Turning Rations Into Riches
By: Prak Chanthul.Photo by:Prak Chanthul. ( March, 2003 Volume 3 No.3 )

While most tourists visit Phnom Penh, the heart of Cambodia rests outside the capital. Close to 9.7 million Khmers live in the rural provinces, many farming the land on which they live. Approximately 40 percent of the rural provinces are made up of plains and small lakes, which make are favorable for agricultural and fishing activities. Although the earth is fertile, farmers must work extraordinary hard to make ends meet.
A day's worth of hot labor would prompt anyone to seek relaxation, especially farmers who are just as good at singing, dancing and playing games as they are tilling the soil. Some farmers indulge in cockfighting and card games while others search for water lilies, lotus and snails to supplement their meals and generate extra income. Agricultural fields not only offer a bed for planting seeds, but a home for other tasty creatures that can supplement the most meager of meals. Rice fields provide farmers a variety of provisions, including snails, which are popular when cooked with rice.
Living in the countryside is peace of mind. People are rarely concerned about pollution or getting home safety on a speeding motorbike. Rising early in the morning, children complete their morning chores and attend school or head to the paddies to look after the family's cows and buffaloes. The children aren't alone. Parents also begin their days early, heading to the paddies to gather a day's supply of foodstuffs. The market is considered a luxury, offering food and items too expensive for most farmers to purchase. Instead, it is the paddies that are their market, providing even the most impoverished a chance to eat.
A variety of foods may be found amidst the rice paddies. Snails, large and small, are easily collected, as are small fish, shrimps and clams. While the preparation and consumption of these salty creatures do not always meet current health standards, farmers depend on them to survive. Hungry rural dwellers also appreciate the lucky finds for their taste as well. Cooked snails are enjoyed by many Khmers. Although snails earlier were known as "Khmer food" during times of hardship, they since have developed into a popular dish, enjoyed even in the city. People often can be seen enjoying snails inside food stalls near Phnom Penh's Hun Sen Park. The snails sold on the streets of Phnom Penh hail mostly from Kampong Speu, Kandal and Kampong Chhnang province.
Cambodians have mulled over snails for decades. Social and economic hardships often force people to adapt to their environment, to turn trash into treasure. It was this ingenuity that allowed Cambodians to scour their rice fields for a supplement to their daily meal, ultimately turning rations into riches.