Located in the northeastern part of Cambodia, Ratanakiri province borders Laos to the north and Vietnam to the east. It is one of the least-developed provinces in the nation, with approximately 150,000 residents—or about 1 percent of the country’s total population.
The province is home to several diverse ethnic groups including Charay, Kreng, Tompoun, Prov Kachak, Kavet, Lao, Loun and Phnon – each retain a unique culture, belief, tradition and language. Despite its slow pace of development, Ratanakiri is famous for its rich natural resources and its exquisite landscapes. Last week I went on a volunteer trip to the province to conduct a workshop with a group of 42 indigenous middle and high school students. It was a very long, exhausting journey, but worth doing, for there was so much to learn about these unique people.
I could not wait for the day to come so I could meet with the new students. I had imagined them looking different, speaking the various languages of their tribes and having distinctive characteristics from those of the majority of Cambodians.
“I get up at 5am and study and then head to school,” said 16-year-old Kreng girl Khan Srey Ny, who had curly black hair. Khan Srey Ny is now an eighth grader and has left her Kreng community to enroll in Banlung Dormitory School, a facility built by the Vietnamese government. “My parents are farmers and they grow cashews, sesame and vegetables for our family needs,” she said, adding that her parents are happy to send her to school.
Life is very simple and happy in these communities. “At home we do not have a TV, radio, electricity, running water or any modern equipment,” said Luon Sokun, a 16-year-old Prov boy. Prov is another tribe of indigenous Cambodians. “We use a lamp and we grow vegetables for our daily diet,” he added. “We rarely have meat because our people do not go to the market and buy food every day.” He chuckled and I could feel his fulfillment through his dark, shiny eyes and smiling face. No matter how hard life is, they still have hope.
“Even though I face some difficulties, I am still committed to continuing my studies at a university level,” said Sophat, an 11th-grader from the Tompoun tribe. He added that sometimes he has to work to afford his studies. “My family could only afford to give me 10,000 riel ($2.50) per week, so I have to work as a moto-taxi driver to earn money to buy books and food,” said Sophat.
“Because we are poor, my parents wanted me to quit school since I was in grade nine, but I persevered through obstacles to achieve my goals of pursuing a higher education and now I am in grade 11,” Sophat added. Since these special groups of people had settled down thousands of years ago, they formed their own communities with varied cultures and still hold on to those beliefs today. And sometimes, that could be a barrier to development and education.
An interesting tradition that some tribes still practice today is moving home. A Tompoun boy told me that he just moved from his father’s community to his mother’s after a few years living in his father’s. “Usually, if you marry a person from a different tribe, you have to live with him/ her for a number of years. And then move to your community,” he explained.
Health is another concern for the group. Sophat talked about his family. His two oldest siblings had died because of a disease that the tribe believed indicated a wrong done to the holy spirits. “My oldest brother died shortly after my sister had passed away,” Sophat recalled. “Older people thought they were sick because they unintentionally disrespected the community spirits. “They did not take them to the hospital,”headded. Lam Binh, an 11th grader from Prov, told her story. She is the oldest daughter; in her tribe, it is believed that daughters should work to help the family and should not study too much. And therefore, her mother wanted her to give up her school. In order to continue her studies, she has to struggle through poverty by working to support her family. “Besides school, my mum sends me to work as a maid for the neighbours,” Lam Binh said. “I do laundry or other housework for them.” Lam Binh is one of the 42 indigenous students I worked with during the workshop. They were all just as smart, ambitious and committed as the rest of the Cambodians. In spite of the difficulties they face as minorities in an underdeveloped region of the country – difficulties including poverty, cultural and traditional constraints, and a lack of educational opportunities, they still have dreams and work hard to reach them.