I grab ten golden stalks of rice in my left hand and bunch them together.
The serrated sickle in my right hand saws through the stems clumsily; it takes multiple efforts to cut them all. Salty sweat drips down my forehead and into my eyes; the stagnant humidity and the hot sun’s embrace are both relentless.
I straighten my back, and shuffle over a few feet to grab another handful of rice stalks. The curved crescent blade, rusted near the hilt, cuts and saws again. Success. I add more stalks to the growing bundle in my left hand and move on.
I have been doing this for a hour, and have fallen into an almost meditative trance. All that exists is the golden rice paddy, my tool, the sweat, the groaning protest of my muscles, and the rice in hand. Every time I cut down as many stalks as I can hold in my fist, I walk out of the rice paddy and deposit my cuttings onto the ground, into the large pile I have been collecting.
I stop to wipe sweat off of my face, stretch my muscles, and take in the beauty of my rural Cambodian surroundings. The sea of golden green rice paddy seems never ending beneath an almost-too-blue sky. Only one hour, and I’m already tired, ready to find some shade, a cold drink, and a stool to prop my feet up on.
I don’t think I would have made it as a rice farmer.
A Rice Farmer… for a Day
Have you ever wondered where the rice you eat comes from? Could you live on $140 a year? Does your eight hour work day involve blistering heat, a well worn sickle, bare feet on brown earth, and a large straw hat to hopefully shade you from a raging sun?
As of 2012, 65% of the workforce (and 80% of the rural workforce) in Cambodia worked in agriculture, the majority of them rice farmers.
Our alarm went off at 6.30 am, approximately two and a half hours later than the average rice farmer awakens. We quickly got dressed and met up with two of Mad Monkey’s fabulous staff to gulp down some coffee while discussing the upcoming day. Soon afterwards we rode out of the Mad Monkey Hostel in Kampot on our motorbikes, enjoying the wind on our faces, a welcome contrast to an already humid morning.
A few kilometers out of town we turned into a red dirt road adorned with layers of mud, endless potholes, and puddles. The muddy track took us past seemingly infinite rice fields, basic Cambodian homes, and beautiful children on peddle bikes who greeted us with big smiles, hellos, and curious questions about who we were.
Arriving at the farm we found a bare wooden structure perched atop stilts, standing on a large cement slab in the midst of the rice fields. We were greeted by our guide and translator for the day, Limh, a young Cambodian who grew up on farm near Kampot. He introduced us to our host and owner of the farm, Lorng, whose toothy smile and wide happy eyes seemed to convey a delighted pride to welcome us to his home.
The cement slab, which serves as the foundation for the farmer’s stilted abode, is where most household activities are conducted throughout the day. Shaded and relatively cool in comparison to the baking wooden house above, the slab was adorned with a large multi-purpose table, a cooking station with a single propane burner, hammocks, and chairs. Countless dogs and chickens running about added to the rustic nature of our surroundings.
After the introductions we walked to a neighboring house to enjoy a traditional Cambodian farmer’s breakfast consisting of a portion of rice noodle soup with a green sauce we could not identify, and small pieces of fish. Everything in the soup was fresh and homemade, including the noodles.
Once breakfast was in our bellies we headed back to the farm to get to work. Cutting rice was the mission for the next couple of hours. If we could last that long underneath the punishing sun, that is. Turns out that harvesting rice is not an easy task.
Sickles and large hats were distributed, and off to the fields we went. Our host demonstrated a rice harvesting technique by grabbing a bunch of stalks in hand and deftly cutting through them in one swift motion of his sickle. We mimicked him to the best of our amateurish ability, but found our actions clumsy and slow in comparison.
After a hour of hunched over sweaty hacking we ended up with twenty large bundles of rice. It looked like a lot to us, amateurs that we were.
We gathered the bundles and carried them back to the farm house, depositing them on the concrete slab below. Lorng showed us how to release the multitude of rice grains from their stalks using two manual techniques. One method involved standing on the rice bundles with bare feet while kneading the strands slowly with your toes. The dexterity, balance, and patience involved were a bit beyond us. The second technique, which seemed not only more efficient but also more fun, had us whipping and beating the bundles across a wooden board. Grains of rice ran like rain upon each impact, and gathered onto the slab.
Once the rice was separated from the strands, the ground was covered in a small sea of brown grains. We swept it up, and collected the grains into a large wash basin. The entire basin was filled with rice, and again we gave each other smiles. Yes, we had only managed to work for about 2 hours before tiring ourselves out, but at least we gathered up this huge pile of rice, right? Turns out, our labor amounted to about a dollar’s worth of rice collected. Perhaps less.
The harsh reality of rural Cambodian life set in. Lorng, and his family work the fields all their lives, sunrise after sunrise, and barely make enough to get by, even on means as modest as theirs. Backbreaking labor, for pennies.
Lorng led us to a nearby pond where he filled up a bucket of water which we used to wash up a bit. It was unclear whether we were all that much cleaner after rinsing off in the green pond water, but it was cool and refreshing.
Upon return to the house, Lorng’s young daughter prepared a modest lunch for us. Of course rice was served as the base of the meal, along with a topping of spicy fried chicken (likely one that was running around the farm just a day or two before) or a mixture of stir fried cabbage, carrots, and onions.
After lunch we walked to a nearby home where we were taught by one of the local women how to make a traditional Cambodian dessert, sticky rice cooked in coconut cream with a banana filling. Portions of sticky rice were plopped down on squares of banana leaf and we were instructed to mash the rice down into a thin layer. We then placed a small banana on top and rolled the rice around it and ended up with something similar to a sushi roll. We then wrapped the banana leaf around the roll and folded in the open ends and tucked them under the roll. The parcels were brought off to be steamed for an hour or so. The result was a delicious, banana cream filled pocket of sweet rice that was quickly devoured by all.
Well fed and a bit tired we bid farewell to Lorng and his family and drove our bikes out to “Secret Lake” located not too far from Kampot. We swam, relaxed, and drank beers, which was almost certainly in stark contrast to the farmer’s afternoon. While we had the luxury to laze around after a mere few hours of work, Lorng and his family were out in the fields, working in the hot humid environment with no real hopes of economic advancement, working simply to survive.
The reality is that a typical Cambodian rice farmer makes around $1.75 a day for all backbreaking labor they do, and most never advance past a point of subsistence farming. Lorng, and all the other farmers around the world just like him, work desperately in an environment most of us would not be able to tolerate. Which certainly makes us examine our own eating habits. The next time we feel we can’t finish our food and decide to be wasteful we hope to pause for a moment and reflect back to our time in the rice fields.
For more information on the financial earnings of a rice farmer in Cambodia please visit www.cdri.org.kh