The chillies here are organic. They don’t use any chemicals to make them bigger like in Thailand.
Keo Srey Mao, 25, is surrounded by basket upon basket of chilli peppers drying in the sun. Ever since a child, the 25-year-old has dried the spicy fruit for her mother on the banks of the Tonle Sap. “I don’t have a farm so I just dry the chillies,” she says.
Hers is one of four or five families who do this work in the village of Kandal just across the ramshackle bridge from the town of Kampong Chhnang. Keo Srey Mao buys the chillies from farmers who come to her small wooden hut by boat.
After drying them for two days in the sun with some salt, she sells the dried chillies to buyers in town.
“This year there are less chillies than previous years, because the price for chillies is going down,” says Keo Srey Mao. “Last year a kilogram of dried chillies fetched 14,000 riel, but this year it is 10,000 riel.
When the price is low, we tell the farmer we cannot buy from them at a high price, so there is no problem for us. I am very fair.” Now she pays 2,000 riel for a kilogram of raw chillies.
Many farmers have been deterred by an increase in imported chillies from Thailand. Although the Thai chillies are bigger, Kep Srey Mao claims the domestic ones are better.
“The chillies here are organic,” she says. “They don’t use any chemicals to make them bigger like in Thailand. The chillies here are more tasty.”
A few kilometres along the Tonle Sap, Suon Sorn, 62, grows chillies on a patch of land not half a hectare in area alongside some tomatoes, aubergines and pumpkins. He cannot remember how many years he has grown chilli plants.
“A long, long time, it’s difficult to tell you, more or less every year,” he says. “This year is very bad. There has been no rain. I am poor so I don’t have the money to pump water from the river.”
He sells his chillies to dryers like Kep Srey Mao. “The good chillies start growing in November and December, and we harvest until the floods come,” he says.
The seasonal rains which make the land so fertile also bring with them a distinct problem for Suon Sorn. “All this land gets flooded,” Suon Sorn says, waving his arm across the river’s fertile bank.
“Then I live in the pagoda,” he says. “Now I live in this hut. When the floods come we pull it down and take away the wood.”
Growing beside his temporary hut is a small flower garden. “It’s not for business,” he says.
“But for the gods to bless my crop.” Unfortunately for Suon Sorn, this year the god of water has not heard his prayers.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY