Fieldwork: deeper into the forest

Emiel’s latest update about his fieldwork and all the challenges of surveying households in rural Cambodia. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

I’m writing from Phnom Penh, fieldwork is done and I feel a great sense of relief. Everything worked out in the end, and within the time available, and it didn’t always seem like it would. Since I last wrote to you, the challenges of working in the Northern Plains of Cambodia only seemed to grow, the toughest times were still ahead. So let me start where we left off.

Everything worked out in the end, and within the time available, and it didn’t always seem like it would.

After about a week of limbo waiting and clearing some administrative hurdles, we finally got our letter of permission from the governor. We wasted no time and set off to the field the very next morning. A few days later, returning from the first village after a morning of heavy rains, we found ourselves cut off by water pouring across an otherwise good gravel road, and the bridges that had recently been installed to cope with flooding were underwater. I walked ahead along the sunken road and felt my way across the bridge step by step and, although the knee-high water was flowing fast, I wasn’t swept away, nor did the bridge collapse underneath me. Having completed this short pilot study, we pushed our baggage-laden motorbikes through slowly, staying well away from the edges.

Flooded roads

No disaster then, but as the rains didn’t stop in the following days I began to imagine Atlantean villages accessible only by propeller-powered motorbikes and specialist diving equipment. These worries weren’t completely unjustified, for although the villages were unlikely to have been built on land susceptible to that level of flooding, those remaining on my list were among the hardest to access, and required water crossings even in the dustiest of dry seasons. I consulted with colleagues at WCS and they agreed a different plan was needed, especially, they were sure to add, given our lack of skill in forest-riding, which they had all noticed. The plan was to take a boat to the first of three villages and walk the four or five kilometres between each of the remaining two. When we were done, the boat would come back for us.

The plan was to take a boat to the first of three villages and walk the four or five kilometres between the remaining two.

Walking for me means packing light. I cut the non-essentials and managed to fit everything needed, including my hammock, the tablets and solar panels, into my 40L backpack. I had clothes for a few days and soap to wash them. The only extra weight I would have to carry by hand were the boxes of soap that we give to our respondents as thanks. On the morning of departure, I met Vichet and Theavy each heaving two bulging backpacks which they insisted couldn’t be cut down further. We met our boatsman at his village and from there walked 2km in the rain to where he kept his boat in a canal – a steely taste of what was to come. The boat was a narrow wooden curve, filled with murky water that glistened with oil. Using cut plastic containers we began scooping the water out and didn’t stop until we got to our destination.

Pushing a boat through the flooded grasslands

The journey itself was fascinating and gave us a glimpse of many different landscapes. First, we passed through vast flooded grasslands, the boat sticking to deeper channels and occasionally cutting through thick clusters of bushes and bamboo along passages marked by plastic bags tied onto branches requiring us to duck for cover. After about four hours we heaved the boat onto a shallow mound of earth and dragged it across to a channel on the other side. We had reached the Stung Sen, one of the largest rivers in Cambodia that drains the forests of the Northern Plains into the vast Tonle Sap lake. The Stung Sen made for a more pleasant journey as we wound our way through the deep forest with tall trees towering along the banks. As we got deeper into the forest the banks gave way until it seemed like we were within a flooded forest, dodging trees, the water stretching into the murky undergrowth. We saw snakes floating on the water, giant monitor lizards resting on branches, and scores of birds overhead.

Boating through the main channel of the Stung Sen

Earlier in the day our boatman had sprung us with the news that we wouldn’t be able to make it in one day and that we’d have to find somewhere to sleep in the forest. Not keen on a hungry night in the rain, we reached a compromise to try and reach one of the small, illegal settlements that are cropping up along the river together with the economic land concessions and enabled by the road access that they bring. It was close to darkness by the time we scrambled onto the riverbank and emerged between a small cluster of wooden houses, where we were gratefully fed, and allowed to wash and sleep. We completed our journey early the next morning, said goodbye to our boatman at the shore and began lugging our boxes down the narrow path passing the occasional boy herding cows. As the path widened houses began to appear and it started to rain. When we arrived at the main dirt road leading into the village we were greeted by a slightly intimidating group of about two dozen men standing around a broken bridge, but as we approached a couple of them came towards us, smiling, and carried our bags across for us.

My assistants asked around and found a ‘kor-yun’, a motorised ox-cart, to carry us to the next village for a small fee.

The next few days proceeded as they usually do, walking through the village surveying households, and inviting people to focus groups with the chief’s help. Khmer villages are laid out along roads so this involved a lot of walking, and without our motorbikes, reaching the farthest households took some time. It was also very wet, and, as I discovered one agonising and wakeful night, the constant squelch of mud between the toes eventually inflicted a cost in the form of trench-foot (maybe jungle-rot is more accurate): the skin between my toes dissolving away, leaving inflamed and infected openings. With this on our minds my assistants asked around and found a ‘kor-yun’, a motorised ox-cart, to carry us to the next village for a small fee. Along the way we got stuck multiple times and the wheels churned the mud and grass roots, making the roads even more treacherous for those that followed. We were warned that reaching the final village would be even more difficult and that walking was our only option, but luckily the village sub-chief volunteered to take us half of the way and show us a shorter route through the rice fields. He rested with us a short while in one of the thatch shelters that farmers use when they work their fields, and miraculously for such a remote place started streaming youtube on his phone.

Riding a Kor-yun through the village
The rice fields with sugar palms

We survived this saga and made it safely back to town just in time for the Pchum Ben national holidays. It was an important chance for Vichet and Theavy to return home, and for me to catch up on some writing and relaxation after more than two continuous months of fieldwork. I even found the time to hop the border to Ho Chi Minh city and explore a little bit of Vietnam. Having planned ahead and piloted the next survey in the last couple of villages, we returned well rested and prepared to enter phase two of our work.

Phase two was us returning to one village and doing a full Social Network Analysis. This meant we had to (try to) interview every adult in the village – so we settled in for a long-term stay at the house of the bemused village chief, bringing vegetables and meat from the distant market. After a few days we reverted back to the village standard of rice and fried fish which were in great abundance after the heavy rains. Each day we would visit new households and explain what we were doing, and after receiving their consent we would take down a list of the members of that household. We would then interview each of the adults separately, asking them to tell us who they go to talk to in the village, who they go to for advice, and who they interact with in a number of different ways. Very often not everyone was home so we would either arrange a good time to come back, having left a packet of soaps as a thank you and incentive, or visit again each morning until we found them. We continued this pattern for close to three weeks of hard work, starting at 7am and finishing after dark, with a short siesta in the middle. The evenings are when the men return home from the rice fields so we would try to take advantage of that time. By the end we knew everyone in the village and they knew us, and we had friendly people letting us know who was home in their neighbourhood, or waving us over to interview a neighbour that we’d been hoping to meet. With almost 400 interviews done, I think only two people refusing to be interviewed says a lot about the character of the people here!

Domestic life – feeding the animals

Having finished slightly ahead of schedule, we had some valuable time left for my assistants to check through the thousands of names that we had recorded. Using a list provided by the village chief, we checked each of them and made sure the spelling was consistent. Names aren’t used in Cambodia as frequently as we use them and it’s quite common for people not to know the full names of even their close friends. Instead, people address each other as ‘brother’, ‘aunty’, and so forth, or use nicknames. This made the job more difficult than it could have been, but diligent questioning and time spent cross-checking meant we now have a really excellent dataset. I cant imagine if I’d had to check all those names myself in a script I can barely even read! Luckily, the hard work of Vichet and Theavy enabled me to focus on writing reports and preparing for my presentations to the Ministry of Environment.

A colleague asked me why I wasn’t having a going-away party.

A colleague asked me why I wasn’t having a going-away party. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about it. Knowing that I will be back here soon means I haven’t let myself get too sentimental, and it feels like I’ll hardly be gone at all – so I’ve kept working right up to departure. On my last evening in Preah Vihear I became aware of this, and tore myself away from the computer for a short time. I took my motorbike and rode the loop around town, a route that I often run in the cooler evenings. The town quickly falls away, leaving swampy lagoons on either side, filled with lotus, and as you follow its’ circular bend, the massive ridge of Tbeng mountain dominates your view, silhouetted below a blazing sky. The town lies sprawled out in front beyond the water, with stilted houses lining up along the road. I’ve spent so much of the past four months speeding my moto down these roads, and now, as I felt the familiar blast of air from a passing truck, a bit of nostalgia began to creep in. It felt like I was seeing things for the first time, it all seemed unfamiliar and new. I saw the families and groups of friends making the same evening ride, three or four to a bike. Every evening they park up along the water and watch the sunset, now turning purple, peeking through the lotus leaves. I felt I was riding into that sunset, a character who has survived to the end of an adventure movie. The hundreds of days spent facing new challenges in new environments were receding into the twilight of memory, too vast to for me to grasp. I turned back into town along the chaotic boulevard where the citizens of Preah Vihear gather to stroll, throw balls, and eat barbecue – the humming of life goes on.

The market in Preah Vihear

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