TAKEO, Cambodia — The world turned blue and green as my sickle swept through rice stalks. Our gang was silent and sweating in the sultry afternoon. The only sound was the crackle of breaking stalks and the slop of feet in monsoon-fed water. An old lady, in baggy pajamas (acceptable daywear in Cambodia), stopped and whirled an armful of stalks into a binding sheaf.
The Southeast Asian landscape is dominated by emerald rice paddies, dotted with workers, bent like apostrophes. From the windows of buses and trains, foreigners gaze at these postcard vistas, and dream about a simpler, more bucolic life.
While some people long to escape rice paddy labor, for many Cambodians, their fields are labors of love that provide sustenance and income. Indeed, the loss of their fields (sometimes through forced eviction) is one of the main reasons people take work at remote factories, and even sometimes fall into prostitution.
I wondered, what is it like to actually work in those fields?
So I joined a family of farmers to harvest one of their fields in Takeo — a province that borders Vietnam. Rice fields fanned out in all directions. Different plots were marked by sticks bearing plastic bags that fluttered like flags. Sown at different different times of the year, some fields were still bright with young plants while others were brown and heavy with grain.
About 75 percent of Cambodia’s 10 million people are farmers. A family typically farms just a few hectares, each of which brings in up to $1,000.
There were six of us. Three generations working together. The youngest was a girl of 10. While drinking with the family the previous night the girl had slapped my shoulder and said, “He is Supheap”. Having received my Cambodian name I reciprocated and named her Daisy. Everyone marveled at such an exotic moniker. Daisy waded purposefully through the paddy.
For the rest of us, too focused on cutting every last stalk to worry about the possibility of catching a water-born parasite, it was a slow, meditative slop through knee-deep sludge. Back-ache would be a concern if the farmers had the luxury of health care and leisure time to worry about such things. But the only person surfacing from the green swathes rubbing his back and complaining was me.
Daisy followed our rushing sickles with a large plastic sheet. Piling the fallen ranks on top, she dragged them to her older brother who waited by a rattling tractor.
It was sensual work. Silky mud filled the space between each toe. I sopped forward grabbing handfuls of sinewy stalks and slashing them with a flick of the wrist. Broken bunches lay in my wake. The technique wasn’t difficult and within the hour I was slashing with confidence followed only by a tutting grandfather plucking at the many stalks I missed.
Time dilated. The only clock was the hot, vaulting sun. Had it been half an hour or two? Freed from the sound of landing emails and Facebook’s siren call, stress evaporated. The work was like a meditation: grab and cut, grab and cut.
The process was broken only to take photos. I had my camera and Supon, the head of the family, had his white iPhone. With each photo we attempted to catch the ocean in a cup.
Supon was proud of his iPhone. When I took a welcome break from the labor in order to snap shots Supon produced his white gadget and took his own. Supon is a Facebook fiend. He uploaded his pictures before me using Cambodia’s cheap mobile internet. He included captions in broken English like, “Foreigner help my family today, very happy, who like?” (An app that renders Khmer script into Facebook has yet to be written). With over three acres of rice fields to his name Supon is wealthier then his peers who content themselves with cheaper brands of Smartphone that retail around $120.
Each acre produces 8000 pounds of rice in two annual harvests. Most of it feeds Supon’s extended family who, like most Cambodians, eats rice for every meal. Anything left will be sold to buy meat, vegetables and livestock.
Sometimes Supon hires a thundering harvester to do the job, but that day we were cutting by hand. The price of the hire is not so much more than the cost of professional harvesters most families hire to help. They are usually poorer members of the community who have no land. “The harvester strips the grains from the rice but leaves the stalks in the water,” Supon said. “So we also harvest by hand so we can save the stalks to feed to our cows.”
Harvesting is followed by threshing, usually within a day or so. The grains are stripped from the plant by foot and the collected husks are spread in the sun to dry. During harvest season every house is bearded by plastic sheets covered in brown grains. During the final stage of the process the rice is put through a mill to remove the husk.
“I estimate we grow at least 300 varieties of rice in Cambodia,” said Ouk Makara, director of the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute. “We have different strains depending on whether the rice is grown in the dry season or the wet season.”
The most popular strain grown in the wet season is Cambodian jasmine rice, or Phka Romdoul. In November it was named the world’s best rice for the third year running.
After half a day bent double and sweating, we sliced at the last scraps of the field. A thousand stubs poked out of the water. The afternoon sun shone a net between them. I clasped my smarting back and arched backwards. Supon’s father-in-law stood and smiled with his two remaining teeth. He rubbed his back too.
“Everyone’s back hurts after a while,” said Supon. “Yours will hurt more because you’re not used to it.” A Cambodian proverb posits, “Do not plan to study with the desire to become a government minister… you must study to become a farmer in order to have wealth in the future.”
This points to the reality that for many, cultivating rice is the most available route to financial stability. Its tough work. In Cambodia planting, tending and harvesting is done almost exclusively by hand — it’s not uncommon to see elderly people bent double with arthritis by the end of their lives.
When we finished, we trudged back to Supon’s wooden house. There, Supon's smiling wife, Supea laid out rice, deep fried eggs, pork and vegetables. We devastated the spread in minutes.
Their toddler and nephew had eaten already. They tottered around pealing their first phrase, “hop bai” which means “eat rice” but is used to describe all kinds of food. Indeed, rice is so enmeshed in the culture that phatic conversation revolves around it. “Hello, have you eaten rice yet?” is a common greeting.
As evening fell, I reclined in a hammock trying to keep my eyes open. Supon lent over and kissed his wife. His parents-in-law sat on a wooden platform swinging their legs, saying nothing. Every night all three generations sleep on the floor of the single upstairs room.
Despite the problems Cambodia is well-known for, there, in Supon’s house, I didn’t see poor people. Nor did I see denizens of a society struggling towards the promised land of “development.” Supon had attended university in Phnom Penh, his fees met by a wealthy friend, but he dropped out, preferring a traditional lifestyle.
Indeed, if you speak to the migrant workers in the garment factories or on plantations, most long to return to the rural idyll of rice farming and small-holder cultivation. The reasons many don’t are complex — some don’t have enough land to support their large families, others have no land at all and sink to the bottom of society. But there are plenty like Supon, those who have chosen the farmer's life and who go about its hardships successfully with hearts that brim with happiness.