Cambodia is Rice

Wed Jan 27, 2010

Cambodia is rice.  The sole source of income for most of the population is rice farming, grueling hot exhausting labor, done as it has been forever, all manual, plowing behind the family cow.  This is what I saw on the drive from the border at Poipet to Siem Reap, and ‘picturesque’ as it may have been, the difficulty and harshness of it was evident.

And this was the story told to me high up the steep stairs, on the top of Ta Keo.  So many of the young Cambodians working in the temple complex – mostly as cleaners – are eager for every opportunity to work on their English and will sit down and tell you about their lives and their families.  This young man talked of his family, living 12 k or so north of Siem Reap, of their achingly hard struggle, of how they subsisted, of dawn to dusk work which is all his parents had ever known, raising rice.  No retirement, else no food.  Life is so hard here.  There are versions of this story over and over, and over.

Life is rice.  This was brought home to me again this noon.  I was sitting in the front entry of my very small, budget guesthouse, reading up on where I was going to be biking to.  It was lunch time for the girls who work here – the sweet young cook, and the two cleaners.   Their lunch was a big pot of rice and three small pots of  condiments.  A vegetable mixture, some sort of sauce, and I can’t recall the other.  But there was no meat.

To my surprise, the girls were eating mostly just plain rice by the big spoonful.  Once partly fed, they were adding a spoon of one of the condiments to a bit of rice, then back to just plain white rice.  Their lunch was 95% just two large bowls each of plain rice.

I thought back to my own lunch, sparing and bland as I am still fighting off the inevitable travelers digestive scourge, made worse by some predisposing conditions of my own.  I had just chicken breast lightly fried, and a big plate of rice.  I hadn’t been able to eat much of the rice, westerner that I am, needing something more on it, a bit of butter and salt perhaps, or fried with soy sauce.  Yet here they were, living daily on what I had practically rejected.

I had saved the rice for later, though, so here I am now, chewing mouthfuls of it, and thinking of how it feels to have that only, to be grateful to have it, to be grateful to just have something to put in your belly.

Cambodia is the young people from the small communities, where they grew up working in the rice fields, coming to Siem Reap to do any jobs they can – working every day, never time off, and those are the lucky ones. Often dawn to bedtime, not ever being able to see their families who might live a twenty minute drive away.  No way to go anywhere, no time even if they had the means.

My gastric issues have me eating very simply, almost entirely these bits of sautéed chicken breast, rice, and apple juice by the liter from the market.  I have trouble eating enough for my energy output and am hungry much of the time.  And I just tell myself that the hunger will stop after awhile, the body gets tired of complaining.  If I could make myself eat more of the rice, perhaps I would not be so hungry.  But I can’t, not yet.  I haven’t spent my whole life being happy just to know that the rice bowl will be full tonight.

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4 Responses to Cambodia is Rice

  1. Brodie says:

    You mentioned the poverty of eating plain rice, the hard working necessary to survive. Didn’t you see that in Thailand also?

    • Christine says:

      The fields I drove by in Thailand were distinctly more lush and appeared mechanized, but everything changed when we entered Cambodia. Suddenly everything was manual. Less green, more dusty brown.

      Remember – the entire country was basically a prison camp from 1975 to 1979. A quarter to a third of the population was killed and most of the rest were enslaved, terrorized, and tortured. Anyone who could read was killed. It is too large a generalization based on two weeks in the country and having seen a fairly limited part of it, but the feel of the Cambodia I saw was its own, quite unlike Laos, or Vietnam, or Thailand.

  2. Brodie says:

    When do you leave?

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