The area in Ta Sen commune in Kamrieng district of Battambang province is a former battlefield, and was once one of the heavily mined places on the planet.
Thanks to the efforts of a Japanese demining expert – and his former Khmer translator – the area is not only clear of explosives, but has become a famous wine-producing region.
Sok Mean, who once worked as a translator for Ryoji Takayama, a Japanese demining expert, recalled that Ta Sen had the highest number of landmines among all seven communes in Kamrieng district.
In 2005, Takayama launched a pilot project called “Community-Based Demining” in Ta Sen, in collaboration with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). Then he observed that farmers in the area were getting excellent yields from the cleared land.
Mean said the Japanese deminer knew that farmers in the area grew good crops, but discovered that they sold them for low prices in Thailand. Sometimes, in the rainy season, their profits were so low that they were at risk of falling into poverty.
Mean and Takayama then decided they would find a way for the farmers to earn the highest prices they could. They decided that they would process local produce into wine.
In 2008, they began with cassava tubers. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to produce a product that was ready for the local market, never mind internationally. They continued their attempts, and enrolled a villager who had some experience in the field. This produced better products, but they were still not ready to compete with imported products, said Mean.
It was only when Takayama travelled to Japan and returned with high quality yeast that the cassava was ready for export.
Mean said the wine had been praised by a Japanese brewery and that experts had confirmed its quality.
In 2015, the pair formed an enterprise called “Sora Khmer” (Khmer Liquor) and began receive orders from customers in Japan.
As the business grew – with both domestic and Japanese sales expanding – they built a larger winery, with dedicated research facilities to experiment with different local crops.
“To understand the different techniques of winemaking, I visited wineries in Japan. I learned as much as I could from them, and read extensively. Now, the quality of our products in consistently high,” said Mean.
He added that since expanding, they urged farmers to grow crops which could be used for wine production. Mean himself owns some plantations which supply the winery.
Currently, their range includes rice, sugarcane, jackfruit and mango wine, as well as their original cassava line.
“When foreign tourists visit Cambodia, they want to taste Khmer products. When they return home, they like to take local products with them. This is one reason my products are so popular with foreigners,” added Mean.
Mean said that his wine is sold in supermarkets like Bayon and Aeon, and also in the Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville international airports.
His main focus remains on quality, with all of his made from organic produce. He grows his own yeast – and mixes it with the yeast he imports from Japan – to ensure consistent flavours.
“There is a lot of support out there for our wines. They sell well in the local market, and we have had enquiries from Japanese wholesalers who are interested in expanding our sales there. They have requested new labels and packaging, and we expect to be shipping more and more bottles to them in the near future,” added Mean.