FOR many, the sugar palm tree is the classic symbol of the Cambodian countryside, but for the residents of Trapaing Korn it’s a vital source of income. The villagers climb the tall trees to tap juice from their flowers.
They then boil the juice until it forms the sickly sweet sugar that is so popular with Cambodian children.
Thean Nai, 51, has traded palm sugar for 23 years. “I don’t produce by myself. I only buy from other people,” she says.
Farmers come to Thean Nai’s small warehouse with buckets of palm sugar that she decants into larger vats before selling it to traders in Kampong Speu and Sihanoukville.
“The best season is from March to June,” she says. “During those months they climb the trees and collect the juice to make palm sugar. After that, the palm trees don’t have flowers.”
Thean Nai says there are more sugar palm trees around Kampong Speu than in any other part of Cambodia.
She sells about 50 tonnes of palm sugar each year in the five months from September to January, but her profit margin is small. She buys for about 2,000 riel a kilogram and sells for 2,200 riel, a profit of only 200 riel.
Judging by the number of farmers that are coming to her with palm sugar, Thean Nai believes this year will be a good one.
“Before this year, it was not so good because more people stopped [making palm sugar],” she says.
“When we sold the palm sugar, there was a lot of competition and we made a small profit.”
Thean Nai, one of more than 20 palm sugar buyers in the area, plans to expand her business.
“At first I bought a little, but right now I have borrowed money to increase my stock,” she says. “This year I have borrowed 80,000 riel.”
Despite the expansion of her business, Thean Nai says less palm sugar is being produced than in the past.
“Before, there were a lot of sugar palm trees around here, but they cut down almost all of them and the villagers here produce only a little palm sugar, so now I buy from producers from other areas.’’
A decline in the number of sugar palm trees is not the only problem that producers face. The price of the wood they traditionally use to boil the juice in order to make the palm sugar is also increasing.
“Last year, a big truck containing 2.5 tonnes of wood cost 300,000 riel, but this year it cost 500,000 riel,” Thean Nai says. “But the price of the palm sugar is the same.”
Now farmers burn offcuts from garment factories rather than wood. Just across the road from Thean Nai in Trapaing Korn, Em Ol is standing beside a huge pile of offcuts.
“We spend a lot of money on this material,” he says. “A truckload of material costs 180,000 riel.” It is also harder work, as the material burns a lot more quickly than wood.
Em Ol has collected palm juice since 1982 or 1983. Now 50, he still climbs 15 sugar palm trees twice a day.
In the evening, he cuts new fruit and places a container underneath it. The following morning, he climbs the tree to collect the fresh juice.
It’s hard work.
Em Ol and his son collect 15 litres of juice each day. Beginning at three in the morning, Em Ol boils the juice twice to make the sugar syrup. Each boiling takes about four hours.
It takes 45 litres of the palm liquid to make 8kg of palm sugar, and each year Em Ol produces about one tonne of palm sugar.
“Sometimes I get tired because I am older, but I don’t know how to stop,” he says. “My son is still young and we do not have much money.”