A full-grown sugar palm holds up to 100 years of history in its trunk. In Cambodia, these trees bear the scars of long-gone wars. Rith (he’s a fount of knowledge, always telling, always showing) takes us to his rice field where we can see clearly the wounds of American B52 bombs. Some of those holes still contain shrapnel. Birds like to perch inside. “This area had around 9 B52 bombs,” Rith says. Some trees survived and grew up and around their injuries. Others perished.
Rith was just a kid, but he remembers well those years before the Khmer Rouge era when US bombers sent millions of Cambodian villagers running from their rains of fire. When Rith traveled to India recently, he noticed the absence of scars in the sugar palms there.
The sugar palm, Borassus flabellifer, is a national heritage. Its presence creates that classic image of a flat Cambodian countryside: a carpet of luminous green rice, punctuated with towering fan-like palms. The tree gives fruit and juice for sustenance (and alcohol for celebration), leaves for thatching and basketry and sturdy wood for furniture.
I love the fruit. I love its consistency and its unusual shape. Slice open the hard softball-sized shell and inside you will find three peanut-shaped segments filled with gelatinous flesh sitting in puddles of light, sugary syrup.