The sugar palm tree, or palmyra palm, grows extensively in India, Myanmar and Cambodia where the tree is part of the national heritage, even taking pride of place on a 500 Riel note. The sugar palm tree say "Thnot" in khmer language and it is also a very important national resource in Cambodia. Since encouragement from King Norodom in 1901 for every family to plant a few trees on their land, the sugar palm tree population has increased dramatically. It is estimated that at present, at least 3 million trees cover the Cambodian plains.
A professor at the Cambodian Technical School and manager of Khmer Nature Craft Mr. Pok Leak Reasey says, "I remember vividly commenting on them in my youth. They were growing in my back yard at home. I wondered when they had been planted there and even my grandparents didn’t know. They said they had grown in Cambodia since the beginning of Cambodian history since the Funan period."
"Thnot symbolize the birth of the Khmer soul, because they began to grow from the very same moment the first Khmer walked in Cambodia," Mr. Pok says.
Most Cambodians use the sugar palm trees in traditional ways. Farmers delicately ascend the trunks, cut the buds and harvest the juice from the trees’ flowers. They return two hours later to retrieve the juice collected in bampong (bamboo juice receptacles) or, as is more common nowadays, in soft drink bottles. The entire tree has many uses.
Mrs. Ming Chheng, 43, a farmer from Angsnoul in Kampong Speu lives in a house with a roof made from sugar palm leaves. After rice, Mrs. Ming says sugar palm is the main crop produced on her farm however sugar is by far the more lucrative.
"From December to April, I produce approximately 1800kg of sugar from the juice of 20 thnot. I can earn nearly 2 million Riel to feed my family of 15," she says.
The leaves are the second most important by-product of the sugar palm tree and are harvested two to three times a year.
"Thnot leaves can be made into mats and rice containers, while the fruit can be eaten fresh or made into many kinds of delicious desserts. You can make traditional beer with the juice or drink it as it is, or you can make it into palm sugar like we do. Baskets and bridles for the cows are made from the bark; kitchen implements, some furniture and crafts are made from the trunk."
Mrs. Ming Eap Yarb, 42, is a palm leaf hat maker from Ponhea Leu in Kandal province.
"I am a widow. While I have less rice fields than most, I use the leaves from thnot to create my own business. I can make up to 30 palm leaf hats a day that is about 7000 to 8000 Riel per day. My hats are very popular amongst the tourists in Oudong. Everybody needs to buy one of my hats when the sun shines," Mrs. Ming says.
Confirel is a Phnom Penh-based private enterprise producing cakes, fruit preserves, wine and vinegars from the sugar palm tree.
Its managing director, Mr. Te Laurent says, "I used to live in France, and whenever I saw thnot I really missed my homeland. So that is why I came back and developed a business using thnot. They are emblematic of our culture and of our agricultural industry."
Mr. Te says the reason he has created this business is because he wants to inform Cambodian farmers about the benefits of the sugar palm tree. He recognizes that because his production capacity is still in its infancy, and compared to neighboring countries, his market is small.
Even so, Mr. Te has great ambition. "France is known the world over for their exquisite red wines, why don’t we make Cambodian palm wine and palm products the envy of the world too?" he says.