rolea ba’ier district, Kompong Chhnang province – Rice farmer Kao Khon believes palm trees may have protected him from the worst abuses during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“The palm trees saved me,” he said, grinning.
When the Khmer Rouge took over, his skills at palm-sugar harvesting saved him from being forced out into the fields by ultra-Maoist cadres eager for sweets, he said.
Now producing palm sugar helps him and other rice farmers in Andoung Russey village eke out a living. Others make the province’s famed clay pots and vats as their second jobs.
During the dry season the smell of palm sugar fills the air, watering the mouths of passersby. Every morning Kao Khon wakes up early and scales the palm trees near his home, retrieving the bamboo vats he has posted high in the trees to catch palm juice overnight. Late each evening, he returns to the trees to replace the vats, closing the same daily cycle of each dry season he has known since he was 14 years old.
The juice he pours into three large vessels over earthen stoves. It takes at least two hours before the juice dries out into sugar.
Hundreds of juice-holding vats dangle in Kao Khon’s wooden house while clay pots filled with sugar wait to go to Phnom Penh’s markets. Outside, in a makeshift, thatched-roof cottage are three ovens and three huge pots, all used to produce palm sugar.
But Kao Khon, 57, is in no hurry to get rid of his inventory. He says he will wait until the market price goes up. Each day’s labor yields about 40 kg of sugar. He can produce up to 2 tons per year. The money from the sales, about $450, is enough to feed him and his six children, some of whom are married.
Mao Thur, Director General of the Ministry of Commerce, said Cambodia needs to take more advantage of sugar-makers like Kao Khon. Palm sugar is shunned by some city-dwellers.
“It would be better if more Cambodians consumed finished palm sugar in order to reduce the amount of imported sugar,” he said, adding that—as yet—Cambodia does not export any of its palm sugar.
That doesn’t make Kao Khon and his family any less grateful.
“The palm tree is my life. Even my children can climb palm trees, and make palm juice very well,” he said.
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