Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cambodian Soybean Harvest

Workers Secure Truck Load of Soybeans
When my wife and I travelled to Cambodia the first week of last November, our visit was timed to coincide with the full moon which signified the start of the fishing season on Tonle Sap Lake.

Our timing was about a week too early for the rice harvest.  We saw many rice fields where heavy golden panicles of rice were bowed almost as if in homage to the Earth or deities of the land.  We did see a couple of fields that had been harvested but nothing that would warrant stopping to photograph.  I did notice that the rice in the region was growing in very wet soil but not in paddies as is the standard in Isaan.  At harvest time in Isaan the rice paddies are parched and not muddy as in Cambodia.  Our rain stops in September and by November the ground is dusty and cracked until the rains return in April or May.

All was not lost in our quest to witness and photograph people going about their daily lives and activities.  On our way in the afternoon from the ruins of Koh Ker to the ruins of Beng Mealea along the paved two lane Cambodian National Highway 105, we came upon a hectic sight.

The area through which Highway 105 traverses about 20 kilometers south of Koh Ker is a hilly agricultural area.  The area is speckled with solitary huge trees - a reminder and testament to the rain forest that covered the land not all that long ago.  The forests have been logged out and the land converted into farm land in response to the economic realities of today in Southeast Asia.  Just as in Lao, vast expanses of Cambodia have been cleared to grow crops for markets in China and Thailand.

Soybeans and bananas now are grown along Cambodian National Highway where forests once stood.

Typical Cambodian Farm Home Along National Highway 105

Soybeans Drying Along the Roadside
It turned out they had missed the soybean harvest by just a day or two.  We did not see any machinery or people harvesting the soybean crop.  What we did see were many large tarps spread out along both sides of the highway and around the various farm houses.  The tarps were covered with a thin layer of soybeans.  The soybeans were exposed to dry out in the strong sun and breezes.  The same process is utilized in Thailand, Lao, and People's Republic of China for the rice harvest.  Dried, dehydrated product can be stored however moist, or improperly dried product will be ruined by mold and also become spoiled through fermentation.

Soybeans Drying In the Sun In Front of a Home

Sacks of Soybeans Being Loaded for Markets in Thailand or PRC (China)

We stopped along the road where there were several tandem trucks and large single trailer trucks were being filled by hand with large sacks of soybeans.  The location was a marshaling station for the nearby farms. The trucks were from a middleman in Phnom Penh with the final destination for the crop being either Thailand or PRC (China).

I rushed out from our car as soon as it stopped and started taking photographs.  A man, a man who was clearly in charge, walked over to me and asked politely in fairly good English what I was doing.  I explained to him how I liked (was obsessed?) in taking photographs of people and then writing stories about the people and related photographs on the Internet.  I showed him some of the photos that I had taken.  That was it - we were then "buddies".

I have never had a problem photographing here in Southeast Asia.  The people have been very receptive to being photographed.  I do not expect them to pose and let them know to just carry on with what they are doing. I share some of the shots that I have taken and they quickly relax.  Inevitably they end up joking and laughing over my enthusiasm and efforts to get that "perfect" shot.  There have been many times, that the people have pointed out someone or something that they though that I would be interested in shooting - I always make it a point to take that shot and share with them.

It turned out that the "man in charge" was an ethnic Chinese business man from the capital.  I bring up the fact that he was ethnic Chinese not in any judgmental or prejudicial sense but for the readers to better understand the conditions; the realities of today.  Throughout Southeast Asia, many of the business people, bankers, and merchants are ethnic Chinese - a fact that the local indigenous people are very aware of.  In some cases there is an underlying resentment of the ethnic Chinese prosperity.  In 1969, there were serious race riots in Malaysia against the ethnic Chinese.  Ethnic Chinese were also victimized in Vietnam earlier last year over the actions of China regarding oil exploration in disputed waters.  Things do not happen out of a vacuum - there are always underlying conditions that serve as catalysts.

Anyhow - the business man and his wife serve as middlemen for buyers in either Thailand or the People's Republic of China (PRC).  I asked the man how much money did he pay for a bag of soybeans.  I always try to learn and understand the value of the various crops that I witness being harvested.  He said that he did not know - he was responsible for arranging for the loading along with transportation of the product to final market, and it was his wife who handled the money.  I confirmed that his wife handled the family finances.  I told him that I handled our family finances and not to tell my wife that his wife handled his.  I joked with him about not telling my wife because then she would want to be the "Big Boss"  Just then Duang showed up to check and make sure that I was alright.  The man knew that I had been joking so I told Duang that I wanted to know how much was a bag of soybeans but he didn't know.  Apparently believing that the man would better understand her English better than mine, Duang asked him in English.  He told her that he didn't know because his wife handled the money and that she was the "Big Boss".  Duang caught on quickly and said to me "Me too, I want to be Big Boss - you give money to me to take care! See just like this man!"  The three of us enjoyed a good laugh.

We had come upon a frantic situation along the road.  Besides loading up the trucks with bags of soybeans, people were hurriedly folding up the tarps to completely encase the soybeans.  The sky had taken on the look which is typical for late afternoon monsoon rain.  Soybeans getting wet would be a disaster for everyone involved in the ongoing transaction.

Rolling Up A Tarp to Protect Soybeans from Rain
The weather forecast for the day had been for rain showers with a 57% chance of rain and 12.5mm (1/2") accumulation.  How did I know?  How do I still remember?  Prior to leaving our home, as I typically do prior to our big trips, I printed the weather forecast from the Internet and pasted it in the journal that I carry.

Well the adage about not believing everything that you read on the Internet proved true on the trip.  Without exaggerating - we had approximately 15 drops of rain hit the car's windshield during our entire trip - including the forecast of 79% probability of 20.9mm of rain the next day - which happened to be our best weather day!

After 30 minutes at the marshaling area, we recommenced our journey to what we were confident were the mysteries and sights that awaited us at Beng Mealea.  It was several kilometers down the highway before our nostrils were cleared of the earthy, perhaps even musty, odor of soybeans drying in the air.  However that scent remains a strong memory today of a great stop along a road in Cambodia.

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