27 June 2013

How Cambodians earn a buck

These are just some of the ways the people of Cambodia earn their living.

Fish is a staple in the diet of the average Cambodian. Much of the population lives near water, whether it’s the mighty Mekong river, Tonle Sap – the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, or one of the smaller rivers that crisscross the countryside. Surprisingly, though, the average Cambodian doesn’t have to live close to a large waterway to eat fish regularly, as they have dug shallow ponds, large and small, almost everywhere. Both planned aquaculture and the floods of the rainy season help spread fish into these small ponds, where they survive into the height of the dry season and provide much needed protein to impoverished locals. Most fishing is done by simply throwing a net into the water.

This woman was one of many locals selling a huge variety of fish at the large and rather smelly local market in Kampot, a seaside town on the Gulf of Thailand where fishing forms a large part of the local economy. An estimated 5000 motorised wooden longboats fish the marine waters along Cambodia’s coastline, which extends from Thailand in the north to Vietnam in the south (FAO, 2004), and the majority of the fish caught are mackerel and anchovies.

Farmer’s wife
Life is hard for the average Cambodian, who lives in impoverished conditions in the countryside. Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a current ranking of 139 out of the 187 countries listed on the United Nations Human Development Index. An estimated 36% of the population lives below the poverty line, and rural households, especially those whose income is primarily based on subsistence agriculture, make up over 90% of the poor. It is still common for women and children to scavenge for frogs, snails, rats and various insects to supplement their daily intake of rice. More about the life of this particular woman can be read here.

As well as rice, fish and vegetables, fruit forms an important part of the local diet. Staples like bananas are available year round, with a huge variety of other fruit for sale on a seasonal basis, including mangoes, papayas, rambutan, jackfruit, pineapple, lychee, watermelon, mangosteen, longan, durian and palm fruit. This elderly woman was selling her fruit on the entrance causeway to Angkor Wat when I visited last weekend.

Lotus pod seller
Another, rather unusual food to be found in Cambodia is the seed of the lotus plant. These can be eaten raw – you simply break open the pods that this young woman is selling, and eat the small oval seed inside, though it is best to remove the tiny shoot in the middle as it can be quite bitter. These seeds are crunchy, a little like eating raw peas, though not as sweet, and are very nutritious, being low in saturated fat and cholesterol but high in protein, manganese and various other minerals. The seeds can also be dried and shelled, to be eaten as snacks or used to make a variety of dessert dishes.

Iceblock man
What kid doesn’t love a cold iceblock on a hot day? And, while there are many many hot days in Cambodia, there is not so much refrigeration equipment. So, commercially made iceblocks like we find available in most western countries only exist in the large cities here. The majority of kids get their iceblocks from small vendors like this man, who was doing a roaring trade selling flavoured ice to the local primary school kids from his specially adapted bicycle.

As one of my great-grandfathers was a confectioner, I was particularly fascinated to watch the making of this local delicacy, palm sugar fudge. Slits are cut into the stem of the Palmyra or Date palm to collect the sap, which is then boiled in big metal bowls over an outdoor stove (made of clay and fired with bits of wood). The mixture is stirred as it gradually thickens to become fudge, then poured into small circular palm-leaf moulds to dry and harden. It is delicious, though extremely sweet.

Stone carver
Anyone who has visited the World Heritage site of the Angkor temples can see that stone carving is a centuries-old tradition in Cambodia and, though a whole generation of artists was annihilated during the Khmer Rouge years, stone carving is once again a flourishing profession in this country. This is partly thanks to organisations like Artisans Angkor, which are working to revive and transmit vocational skills like stone carving to the rural poor.  My photo, however, shows a man who has his own workshop, near the Roulos group of temples, and sells his masterpieces mostly to passing tourists, though carvings like this aren’t exactly the lightest of souvenirs to pack in your suitcase.

Stupa maker
I’m not sure who first said ‘there is money in death’ but it’s a truism the world over. I met this man, whose speciality is constructing the burial stupas to be found in huge numbers at every pagoda in Cambodia, while wandering around Wat Polangka here in Siem Reap. His English was good and he was happy to explain a little of the building technique and proud to be photographed in front of his latest construction. The basis of the stupa is bricks which are mortared together to form the rough shape, then a variety of concrete moulded shapes are cemented on, before the decorative mouldings are added at the end.

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