PUTANG, Mondulkiri (Khmer Times) – The move toward modernity and development is often represented in numbers: growth in GDP, wellness indicators and many other kinds of statistics.
But for members of the Pnong Hill tribe in Mondulkiri, these changes have been slow but visceral as the government pushes them to connect to the rest of their country.
Svay Sam Eang, deputy governor of Mondulkiri province, told Khmer Times, “The government has provided public services such as schools, health centers, roads and electricity services to those minority groups throughout the province in order improve their living condition.”
Plang Sre, a member of the Pnong tribe living in Putang village, said the 300-person village has always been self-sustaining. All of the plants grown are used by the villagers, most people do not speak or understand Khmer and very few have access to the rest of Cambodian society. But slowly, she said, the village has started to open up.
Ms. Sre lives with her 80-year-old mother and her children in a straw hut. They survive off of the rice and vegetables they grow on their farm, and use oil from nearby trees to light lamps at night. Only recently has Ms. Sre’s son started to drive into the provincial capital to sell some of their plants to make money for the family.
Right next to their hut is a wooden house that was built in 2004. Almost 90 percent of the village’s homes are built the same way, and the houses are based off of traditional Khmer designs, Mr. Sam Eang said. It has better ventilation for cooking and at night, a fluorescent bulb shines brightly from a cord attached to the roof.
Electricity came to the village in 2011, and each household pays 8,000 riel per month for access.
The owner of the house, Chroung Chandy, is a 42-year-old mother who has lived in the village her whole life. Although her understanding of Khmer is limited, her 16-year-old daughter understands it perfectly. Fluent Khmer is hard to find in the village because most people speak a traditional tribal language, but many younger Pnong know the language well from their high school courses.
Mrs. Chandy’s daughter is currently in the tenth grade at Hun Sen Mondulkiri High School. Mrs. Chandy said most villagers never saw any need to for money or business, but the younger generation is beginning to branch out and explore new ways for the village to develop.
This development is most evident in how the tribe uses their most important animal: the elephant. Elephants hold an important place in their religion and are used for transporting crops as well as wood. But now that cars and motorbikes are common, many people are using their elephants for another purpose: tourism.
Mr. Sam Eang said that now villagers use the elephants to take tourists around the area, even though using them this way is against their tradition.
“However, following their tradition, the villagers always pray to remove their mistake to their ancestor’s spirits after taking visitors for rides,” Mr. Sam Eang said. “Normally, they can earn $60 to $70 in a whole day from foreigners.”
The struggle between their traditions and progress becomes apparent when Mrs. Chandy speaks about her daughter and the other young people in the village. Only now, she said, have people started to sell crops and move past growing just enough to survive.
Although the village is accepting of the younger generation and their push for modernity, she said they will never forget the traditional way of life.
“Even though 90 percent of the Pnong hill-tribe members were updated to move forward with living conditions of the modern era, our traditional way of life will never disappear,” she said.
A view of Pnong hill-tribe of Putang village in Mondulkiri province. About 90 percent of villagers have built wooden houses. Only four houses built of rice-straw remain in the village. KT/ Ros Chanveasna