As soon as one goes beyond an hour towards the north of Banlung, Ratanakiri’s provincial capital, time seems to slow down, and eventually, rewind. This perception of going back in time cannot be better exemplified by those moments when the ribbons of asphalt abruptly turn into dirt tracks at numerous junctions on the lead-up to the Sesan river near the Vietnam border.
Hidden behind the sprawling hills, rainforests, rubber mills and pepper plantations live several tribes whose ways of living seem not to have changed until Cambodia began to spend more resources along its border.
These hills are home to many ethnic indigenous tribes. The Kreung and the Jaray are just two among many ethnic groups that for centuries have called what is now known as modern-day Ratanakiri home.
The dirt tracks, however, are signs of impending doom for its indigenous inhabitants, for as far as the dirt track stretches lie power lines on worryingly shoddy poles. The otherwise pristine landscape is somewhat spoiled by mobile phone towers that dot the panorama.
Internet has managed to worm its way through roads that to this date are still best avoided even during the slightest downpour. And with it comes the freedom that the Chinese-built tarmac has promised but has yet to deliver – an insight into the outside world.
The kidney-softening nine-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh is a slight inconvenience compared to the trip to the remote villages in Ou Chum and Andoung Meas districts. The roads gradually turn into gravel, dirt, before disappearing altogether. Japanese-built bridges make way to makeshift wooden bridges, followed by a car-sized pothole that is guaranteed to swallow any reckless motorist whole. After all, this is Cambodia’s version of the Wild West – just substitute the moonshine with rice wine.
Beyond these obstacles, the Kreungs have inhabited this area for centuries. They are known for having a rather liberal attitude towards premarital sex – a very stark contrast in a conservative country where virginity is often held as sacred above all else. As soon as a girl reaches puberty, Kreung parents would build her a hut where she would have complete freedom to ‘socialise’ with the opposite gender.
“We trust our girls and women, and ultimately it is their choice,” says Liv Lean, 75, one of the venerated elders of the Kreung village of Tang Kamal, which is located some seven kilometres from the centre of Banlung. A Kreung himself, Lean met his current wife of 40 years, Kvet Kampha, 63, at her own ‘love hut’. They take turns to regale stories about how they first met.
“It took me more than a year before she introduced me to her parents and agreed to marry me,” he says. There is a genuine sense of love and care evident from the way Lean takes care of Kampha, who has suffered from cataracts for 15 years. Not once does Lean leave her side as she makes herself comfortable in a hammock.
Their encounter in her love hut was not a one-night stand – it was an elaborate courtship that fits rather well in modern society, moreso than it would seem to in conservative Cambodia. But it is this attitude that makes the Kreung unique – it is a part of their identity, which adds to Cambodia’s diversity. However, what looks like a love hut just in front of Lean and Kampha’s stilt house turns out to be the home of an elderly Kreung.
“We stopped building these huts around seven or eight years ago and what was left were either repurposed or demolished,” says Lean. According to him, there is little point in building these love huts anymore.
“These days, the children in our village go to school, and that’s where they meet boys,” he says. “We built huts to give them a chance to socialise with the opposite gender, but what’s the point of that now, as they spend most of their time at school anyway?”
“Times have changed – and we have to adapt to the changes,” he continues. “What we need to instil in our younger generations is what it means to be a Kreung woman.”
Indeed, despite the fact that no love huts are in sight and that girls now live in the main house with their parents, the values that Kreung parents have taught remain the same. The fact of the matter is Kreung societies are still highly communitarian, and strict ‘punishments’ apply to those who violate the rules.
“When a girl says no, but a boy doesn’t heed her rejections, he will have to pay a fine in the form of livestock, rice wine or money – not just for the girl, but to appease the village deities,” elaborates Lean.
“When our daughters say no, it really means no.”
How long this attitude will prevail over human desires will depend on how rapid and far-reaching development will be in Ratanakiri. But that timer seems to have already started, as evidenced by the lived experiences of the Jarays in Andoung Meas district.
Rmam Liv, 60, is one of the venerated elders in the village of Veal Leng, which is accessible only through dirt tracks that offers sweeping views of the foothills of the Annamite Ranges. Geograph-ically closer to Vietnam than to
the heart of Cambodia, the Jaray was a once-nomadic tribe, but no longer mobile.
“You know, the [nomadic] practice actually began to die out when Pol Pot’s regime took over in the 70s,” says Liv.
Liv explains that prior to the resettlement by the Khmer Rouge, the Jarays moved every so often to make sure that they could benefit from the bountiful harvest of their prized cash crop, tobacco, which requires well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil. These days, they mainly sell cassavas as any tobacco that grows in the village can no longer compete with that grown by modern farmers who are armed with an array of pesticides and fertilisers.
“Because of our nomadic past, our culture places a high value on consensus,” continues Liv. “It wasn’t very hard to get everyone to gather and decide where to move to next, and the traditional layout of the village makes it easy to do.”
Underneath a well-worn drum that was once used to get villagers to gather, Liv explains how Jaray villages used to look.
“Houses were small and circular in shape,” he says. “All the houses would be arranged in a concentric circle – at the centre of which, is the communal meeting ground,” Liv says, pointing to a mound of earth near his house.
It doesn’t become apparent until later that the mound is the former site of the last house in the village that was built in the traditional Jaray layout.
“This drum is the drum that our elders used to gather all the villagers,” says Liv, a cigarette in one hand, while the other pointed to a calf-skin drum that now serves as his makeshift toolbox. “There’s little use for it now.”
Now Liv’s village is divided into three parts.
“When the Sesan river flooded in 2004, we couldn’t agree on where to move next,” he said. “The source of the disagreement was that we now have the titles to our land – it simply isn’t as easy to pack up and leave as it used to be.”
It was the allocation of titles by the government in the late 1990s that began transformation of the Jaray way of life. Instead of building mobile homes with thatched roofs that could be dismantled with ease, the Jarays now prefer permanent dwellings. As such, despite the remoteness of the village, it looks like any other Khmer stilted houses in Cambodia’s peri-urban areas.
“Now I call this the lazy house – because I don’t have to keep rebuilding it every year,” he says with pride.
“We have to move with the times too,” says Liv, while gesturing to the concrete canoe-like vessel behind him. “Traditionally, deceased Jarays were buried inside of a coffin carved out of a tree, but as you can see, mine is made out of poured cement.”
Having said all that, Liv eventually lets slip a hint of longing.
“Sometimes I wish that our younger generations would do more to protect and preserve our culture,” he says. “After all, there are only 150 families left in this village that identify themselves as Jarays.
“But life goes on and we have to be realistic about it.”
One cannot help but think about this pickle of progress versus preservation. To many outsiders, these tribes are considered the ‘other’, the primordial, the exotic. A part of the kingdom’s diversity that needs to be preserved for the sake of future generations. However, would it be fair to maintain the skewed status quo when airwaves and roads are beginning to blur rural-urban divide? Should these tribes remain content with radios from the 1970s, just so tourists can enjoy this ‘idyllic’ setting, all the while knowing that these tourists can return to the creature comforts of their homes, complete with the modern appliances that they could only dream about?
By no means should this be interpreted as a call to arms for either camp – if anything this serves as a reminder about the need to think about the moral dilemma in the battle between progress and preservation.
Yes, it is important to preserve the unique cultural practices of Cambodia’s various tribal groups for the our next generations. But is it not just as important to include them as a part of our society, to prevent the structural impoverishment of tribal groups that irresponsible tourism may cause, and the reduction of their humanity to mere attractions for the masses?
For as long as the roads remain rudimentary, the ‘mainstreaming’ of these tribes’ ways of life is occurring at a rather glacial pace. But indeed, the clock is ticking, and for now it seems the chances of survival of these tribes will depend on the efforts of their chiefs and elders.
“The children may go to school and are taught in Khmer, but at home we still communicate in Jaray,” says Liv. “After all, we are Jaray first, then Khmer second.”
So will the next generation be able to see how the matrilineal Kreungs and the nomadic Jarays in the future? The answer, it seems, would only be revealed, once the dirt tracks finally turn into asphalt.