Many types of plants found in Cambodia are used as traditional herbs to treat various diseases, such as giloy or guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) or aromatic/sand ginger (Kaempferia galangal) or rough cocklebur (Xanthium Strumartium).
There is also a plant called coral, which is rarely grown and available only in the Oral Mountains. It is a kind of herb that is sold for between 450,000 to 500,000 riel ($110 and $120) per kilogram for use in traditional medicine.
Loy Ta Sai uses one hand to pick up leaves while the other holds a walking stick to push himself up a rugged rocky hill. He is a coral gatherer living in Tasal commune’s Taing Bompong village of Kampong Speu province’s Oral district.
Ta Sai told The Post that he was mainly a farmer and besides farming he did some other jobs to supplement his family’s income.
But when the rainy season arrives, he spends a week or more climbing the Oral Mountains, searching for a plant called coral to sell to Chinese and Thai traders for 450,000 to 500,000 riel per kg. They were waiting to buy it back in the village as he spoke.
This coral plant does not grow in normal soil and it doesn’t do well grown as a crop. Because of its high price, the villagers go to the mountains to gather the plant when it is most abundant at the start of the rainy season.
The people who live in Taing Bompong village seem to be blessed or lucky, because a large number of them can earn good income from coral plants but the opportunity to find it is only during the rainy season.
“My family has five children, so my family’s livelihood is not so good. But because I earn extra money from finding coral plant, it can help my family’s burden for some time. It’s hard to find even one kg of coral. We are happy that nature has given us this resource,” he said.
According to Ta Sai, the coral plant is not a tree and also unlike mint or basil. It is not tall and its leaves are like betel leaves. It grows in places with many leaves on the ground or on the ridges of moist rocks or where there is a lot of moss.
He said that he and other villagers do not need to spend any capital on this business, just their time and energy to look for coral.
Pheng Sreysor, head of the ecotourism community at Khnong Phsar, told The Post that people often climbed Khnong Phsar Mountain to find coral plants, but they had to spend five days or more looking because the plants are rare.
She said that most coral gatherers were men. In Cambodia, the plant was processed into medicine, health tonics, diabetes medicine and tea, but in China, it is desperately needed for processing into something else, though she’s not sure what.
“The season to find coral plants is from July, August and September or maybe October. This plant is only found in rainy season, while we could find one or not many in dry season,” she said.
Erl Sara, Ta Sal commune chief, said that people went to find this herb after they planted their rice fields as this herb is only available during the rainy season.
He said that when a villager climbs the mountain to look for coral, they always pack rice and dry food to eat as it often takes from seven to ten days or even two weeks out in the forest sometimes.
He said the plant is a kind of small plant with green stems and its leaves are the colour of pig’s blood, but quite attractive despite that description. Fetching them was supplemental work apart from farming to help ease living conditions and there were three to four villages that had people doing this work.
“It is not just only people from Taing Bompong village who are searching for coral plants, but also some villages nearby. Once they understood that you can sell coral plants at a high price they started doing it too, but it takes many days searching to get one kg of it,” he said.
The Post could not reach any officials at the National Centre of Cambodian Traditional Medicine for comment on March 7.