The best supermarkets in Siem Reap

Luckily for expats, there’s no shortage of excellent supermarkets and grocery stores in Siem Reap. Recently, two new stores have opened their doors, making the grocery landscape even more competitive. Like supermarkets in Phnom Penh, the grocery stores in Siem Reap are chock full of imported goodies at surprisingly low prices. Of course you’ll find fresher produce and lower prices at the local markets, but sometimes you just want access to Western products and meats that have been refrigerated. Here are the best grocery and supermarket options in Siem Reap.

Angkor Market

inside of Angkor Market, Siem Reap Cambodia

Angkor Market in Siem Reap carries an astonishing range of imported groceries.

Angkor Market is the local favorite with Siem Reap expats and it’s not hard to see why. The store is small and usually crowded, but it’s packed full of just about every conceivable product a foreigner could want, from imported cheeses and natural yogurt to cocoa powder and black beans. Since the announcement of the opening of two new grocery stores in Siem Reap, Angkor Market has upped their game and expanded their meat, seafood, and produce selection. You can now find a wide range of local and imported fruits, vegetables, and herbs (including dill, tarragon, and sage) as well as local and imported meats, cold cuts, and sausages.

The outside of Angkor Market, Siem Reap

Angkor Market in Siem Reap is an expat’s dream grocery store.

Upstairs they offer a full range of homewares, from kitchen tools to pet supplies to stationary. Angkor Market also has a better selection of cleaning and laundry products than any of the other stores in town. While there is no way they could pack every conceivable product into such a small place, it certainly feels like they have somehow managed to do it!

Lucky Supermarket

Lucky Mall, Siem Reap

Siem Reap’s Lucky Mall is the home of the aptly named Lucky Supermarket.

The most popular supermarket in Phnom Penh has never really managed to take off in Siem Reap. It’s more than twice the size of Angkor Market but Lucky Supermarket is usually empty, save for the random tourist wandering the aisles looking for Kampot pepper. That said, they actually have an excellent selection of products, including many Western and Asian brands, all at good prices. They’ve also got fresh produce and meats, including some imported stuff mainly from Australia. The dairy section is pretty good, featuring imported cheeses, fresh milk and a thousand types of interestingly-flavored Asian yogurts. They also have a bakery on site with fresh breads and cakes.

Lucky Supermarket Siem Reap

Aisles big enough to swing a cat, or use a shopping cart.

Excitingly (for me, anyway) Lucky carries a selection of UK brand Waitrose teas, jams, cookies, and other pantry items at very reasonable prices. An area Lucky particularly excels in is snack and junk foods, so if you’re looking for packaged cookies, soda, instant noodles or cake mix, you’ll be placated with all the brands you know from home and some you’ve never heard of. They also have a small homewares section, plus household staples like shampoo, diapers and pet food.

Lucky Supermarket is popular with parents who say that Angkor Market is too small and difficult to navigate with strollers, shopping cart, or angry toddlers.

Thai Huot

Thai Huot, Siem Reap

Thai Huot has finally come to Siem Reap. Hooray!

Thai Huot was a long-time expat favorite in Phnom Penh. More recently, they’ve expanded to two more stores in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap. Thai Huot has wide, spacious aisles that are filled with an excellent selection of imported pantry items. Thai Huot specializes in French and European products, and all of their shelf tags specify which country each item is from. Thai Huot is easily the best place in Siem Reap to find spices; they’ve got the sort of things that no one else carries (who knew you could get juniper berries in Cambodia?). They’ve also got a great range of French wines, European baking supplies, and hard-to-find items like dried morel mushrooms.

Thai Huot interior, Siem Reap

Inside the gleaming new grocery heaven, Thai Huot.

Thai Huot is not the place to go for meats, fruits, or vegetables, and their tiny selection pales in comparison to what Angkor or Lucky carry. But for European panty items and French beauty products, they can’t be beat.

Asia Market

Asia Market Siem Reap

Asia Market, it’s a mystery.

Newcomer Asia Market is a bit of a mystery to yours truly. Located on Sivatha within walking distance of Pub Street, the store seems to cater to tourists rather than expats and locals. They dedicate a large amount of floor space to snack food, packaged local gift products, t-shirts and Cambodian trinkets. The store is designed like a supermarket, however, and since their opening at the end of 2014 they’ve started carrying more and more products.

They carry a random assortment of products, including a few bulk items like giant wheels of cheese. Their produce selection is better than Thai Huot and best of all, they don’t use plastic or styrofoam packaging for the vegetables they sell, they wrap them in banana leaves. Asia Market also carry many Cambodia-made products, including items that you used to only be able to find at the local markets, like dried fish, beef, and squid. They also have a large beauty and bathroom section, and carry products not found anywhere else in town (pH neutral shampoo, anyone?)

Angkor Mini Market

Angkor Mini Market Siem Reap

Packed with goodies: Angkor Mini Market.

A spin-off of Angkor Market, Angkor Mini Market boasts the same great selection as the full-size store and a convenient location near touristy Pub Street. Even better, this grocery store is open 24 hours a day and have the same prices as their other store.

It seems impossible, but they’ve managed to fit almost all of the products found there in this even smaller shop, but the focus seems to be more on items that tourists or those snacking in their hotel rooms might want. They have a decent selection of fruits and veg, but if you’re planning on cooking a five course meal, it probably makes sense to hit up Angkor Market, which is not far away.

Angkor Market
Open 7:00 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sivutha Blvd at Oum Khun Street, Siem Reap [map]
T: 063 767 799

Lucky Supermarket
Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Lucky Mall, Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap [map]
T: 081 222 068
luckymarketgroup.com

Thai Huot
Samdech Tep Vong Street, Siem Reap [map]
T: 063 968 822
thaihuot.com

Asia Market
Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.
Sivatha Blvd, near Samdech Tep Vong Street, Siem Reap [map]
T: 017 765 092; 010 888 059

Angkor Mini Mart
Open 24 hours
128 Sivutha Blvd, Siem Reap [map]

Happy Khmer New Year!

Tomorrow is the official start of Cambodian New Year, Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei, but Khmer New Year has already started around the country. The holiday is Cambodia’s most important, bringing the country to a near standstill as city residents head home to the provinces to spend time with their families, have parties and visit their local pagoda.

Khmer New Year decorations in Cambodia

At last! The time has come to bust out the Khmer New Year decorations!

The holiday celebrates the end of the harvest season and marks the start of a new year (and also the start of the truly hot hot season). Although the holiday is officially only three days long–this year it’s April 14, 15, 16–it can extend onto both adjoining weekends, and often even a few days before that. In the days leading up to Khmer New Year, prices, especially for transportation, can go much higher than usual.

It’s true that Cambodians get to have an awful lot of new years celebrations, and it was pretty recently that we celebrated international new year and then Chinese New Year. But Khmer New Year is different — it’s Cambodia’s most important holiday and one of the only times during the year that Cambodians get substantial time off from work. Houses are decorated with stars, fairy lights, and various food and drink (usually Fanta) offerings, and everyone wears new clothes.

Traditionally, Khmer New Year was when everyone who was born in that year would count themselves a year older. So in a sense, it was every Cambodian’s birthday. This goes a long way to explaining why you’ll hear booming music out of most houses in the countryside this week, and why you’ll hear endless amounts of karaoke until the wee hours. It’s a birthday party for the entire country! These days, though, more and more Cambodians are keeping track of their actual date of birth.

During Khmer New Year, Phnom Penh is eerily quiet, with most restaurants and businesses closed to allow their employees to head home. In Siem Reap, it’s just the opposite. The city is festooned with New Year’s stars, and the road to the temples have holiday decorations all over them. If this year is anything like last year, Pub Street will be packed. Last year, tourists were barely visible among the thousands of Cambodians that were out, enjoying the live music and performances.

World's biggest rice cake Cambodia

The world’s biggest rice cake heading to Angkor Thom for the 2015 celebration.

In Siem Reap, a three-day New Year’s event at the Angkor temples called Angkor Sankranta takes place that is very popular with Cambodians who go to play traditional games. Last year, there was an attempt to set a world record for the largest sticky rice cake in the world made from sticky rice, mung bean, and pork, and then later a rice cake-eating contest. Not to be outdone by themselves, this year there are plans to create num ansom chrouk that is three times bigger than last year (at a cost of $20,000!). Foreigners and locals can attend the event for free, but if any non-Cambodian wants to enter the temples, they will still need to pay the usual $20 entrance fee.

In Phnom Penh, there are usually fireworks and you’ll see impromptu parties set up with a boombox playing Khmer tunes in the street. Cambodians who haven’t been granted enough time off from work to head to the provinces wander past, stopping to have a cheerful dance in the streets. Wat Botum Park is also a good place to visit to see traditional games being played.

Khmer New Year is a good time to get out of the city and check out the countryside, where you’ll find lots of parties, friendly neighbors and happy children. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in the celebrations. Susaday Chhnam Thmei!

Where to drink coffee in Phnom Penh

There was a time when to get a coffee in Phnom Penh you had little choice but to go to Brown Coffee or one of the other offerings on Street 51 in BKK1, or for 2,000 riel you could get a strong, sweet Khmer iced coffee from your neighborhood street drink lady or the “best Khmer iced coffee” in Russian Market. Those days are over.

Cambodian latte

Get latte’ed out of it in Phnom Penh.

There seems to be a new coffee shop opening every week, including chains from Australia (Gloria Jean’s), France (Le Diplomate), Laos (Dao, Joma), Japan (Kiriya), Singapore (Artease, YaKun), South Korea (Caffe Bene), and the UK (Costa). That coffee shop on the corner of 57 and 310 has changed names (but not much else) at least three times in the past 18 months, and trendy new cafes are popping up everywhere from Psar Kandal to Toul Tom Pong.

While you might be hard-pressed to find traditional Khmer coffee roasting in a steel drum, no fewer than three local cafes boast their own roasting machines (Brown, Feel Good 2, Terrazu). Even some of the coffee carts have pastry refrigerators and espresso machines.

But for all of this talk of “single origin” and arabica, how is a person to choose where to get their caffeine fix these days? Whether you are a social drinker, coffee snob, straight-up caffeine addict or backpacker on a budget, here are our recommendations.

For the coffee

At Feel Good and Feel Good 2 veteran roaster Marc Adamson and his protege (and silver medal Cambodian National Barista finisher) Sophorn roast coffee daily and supply many cafes and restaurants in Phnom Penh. They still manage to be head and shoulders above the competition in the quality of their coffee drinks, with excellent espressos and silky textured milk piccolos, flat whites and lattes.

Feel Good coffee Cambodia espresso

A Feel Good espresso. Unsurprisingly, it will make you feel good.

For a meeting

Head to Brown Coffee (but with ten outlets, make sure you agree on which one!). This Cambodian coffee chain was one of the first to serve espresso-based coffee drinks, and their iced coffees and frappes are delicious. A place to see-and-be-seen for students, Brown Coffee boast plenty of big tables for work and meetings, but if you are looking for quiet, you had better go elsewhere. Their roastery on Street 57 also offers some single origin filter coffees and cold brew  be sure to specify when you order if you want yours without sugar!

For the sidewalk vibe

Bistrot Bassac and Chez Flo are side-by-side French-owned tiny cafes on Street 308. The sleek, architectural Bistrot Bassac and the perfectly mismatched, quirky Chez Flo are great places to chat and watch the foot traffic while sipping on a coffee after lunch or over cake.

For letting the kids run around

Breezy outdoor restaurant and cafe Farm to Table has an indestructible weathered-industrial vibe and a tractor and miniature outdoor kitchen play set for the little ones. Luckily for the older crowd, Farm to Table also makes a great espresso.

Cambodian coffee affagato ice cream

The perfect way to perk up and cool down on a hot day.

For the ice cream

Nuk Coffee boasts a liquid nitrogen affogato: super-chilled creamy ice cream with a shot of espresso. It’s not our favourite coffee in town, but with hot season upon us, this cold, creamy and caffeinated treat does the trick.

For the cold drip

Terrazu near BKK Market uses a glass drip tower to make a light and fruity cold drip coffee that is great over ice. While it might remind you more of iced tea than a coffee, it highlights the bright citrus and floral notes of Ethiopian beans.

For a quickie

With its cool walk-up counter, Kettlebell Cafe does great coffee drinks for the crowd with places to go. Whether it is before (or after) a workout at Crossfit Amatak, or on your way back to work after lunch at one of the restaurants nearby, the service is spot on, the milk is smooth and sweet and the coffee is delicious. And if you can’t wait the thirty seconds for an espresso, they have ready-made cold brew to pour over ice and send you on your way with.

Feel Good
Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
79 Street 136, Psar Kandal, Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 079 888 773
feelgood.com.kh

Feel Good 2
Open Daily, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
11b Street 29, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 077 694 702

Brown 57
Open daily, 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Street 57 at Street 294, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 070 257 474
More locations: browncoffee.com.kh

Bistrot Bassac
Open daily, 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
38 Street 308, Tonle Bassac, Phnom Penh
T: 070 902 021
facebook.com/bistrotbassac

Chez Flo
Open Mon through Sat, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 11 p.m., stays open to midnight Thurs through Sat
T: 012 986 270
facebook.com/chezflophnompenh

Farm to Table
Open Tues through Sun, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
16 Street 360, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 078 899 722
facebook.com/farmtotable

Tarrazu Cafe
Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
340 Street 370, BKK1, Phnom Penh
facebook.com/tarrazucafecambodia

Kettlebell Cafe
Open Mon through Fri, 6:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Sat 8:30 a.m. to 2 :00 p.m.
45 Street 454, Phnom Penh
T: 012 750 430
facebook.com/amatakkettlebellcafe

Jen Green is a coffee fiend based in Phnom Penh.  In the interest of full disclosure, she has worked with Feel Good on (bean sourcing) and Kettlebell Cafe (equipment and barista training). Jen has a blog about Southeast Asian coffee, littleblackdrink.com.

Snaps: Lotus fields in bloom

Lotus flowers in lotus field

Lotus flowers as far as the eye can see.

A photo of Siem Reap’s lotus fields in full bloom and the story behind it.A photo of Siem Reap’s lotus fields in full bloom and the story behind it.

It’s lotus season in Cambodia, and here in Siem Reap the lotus fields are in full bloom. Visitors can show up and pick their own lotus heads, which is what we did this morning. Once you’ve finished, you pay for what what you pick, much like raspberry farms or apple orchards in the States. In Cambodia, locals eat the stem, seeds, and roots of the lotus plant. I had never been very impressed with the lotus seeds I’ve bought on the street, but eating them fresh from the plant was a completely different experience.

The photo opportunities at the lotus fields were fantastic, but I, like the lotus-eaters of yore, mostly squandered any chance of accomplishing anything due to the heat, the glare, and the endless supply of lotus seeds. I got a few good snaps, though, and I like this one because it hints at how vast the fields are, all filled with blooming lotus flowers.

Hot season is here. Are you ready?

This week hot season has arrived with a bang in Cambodia, and expats have responded with a whimper. The weather reports just don’t accurately describe our suffering. Today in Siem Reap it’s 100 degrees fahrenheit (with 50% humidity), but AccuWeather, which takes in account humidity, butt cover, and sun intensity puts it closer to 110, and it feels closer to 140. And surprisingly, every hot season seems worse than the last. We’ve got some tips for how to survive Cambodia’s hot season.

sleeping in a tuk tuk

Nothing wrong with a mid-afternoon nap.

Adopt the local schedule

When newly arrived expats and tourists see the locals swinging in hammocks after lunch, they often come to the mistaken conclusion that Cambodians are lazy. Cambodians are not lazy, they have ingeniously organized their day to keep them out of the heat during the hot afternoon. The busiest times in Cambodia are before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m., and these should be your busiest times, too. Don’t bother trying to get anything done in the mid-afternoon, it’s an exercise in futility, and like all exercise will leave you hot and sweaty.

Get your air-conditioner checked

I’m going to be honest, I have no idea what air-conditioner repair people actually do, but I know that if I don’t call them every six to 12 months, the temperature in my bedroom rises, and not in a sexy way. A full cleaning and tune-up should only cost between $10 and $15 and your room will be noticeably colder afterwards.

Angkor Era Hotel pool, Siem Reap

The Angkor Era Hotel pool is one of the biggest in Siem Reap, and kid friendly.

Head to a hotel for a swim

Many of us live in local-style digs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t slip on a pair of Topsiders and pretend to be a guest of one of the many 5-star hotels in town. Most of them will let non-guests in for a fee, and that fee includes the use of the gym and pool. It also includes hanging out in the air-conditioned lobby for the day. Many smaller hotels will let any paying customer use the pool, so if you order a pina colada, you’re in. Circa 51 and the 252 are good choices in Phnom Penh, Angkor Era is popular in Siem Reap. But if you’re not at the pool, please keep your clothes on.

Baby your plants

If you, like me, are trying to grow Western herbs and vegetables in your garden, be warned that it’s unlikely they will survive this heat wave. My plants, like their owner, have been wilting precipitously. Either harvest them now, or move to a more regular watering schedule (I have some plants that are requiring twice a day). You can also buy shade cloth at any of the local markets, it’s only a few thousand riel per meter. Even plants that usually like full sun will benefit from shade cloth during hot season. Pets and humans that venture outside will also appreciate a shade cloth canopy.

coconut with straw

Drink a coconut. It’s good for you.

Stay hydrated

This is probably obvious, but it’s too easily ignored. Drink lots of water. Have a coconut; they’re better at replacing fluids than water or sports drinks. Dehydration is the cause of much crankiness in Cambodia, and it’s a scientific fact that drinking a coconut will make you feel better. For others, though, a cold Angkor beer is more effective.

See a movie

If the Phnom Penh heat is killing you, the most sensible option is to head to one of the city’s many air-conditioned movie theaters. There are quite a few big cineplexes these days, all showing English-language blockbusters, as smaller movie houses, The Empire and The Flicks, showing more eclectic selections. For more information on the best cinemas in Phnom Penh, see our blog post on Phnom Penh movie theaters.

In Siem Reap, there are no big cineplexes, but in the Angkor Trade Center you’ll find Angkor Cinema where you can choose your own movie in one of their ten private rooms

Kep crab statue

Kep beckons.

Get out of town

It’s always hotter inland, so when things get unbearable, head to the coast. The islands (like Koh Rong) might seem like the obvious choice, but they are woefully hot and can become almost unbearable on days where there is no breeze. Kep is an expat favorite, with a breezy beach, endless crab, and air-conditioned hotels. Despite its well-deserved dismal reputation, Sihanoukville isn’t a bad option, either. These days there is more accommodation construction than demand, and it’s possible to stay in a luxury hotel with a pool for next to nothing.

Siem Reap: 280 miles from the beach

The weather is starting to heat up again in Siem Reap and tourists are jettisoning their garments like snakes shedding their skins. Sartorial defiance is the order of the day as visitors stroll the streets of Siem Reap bare-chested or in bikini tops, oblivious to local mores or universal standards of good taste. They visit Angkor Wat in tube tops and short shorts, confident that the gods, spirits, and security guards will be honored by the sight of their underbutt.

Woman wearing a bikini in Siem Reap

Where’s the beach? Oh, just about 280 miles from here. Photo by Mr. Sam Rachna

Siem Reap is not a beach town (nor is Phnom Penh, for that matter). So it’s perplexing to see tourists wandering the streets of a city that’s a full 280 miles from the nearest seashore — there aren’t even any direct flights — shirtless or in swimming gear.

Cambodian culture values modesty. Khmer women generally keep their shoulders and knees covered, while most men wear long sleeve shirts and pants even on the hottest days. It’s true that Cambodian culture is (slowly) changing, and you’ll sometimes see young Cambodian women in sleeveless shirts. But for the most part, Cambodians dress modestly.

Now before you say, “But I saw a Cambodian man standing in front of his house with his shirt off!” remember that he was standing in front of his own house. The difference between public space and private space is often blurred in Cambodia, where people carry on their lives in full view of tourists. However, you’ll usually only see Cambodian men shirtless if they’re at home, farming, mentally ill, or acrobats at the circus. And you won’t see Cambodian women in bikini tops, even at the beach.

Topless dudes on Pub Street.

Topless dudes on Pub Street. Photo by Hanno Stamm.

Of course visitors aren’t necessarily expected to share Cambodian values. But they are expected to respect them. Skimpy clothes at tourist-oriented bars and clubs — places where no Cambodian grannies are likely to be traumatized by the sight of your pasty chest or butt cleavage — aren’t entirely unacceptable. Prancing around city streets in the equivalent of underwear is; such behavior shows a total lack of consideration for the locals and their culture. Even more blatantly disrespectful is wearing revealing clothing while visiting Angkor Wat, the largest and most revered religious monument in the country.

A recent spate of naked tourists in Cambodia is provoking a backlash. Several visitors have been deported for stripping down at the temples, and three others were kicked out for riding motos naked through Kampot. The Apsara Authority is sick of streakers and skimpy outfits and reportedly will be strictly enforcing dress codes for visitors to the temples starting April 1st.

Screenshot of a CNC tv show about scantily clad tourists

A CNC TV show about skimpily dressed tourists got a lot of attention in the local community.

A report on Cambodian television chastised tourists for dressing inappropriately. Photos from the piece were posted on Facebook and dozens of locals expressed their disgust with scantily clad tourists. One wrote, “Some tourists driving moto by themselves wearing underwear along the road in public. That make local residents feel unhappy with your culture bringing to Cambodia. I hope you understand well about the way of respect one’s local culture and custom. Respect a local culture and custom means you are respecting you yourself too!”

So show some respect for yourself, for your Cambodian hosts, and even for the expats who don’t want to see your sideboob. There are no beaches in Siem Reap, so keep your bikinis poolside and off the street. And, for the love of prahok, please cover your shoulders at the temples!

From forest to frontier: Interview with Jacob O. Gold about the Kuay People

Have you ever heard of Cambodia’s Kuay people? Me, neither, until now. The Kuay people are a stateless ethnic minority who have lived in Cambodia since before the time of the Angkorian Empire.

Move to Cambodia talks to Jacob O. Gold, an ethnographer who is working to record traditional Kuay language and culture before they are erased by habitat destruction and assimilation. Jacob, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has spent the last two summers studying the Kuay people, and he’s here to talk about their rich, interesting culture, as well as how you can help preserve it.

Kuay couple in Cambodia

A Kuay couple carrying forest goods on a homemade oxcart.

Who are the Kuay people?

Cambodia’s ethnic minority Kuay (sometimes spelled Kuy, and also known as Suay in Thailand, although another group go by a similar name) are a people with a long, fascinating history of both independence from, and interaction with, the Angkorian Empire and the Khmer kingdoms. The Kuay have only recently become the topic of academic research, thanks to the cessation of thirty years of conflict and the still-incomplete de-mining of Cambodia’s once heavily-forested Northern Plains region that encompasses parts of Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, and Kampong Thom provinces.

The Kuay people speak a language in the Katuic branch of the Mon-Khmer family. The Kuay subgroups and their closest ethnolinguistic relatives live in patches across a broad swatch of land encompassing northeastern Cambodia, the south of Thailand’s Isan region just across the border, as well as southern Laos and the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Kuay communities occupying forest habitats on the margins of successive Khmer states and likely supplied the Angkorian Empire and subsequent Phnom Penh kings with iron, elephants, and a wide range of botanical forest products. These goods were vital to the Khmer, but were also prized items for the Chinese mercantile networks spanning the region.

The Kuay people, from numerous indications, seem to have survived as a distinct yet “stateless” people owing precisely to this age-old ability to exchange and negotiate with the surrounding Khmer majority. Semi-intact Angkorian temples “hiding”— to borrow a term from Cambodia’s national anthem— in the greenery of the Preah Vihear Protected Forest and elsewhere in the region attest to the fact that Khmer settlements, inseparable from land cleared for wet-rice agriculture, have ebbed and flowed around the Kuay people over the centuries of the region’s political tides.

Today, the Kuay are adapting to the wet-rice regime with as much zeal as their new Khmer neighbors. They have probably had to do so before. Kuay lore is full of stories dealing with Kuay-Khmer relations and overcoming the asymmetries of power inherent in these interactions. My hypothesis is that during Angkorian times and possibly earlier, the ancient equivalent of the Khmer “bong thom” would establish a local fiefdom and tax the Kuay population in the form of gold, iron, elephants, valuable forest products and mercenaries with reputedly magic swords. In exchange, the Kuay say, they were granted autonomy and protection from the slave-raiding and outright displacement that menaced so many other forest peoples.

blind kuay spirit healer

A blind Kuay spirit healer displaying her family’s ancestral sword.

What are the current issues facing the Kuay people?

The new and improved accessibility of the region has come with a cost: convenience for logging, mining and rubber interests with the budgets, influence and machinery to exploit the land with great speed and intensity. In the wake of an ever-receding “tree line,” ambitious Khmer homesteaders are streaming into the region from all over the country in order to start new lives and found new villages on freshly-opened farmland.

Ethnographers like me are rushing to record the Kuay people’s language, customs, and forest-knowledge before generational turnover, cultural assimilation and habitat destruction change things forever.

How have you been received as a researcher by the Kuay communities with whom you work?

The Kuay, despite their reputation for fierce independence and privacy, were surprisingly eager to engage with me during my last two summers of fieldwork. I am not an activist who wants to drown out Kuay voices with the saviorist rhetoric of a barang bullhorn, but the Kuay themselves opened their homes and farms and forest paths to me, their spirit healers spoke to me, their old folks told all sorts of stories to me— not only about ancient battles, but also of surviving the American carpet-bombing of the Vietnam War era, Khmer Rouge raids, and fleeing from fierce combat in one of the most active theaters of the civil war that only ended in the mid-1990’s.

I feel that this openness comes from their own feeling that the past is becoming increasingly inaccessible to them, and as one of the only researchers out there with a digital recorder and notebook and camera and GPS gadgetry, I can help document the lived present and recounted past of the Kuay, as well as their unique repertoire of ethnobotanical knowledge. Hopefully I can figure out the best way to repay my karmic debts to these people—they will be the ones to tell me how.

Kuay traditional herbal healer

Jacob walking through the forest with a traditional herbal healer. The Kuay use well over a hundred botanical species for every imaginable purpose: medicine, incense, spirit offerings, handicrafts, and sustenance.

How can Move to Cambodia readers get involved?

In terms of my own research, I am hoping that this coverage will bring visitors and, with luck, backers to my Kickstarter campaign for a third season of fieldwork that will be crucial for taking my project to the level needed to bring in the big dissertation grants I will be applying for next year. At that point I will no longer hit you good folks up for a few of your hard-earned riel as I continue to share my findings, hypotheses, and fieldwork yarns with a wider audience than I can reach inside academia’s ivory tower.

I will be putting up new short video content to replace what’s up there soon. My goal is to raise $3,000 dollars, and I am almost at 50% of that with almost half the fundraising time to go. Any sort of donation would be hugely appreciated and there are goodies available to backers as well. Here is the link to my Kickstarter page.

In addition, simply googling key phrases such as “Kuay people” and “Prey Lang” (the general term for their endangered forest-at-large) will guide readers to various groups working to ensure Kuay cultural survival, but as a social scientist I’m not comfortable affiliating myself with these groups or giving an outright endorsement to their agendas and strategies, even though our general goals may overlap. Nevertheless, some of these groups are doing important work.

Jacob Gold is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He can be reached at jgold3@uic.edu, and you can help fund his research on Kickstarter.