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Rice cultures

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
1/10/23

From its source near the border with Thailand, the Stueng Saen (Saen River) sculpts and meanders its way into the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia.
Innumerable villages line its course, becoming denser and more populous as the river finds its way through the riceplains. I took most of these photos in one such village, Kampong Chheuteal in Kampong Thom province, where I conducted anthropological fieldwork from October 2005 to May 2006.
Rice growing imposes one set of demands, but the seasonal rhythms of the river also shape the tempo of local lives. As a long-time commercial center, this village is perhaps better off than many others; it is also well endowed with lakes and ponds that are perfect for growing rice.

Ricelands. Cambodia, 2005
Ricelands. Cambodia, 2005
Paddies in Kampong Chheuteul are grown in a variety of environments and habitats. Elevation matters in rice-growing.
Here, the type of rice grown is standard srew sraal (lowland rainfed rice). Rainfed = no artificial methods of irrigation. In this location there are no nearby water reservoirs. Drainage is by way of ditches that are easy to maintain and managed via community discussion (this process has to be synchronized among all the farmers using the same drainage area).
Soils are sandy and highly permeable. Because of this poor quality of soil, the seeds are transplanted (sentoung; transplanted rice is called srew senantoung). The seedlings are sowed in July, and transplanted within a few weeks. The type of rice grown here was a high-yielding variety provided by external agencies. It had a short growing season and was the first to be harvested (from October to late November). However, the 2005 yield was spoilt by pests.
This area is probably the newest agricultural frontier, having been opened up after 1992 when crowding led farmers to look inland for new land.

New rice. Kampong Chheuteul, Cambodia, 2005
New rice. Kampong Chheuteul, Cambodia, 2005

November 2005: Yi was showing me how to harvest rice. In one hand she holds a bunch of rice stalks that she’s just cut with the sickle. These ricefields belong to her and her husband.
A family harvests their ricefield, Cambodia 2005
A family harvests their ricefield, Cambodia 2005

After harvesting for the day, a father and son chats to us. Cambodia, 2005
After harvesting for the day, a father and son chats to us. Cambodia, 2005
East and west of the village are several distinct complexes of lakes (boeng) and ponds (trepiang). The families who cultivate here are among the “old families”: these were the earliest ricelands taken up. The paddies are grown in the shallower portions of the lakes.
In lakes such as Chi’-kay, rainwater is captured through the use of barriers. When it is time to harvest, the barriers are lifted and the ricefields are drained. The soil is of better quality, being mainly formed from sediment mixed with decomposed organic matter, and the seeds are just broadcasted and left to grow on their own. The type of rice grown in these lakes is srew tungun (or tungoan), deepwater rice which is adapted to flood recession ecology, with long stalks and a seven- to nine-month growing season. The seeds are broadcasted in May and the harvest is in December.

Moving water the traditional way. Cambodia, 2006
Moving water the traditional way. Cambodia, 2006
Dry season ricefield, Cambodia 2006
Dry season ricefield, Cambodia 2006
At Lake Bak-Lueng, which adjoins Chi’-kay, it is never dry completely, and the households that own the land there are able to grow rice during the dry season when other households are focusing on vegetables (srew prang ‘dry season rice’). This type of rice also had a short growing season, being transplanted in February and harvested between April and May.

Transplanting rice. Cambodia, 2005
Transplanting rice. Cambodia, 2005
August 2005: in Sempoar village, villagers were transplanting rice, moving seedlings from seedbed to ricefield, using exchange labor arrangements.
Traditional norms have outlasted the war and bonds of reciprocity still characterize many facets of village relations. Exchange labor (“I work for you today, you work for me tomorrow”) is one example. When the workers are ready to transplant their fields, they can call on the labor of those people they have helped. When there’s enough labor to go around, this system works. But when many fields are transplanted at the same time, all hands are taken up. People have to either transplant on their own or hire workers.
Harvesters for hire. Cambodia, 2005
Harvesters for hire. Cambodia, 2005

These women harvesters were hired from the next village. The ricefield owners never could summon enough family labor, with their daughter running her business, two sons in school, another helping his in-laws, and the final one drifting around on his own whim. So they had to bring in hired hands. The circulation of workers followed the rhythms of the harvest in different places, with those not busy at home picking up day jobs elsewhere, and in turn looking for harvesters when their fields are ready. It’s a supplier’s market, with high demand for all available labor.
—--
partly extracted from:
Lye Tuck-Po. 2007. The ingenuity of local culture: photos from the Cambodian countryside. Kyoto Journal, 34–37.

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