The Cycle of Rice: Urban Traders

the cycle of rice



For nearly three decades, a block in Phnom Penh has served as a distribution hub for the rice that feeds the city. This is the 11th in a 12-part series on Cambodia’s rice cycle, to be published monthly.

On a busy block across from Phnom Penh’s train station, rice arrives from millers across the country—the penultimate stop in a journey that ends in homes, restaurants and pagodas around the city.

The vendors that occupy the bustling rice hub in Daun Penh district have been buying, selling and bargaining for the staple grain since 1980, and many have toiled for decades among the dozens of shopfronts that line three sides of the block.

Wholesaler Ngov Leung, 52, moved with her family to the capital from Siem Reap province in 1989. Business has waxed and waned over the past 27 years, she said, but is currently caught in a downward trend.

“The last few years, my business has not been going well,” she said from behind a desk at the front of her shop, expertly binding riel notes together with ring-choked fingers.

“I sell less than before.”

A few years ago, Ms. Leung could sell up to 2 tons of rice per day. But buying habits have changed, and many people now obtain their rice from supermarkets, mini-marts and small, family-run shops. She now sells about half that amount.

“It’s not such a good business because many people do it,” she said.

Even so, Ms. Leung sells about $600 worth of rice per day, grown in Battambang and Siem Reap provinces. She declined to say how much she pays the farmers.

A 50 kg sack of top-quality jasmine rice—prized for its long, fragrant grains—costs about $40. Less valued varieties, with shorter grains and cloudier colors, are purchased by restaurant owners for around $30.

With hundreds of sacks stacked neatly behind her, Ms. Leung gestured toward a woman a few meters away, rhythmically sifting rice while sitting on a child-sized stool.

“I have her to work for me,” Ms. Leung said. “She earns 1,000 riel [about $0.25] for each sack she cleans.”

The woman, Inn Dy, 37, has been working for Ms. Leung for three years. For 10 hours each day, she scoops rice from the sacks and pours it into a large metal tub.

Using a wooden sieve, she rolls the grains through her fingers, picks out shards of husk and tiny stones, and shakes the dust onto the cement floor. Finally, she pours the purified product into an empty sack in front of her.

“I am able to clean 20 to 30 bags per day,” she said.

Asked whether she enjoyed the monotonous work, Ms. Dy replied, “I love this job because I cannot find another…. I have no knowledge.”

When a man carrying a sack on his shoulder dropped it next to Ms. Dy, they exchanged a coy smile.

“My husband carries the rice to me,” she said. “Sometimes we argue, but it is never serious.”

Ms. Dy’s husband spends the day scaling pillars of rice, often 30 sacks tall, tossing sacks onto his back and climbing back down before plopping them at his wife’s feet. For each cleaned sack, he earns 750 riel, or about $0.20.

With her young son dozing on a sack to her left, Ms. Dy said that as long as she and her husband worked for Ms. Leung, their family would never go hungry. “I never buy rice,” she said, with a nod toward her boss. “She is so kind—she gives it to me.”

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