Krakor district, Pursat province – In remote Mat Prey village, rice wine serves nearly every imaginable purpose. Villagers use the brew to commune with local spirits, to celebrate festivals, to mix with herbs for medicine, and to stave off boredom.
“We drink rice wine if there is any ceremony, like a wedding, or after someone has given birth, or to celebrate the construction of a home,” explained 41-year-old Yor Yen. “Men, they drink together on holidays like Pchum Ben. They each bring one liter of wine. We drink while gathering with friends after working very hard, drinking and talking together until we are drunk.”
“But now I’m never drinking rice wine again,” he said.
Mr Yen was speaking just a few days after one of the biggest mass poisonings in recent memory hit Mat Prey: Between Oct 4 and 7, nearly the entire village was either killed or sickened by a bad batch of “rice wine”, which actually turned out to be water mixed with pure methanol, a deadly poison typically used as an industrial solvent.
Now, locals simply refer to Mat Prey as “phum pol sra”-the village poisoned by wine.
Last week the phum pol sra was a ghost town. With 70 victims being treated at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, and their families keeping vigil over them, the only people left in Mat Prey were the teetotalers-mostly women-and a few lucky men who had been working away from home the day of the poisoning.
“In that house a husband died. In that house a son. In that house a handicapped man. In that house both a husband and wife. In that house my nephew,” said deputy village chief Un Vanna, 57, standing in her front yard and pointing in every direction.
“Now it is very quiet, because a few people in every house are poisoned. We’re scared of ghosts. Our village is getting as famous as Koh Pich because so many died.”
She began to narrate the chain of events that led to the disaster. On Oct 4, a disabled widower named Mien Savy dropped dead. He was a grizzled army veteran who frequently stopped by the local grocery shack for a tipple of rice wine. Villagers assumed his sudden death was due to a tetanus infection and gathered at his house for a traditional funeral ceremony. That’s when the real problems started.
A driving rain set in and everyone at the funeral got soaked. They started passing around jugs of rice wine purchased at the same grocery shack. The owner of the store, an elderly Buddhist layman, did not usually drink, but that day he decided to indulge. He told his neighbors he was afraid of the ghost of Mien Savy. Twelve hours later he was dead.
Women, too, rarely drink in public, but a number of them took swigs of rice wine that day to warm themselves up.
“I never drink,” said 53-year-old Dy An, interviewed in her hospital bed at Calmette. “But that day it was very rainy and hard to burn the coffin, and it was so cold and shivery, and so they bought some rice wine from the shop nearby, and we drank.”
Ms An felt fine that night, but she woke the next morning to find herself drooling profusely, unable to control her saliva. Her muscles ached as if she had just taken a long ride in a car. She felt dizzy and her vision started to blur, then fade altogether. She didn’t know it, but those are hallmarks of methanol poisoning, which typically unfolds 12 to 24 hours after ingestion. When a vigorous coin massage failed to improve her symptoms, she along with dozens of neighbors headed to the Pursat referral hospital. Later the villagers were sent to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.
The word for rice wine in Khmer is the same as the word for alcoholic drinks in general: sra. The brew has been integral to Cambodian culture for thousands of years, as long as rice itself has been cultivated here.
It is a crucial accessory to almost every local ritual, especially those involving the ancestral spirit known as Nak Ta, according to ethnologist Ang Choulean, a professor of anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts who has studied rice wine for years.
“Rice alcohol is not only a drink,” he said. “In everyday life it is a drink, but it is totally an accessory for ritual because it allows human beings to be in direct contact with divinity. You cannot see the Nak Ta, but you are in communion with the Nak Ta with alcohol, and in this very precise context, in this precise moment, alcohol is a god.”
Home-brewed sra is traditionally made in small batches from a mixture of mashed rice and a yeast-like fermenting agent known as ‘me,’ boiled together with water over an open fire and distilled through a series of metal pipes. ‘Me’ is made by grinding together between nine and 16 different herbs, depending on the region.
But increasing demand for cheaper brews with higher alcohol content has put nearly all of these old-fashioned brewers out of business, Mr Choulean said.
“Generally speaking, there is no more traditional yeast produced in the traditional way with natural ingredients, which is very unfortunate, because rice alcohol properly produced does not cause any harm,” he said.
In Mat Prey, for example, three families used to brew their own rice wine and sell it at local shops, but they have all stopped over the past year or two. Until this month’s poisonings, most of the rice wine in the village was brought in from Pursat City, where it was purchased in bulk from a wholesaler and distributed.
Even those who do produce rice wine at home are no longer able to invest time in making traditional ‘me’. Instead, they buy lumps of factory-made yeast from shops in larger towns and cities. The less scrupulous, larger scale producers frequently mix in chemicals like methanol to increase the brew’s alcohol content.
Mass methanol poisoning among drinkers and revelers is not confined to Cambodia-it is so common in developing countries that epidemiologists sometimes refer to it as a “methanol outbreak.” Such incidents occur most often in communities straddling the boundary between tradition and modernity, places where old-fashioned drinking habits still hold sway and home-brewed moonshine is popular, but access to modern chemicals is free-flowing.
Earlier this year, 21 people died and 103 were poisoned by drinking methanol in Ecuador. In 2006 in Nicaragua, 801 people were sickened and 45 died. At least 25 died in Indonesia that same year. In 1998, 70 people died and 400 were hospitalized for drinking methanol-laced rice wine in and around Phnom Penh. And in August, two separate rice wine poisonings killed six in Pursat.
“It is something that is well-documented in developing countries and very rare in developed countries,” said Dr Nima Asgari, a public health specialist at the World Health Organization.
He said such mass poisonings were due to a cascade of failures: “It’s the whole process, the whole issue: the lack of regulations, the lack of adherence to regulations, and the tradition of home distilling.”
Pursat typifies the problem. Technically, everyone who produces and sells rice wine in the province is meant to have a license. In practice, almost nobody gets one. Both police and government officials said this week that they had no idea how many people were actually making rice wine in the province.
“There must be many of them,” said Mao San, the department’s director. “There are many of them in villages, and they are all illegal.”
He said that after the incident in Mat Prey, officials were cracking down and insisting that every producer be licensed and every batch of wine be tested. How this will play out in practice remains to be seen.
The provincial police chief, Sarun Chanthy, agreed with Mr Choulean that part of the problem was that most rice wine producers in the province had turned to chemical rather than traditional means of brewing.
“It happens because they mix it with methanol, because of the increasing price of firewood and they need a cheap product to supply the market,” he said.
He said yesterday that police had not yet managed to track down the original source of the adulterated wine.
But even as neighborhood breweries are nudged out of business and medium-sized producers in places like Pursat City are cutting standards, rural Cambodians have not yet relinquished traditional drinking habits, and comfortably gulp down whatever unlabeled moonshine is placed in front of them. The result is a newfound distance between the producer and the consumer that is ripe for exploitation.
Tho Sary, a 44-year-old plantation worker in Mat Prey, typifies this attitude. He is a heavy drinker who could not care less about the provenance of his quaff.
“We don’t know what’s in it, and we never care. They just buy it from the market and put it in front of us and we drink it. We never got poisoned before.”
For Mr Choulean, the loss of traditional rice wine producers-and, inevitably, the traditional rituals surrounding rice wine-is tragic not just because he believes it leads to more poisonings. It also strikes a blow to the very heart of Khmer culture. He compared traditional Cambodian rice wine to a wildflower, unrefined but uniquely flavorful.
“It is not only a drink, but it is totally indispensable in rural areas,” he said. “We have lost a big thing in our civilization.”
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