes fire wood
into an oven. Palm juice collected by her husband bubbles in a steel pan above.
The couple are one of several family-scale sugar producers in Kandal's Tropang
Palm oil sugar is refined at Tropang Kok village, Kandal.
The couple have no rice fields, and depend entirely on palm
sugar for their income. It takes Von one day to make 15 kilograms of sugar,
which she sells for around 15,000 riel ($3.75).
They don't own their
trees - her husband collects the juice from trees they rent from other villagers
- which means their situation is somewhat precarious.
"If the owners
decide to sell their trees, or cut them down to use the wood for building, then
it will be very difficult for us to survive," she says.
Palm sugar is the
most common product. Each palm produces around 400 liters of juice a year, which
once processed will leave Von with around 60 kilograms of sugar.
published two years ago estimated that between 20-40,000 families are involved
in palm sugar production nationwide. Each family assigns three members to
collect and process the juice, which means up to 120,000 people rely on the
trees for work.
Palm sugar used to be a prosperous industry in Cambodia:
in 1955 around 10,000 tons was consumed here, with 25,000 tons exported to
Vietnam. In 1959 the government decided to build a sugar refinery in Kampong
Speu. Until it was destroyed by war in the Lon Nol period, the factory produced
12,500 tons of white sugar each year.
In Pursat's Bangkong Khmom village,
almost all the villagers make palm sugar. Ton Rim says he earns around 10,000
riel a day from palm sugar.
"For most of us, our lives depend on sugar
palm," he says.
Traveling on Cambodia's major routes, you would be
hard-pressed to avoid the ubiquitous road-side stores. Most sell palm wine, with
which the thirsty punter can wash down tasty snacks such as fried
The wine is obtained from fermented palm juice, which is strained
and left in a vat with leaf stalks to help the fermentation process. After 12
hours, the wine, with an alcohol content of 6 percent, is ready to drink. At 300
riel a liter it is not only cheaper than rice wine, say fans, it also tastes
One vendor on National Route 2 says she earns around 15,000 riel
a day, double that on weekends. However, she is concerned at the number of trees
she sees are being lopped down for wood.
"In my village I have seen them
cutting down palm trees," she says. "But I hope they will save the female trees
and the young trees for making juice."
A short drive from the wine
vendor, 13-year-old Nao Soknath helps her sister to peel the skins of the palm
tree fruits. One bag goes for 300 riel, and travelers regularly purchase five or
ten bags at a time.
Her mother, San Horn, 44, says she started selling
the fruit six years ago. With only one small rice field, she realized that her
ten-strong family needed to boost its income: now she takes in up to 6,000 riel
a day. Most of her clients are on their way to visit Takmau
"Nowadays life is a little easier," she says, "and I am able to send
my kids to school."
But palm trees produce more than fruit, sugar and
wine. The leaves, for instance, are used for roofing. Those with a more
inventive bent can make hats, brooms, ropes, baskets, arts and crafts, and even
medicine from the tree. And of course, there is wood.
In Tropang Kok
village, Kandal, 38 year-old Noth Pov is taking an ax and hammer to three trees.
He will cut each one into eight pieces, which a local villager will use as wood
to build his house.
"The villager hired me to cut this wood," he says.
"It is a shame to cut them, but I have no choice."
As the price of timber
has increased, local people are turning more to the palm tree for its insect and
termite-resistant wood. Most villagers who live far from natural forests use
palm trees to build their houses, says Pov.
"Almost every house in my
village was built with palm tree timber," he says. "We simply cannot afford to
buy other wood."
That trend began in the early 1990s, villagers say. Som
Ser, the village chief, says his village has lost most of its trees.
if we are not careful, we will lose them all," he says, explaining that there
are no regulations to care for the trees. In the early 1980s, the local
authorities handed over all palm trees to the local people. What to do with the
trees, the government says, is their own decision.
Pov worries that the
remaining trees will disappear in short order if a ban is not
"What will the next generation use to build their houses with
once these trees are gone?" he asks. "I implore the government to find a way to
protect the young palm trees. If we aren't going to plant any more, then let us
protect those that remain."
The short term future of this most Cambodian
of symbols is unclear. Conflicting demands on the trees for wood or their
products mean that their numbers may now be decreasing. However, it seems likely
that as long as Cambodians enjoy their palm wine, sugar and palm fruits, the
tree will stay as much a part of the landscape as the country's picture-book