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Cambodia’s rich rice history

Farmers and experts from the NGO CAVA survey a rice field in Takeo province before the harvest.
Farmers and experts from the NGO CAVA survey a rice field in Takeo province before the harvest. Moeun Nhean

Cambodia’s rich rice history

Rice cultivation – the traditional Khmer way

Milled rice is the main staple in the daily lives of Cambodians as well as millions of others in Asia and across the world. Rice has deep roots in Cambodian society, dating back thousands of years.

According to H E Sim Sarak, general director of the Technical Department of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts: “Khmer ancestors living along Tonle Sap river have been growing rice dating back to between two to five thousand years BC.”

Sarak’s statement is echoed in 10 Main Rice Crops, a book published in 2011 and written by Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun.

The book states that, regarding the history of unmilled rice, “many researchers agree that the crop originated in South and Southeast Asia about three million years ago. Among these researchers, some speculate that unmilled rice could have originated around the Tonle Sap.”

Wat Ek Phnom in Battambang, home to sandstone inscriptions describing aromatic rice.
Wat Ek Phnom in Battambang, home to sandstone inscriptions describing aromatic rice. Moeun Nhean

Sarak said: “In the past, Khmer people enjoyed growing rice by throwing it into flooded areas. Some rice continues to grow within water two to five metres deep.”

Seventy-year-old farmer Mark Moeun, chief of Champei commune in Takeo province’s Bati district, recalled that “during the ancient times, the older generation of people in the village grew long-term, mid-term and short-term rice”.

The long-term, unmilled rice is a crop grown in deep water or in lowland rice fields. “It is grown first, but harvested later,” he added.

Middle-term rice is grown in medium-depth water. Its age is shorter than long-term rice. Short-term rice mostly grows in small fields, which require little water. Short-term rice is grown because the shorter time to maturation means that it can be harvested more quickly.

Moeun said: “There are many types of rice including the long-term crops such as Pka Sla, Neang Sorn, Chang Kong Pluk, middle-term crops such as Pka Khnhei, Chhmar Prum, Tro Nung, White Rice and short-term crops such as Kramoun Sar, San-tus Pluk, A-rith and Kra-chak Chab rice.”

He added that in the current environment, those seeds have been abandoned almost completely. Rural farmers have turned to growing unmilled rice seeds, as instructed by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, due to their higher output and higher pricing in the export market.

There is much evidence to suggest that Khmer people, with their unique civilisation, acquired the expertise to plant rice in ancient times. These skills continued to develop until peaking during the Angkor Era between the ninth and the 13th centuries.

Ancient inscriptions on the art of rice cultivation.
Ancient inscriptions on the art of rice cultivation. Moeun Nhean

A Chinese diplomat, Chiv Ta Guan, who visited the Great Angkor City of Cambodia during the 13th century (1296-1297), wrote a book entitled The Customs of Cambodia. In it, he states that in and around Angkor City are many big reservoirs including,

West Baray, linked by large and small tributaries. Green rice fields mixed with golden rice fields were harvested by Angkorians three times a year.

Besides the Ta Guan notes, there are many manuscripts depicting rice, unmilled rice and rice fields. The manuscripts also show the King and his citizens giving gifts to each other as well as organising concessions across the farming community during his reign. Manuscripts at the Phimean Akas Temple, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan Temples describe works of King Jayavarman VII between 1181-1221 BC.

Those manuscripts say that in the reign of King Jayavarman VII, the King built 102 illness-curing centres (what we would today call hospitals) across Cambodia. The King equipped each centre with facilities, equipment and more, including medicines.

Many hab (an ancient Khmer unit of weight equal to 60 kilograms) of rice and unmilled rice was regularly supplied to hospital staff and patients. Quite possibly, during that time, the King dispensed thousands of tons of rice, both milled and unmilled, each year.

A government official examines rice at an agricultural exhibition.
A government official examines rice at an agricultural exhibition. Moeun Nhean

One must note that the King governed and developed the land in a progressive manner relevant to the agricultural sector. Rice production in particular progressed to its peak stemming from the development of irrigation systems. They controlled the natural water through tributaries, creeks, rivers and especially the Baray reservoirs powered by irrigation systems throughout the country.

Just around the Angkorian capital city, there are huge reservoirs including the West Reservoir. It is two kilometres wide, seven kilometres long and four to six metres deep.

Jaya Tadak Reservoir on the eastern side of Angkor, similar to the West Reservoir and Intra Tadak Reservoir, is located to the north of Preah Kor temple (southeast of Angkor).

Additionally, far from the Angkor area, there are many more reservoirs, namely the Ang Trapaing Thmor reservoir in Banteay Meanchey province, Rorharl Reservoir around Koh Ke Temple in Preah Vihear province, Tonle Om reservoir in Kampong Cham province, Tonle Om reservoir at Chi Sor Mountain Temple in Takeo province and the Ang Kampingpouy reservoir in Battambang. Evidence surrounding these reservoirs suggests that there were many rice fields planted by the Cambodian people. In some areas they performed two to three harvests every year. The practice was handed down by Khmer ancestors from ancient times. Successive generations have kept these methods of rice cultivation alive by adopting wholeheartedly them.

Rumduol rice from Takeo province.
Rumduol rice from Takeo province. Moeun Nhean

Khmers have known how to produce quality rice for thousands of years.

The following information comes from manuscripts dating back to the early 11th century AD. They were discovered in the Ek Phnom Temple in Battambang province and are currently kept in the Guimet Museum in Paris.

One inscription says that “there is a local woman, living in Ta Kream district, who took jewellery, white rice and quality rice with a good smell, to give to the King’s teacher, named Yokesvara. It was given as a gift for devotion to Shiva Linga and all the other Gods over there.”

This is evidence demonstrating Khmer people in Battambang province have ancient knowledge about how to grow unmilled rice and produce high-quality milled rice with a rich, full colour and smell. For thousands of years prior to the existence of other nations in the region, the Khmer have been growing and cultivating rice.

In accordance with the history of the Norkor Phnom, between the first and fourth centuries BC, they learned that the Khmer practised intensive agriculture dating back to that time. According to Chinese traders who travelled by boat to Norkor Phnom in the same time period, these residents (Funan residents) cultivated rice once but harvested it three times per year.

Rumduol rice cooked up and ready to dig in to.
Rumduol rice cooked up and ready to dig in to. Moeun Nhean

The first harvest was done by cutting transplanted or thrown rice. The second, harvested from sa-srov (rice growing from the bottom part of the rice tree which can then grow again). The third, harvested from moure srov (the rice crop falling over the land and growing up from first rainfall giving rise to rice). Srov in Khmer means rice.

Today, some people in different areas of Takeo still adhere to tradition cultivating practices: planting rice once per year and harvesting it three times. Whether this technique is followed depends on the geographical locations of the rice fields and the availability of good, natural fertilisers and extra space. The practice is followed by three methods.

First, farmers crop or transplant the harvest for the first time.

Second, the farmers reserve rice for the second cultivation.

Third, the farmers preserve the land until rainfall at the beginning of the year.

The unmilled rice falling to the ground during cultivation can grow again, getting it the name moure srov and becoming ripe as farmers harvest it – the third time.


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