Joanna White spent time studying the highlanders of the Cambodian north-east,
and prepared this report for the Center for Advanced Study in Phnom Penh.
Environment and Religion
In general terms highlanders can be distinguished from their lowland neighbors
not only by their long-standing inhabitancy of the upland areas but their particular
religion, which is bound to their surrounding environment, and their use of semi-settled
swidden agricultural techniques.
According to the local belief system, the entire natural environment - the sky, the
earth, the forest, along with water sources, hills, stones and rice fields - are
populated by a vast array of spiritual forces. These religious beliefs inspire both
respect and fear, as the spirits are believed to have the power to influence the
health, well-being and prosperity of villagers.
For example, the primary forest areas surrounding villages are believed to be inhabited
by forest spirits (as one Brou elder described it, "these trees were born in
the time of the gods"), and it is forbidden for these areas to be cut. To do
so would arouse the anger of the spirits, resulting in the sickness or even the death
of the individuals responsible (as is described in the local languages, they would
In addition to these spirits of the natural world, spirits of the ancestors are also
believed to have the power to protect, or conversely (if angered or not propitiated
effectively), to wreak havoc on the human world.
At crucial stages of the agricultural cycle, in case of illness where supernatural
interference is believed to be the cause, in times of severe misfortune, or at other
opportune times of the year such as weddings or funerals, the various spiritual forces
are offered animal sacrifices and rice wine as part of an organized communal ritual.
The members of each village are bound together, not only through kinship ties but
also in a religious sense, as every village has its own tutelary protective spirits
which must be regularly propitiated with a sacrificial offering and feast.
Many villages are named after the forest sites and streams close to their base, as
well as after the ancient elders who were the first inhabitants of the settlement,
and there is a wealth of local mythology concerning distinctive areas surrounding
The Phnong, for instance, have strong links with the mountains surrounding their
villages. Some communities make annual offerings to the spirits there. These practices
are related to their belief that originally people inhabited these mountains and
their ancestors are still there.
The highlanders spend much of their time in or around the forest environment, whether
working in the fields, watching livestock, gathering firewood, hunting, fishing or
seeking fruits and leaves for foods and medicine. They are reknowned for their knowledge
of this forest terrain and for centuries have been sought out by neighboring lowlanders
hoping to exchange goods for rare and lucrative products from the forest. Highlanders
are known to have a unique detail of definition, categorization and analysis of the
trees, plants and other elements of their environment which does not exist in any
language other than their own.
Village structure varies from group to group.
Kreung villages are constructed in a distinctive circular fashion, with larger houses
occupied by the heads of each extended family group, built to face inwards towards
a central long-house where village meetings, communal feasts and ceremonies are held.
All of the houses in the village are constructed from forest materials: wood and
bamboo, built on stilts, with leaf or bamboo tile roofs. Smaller houses form an inner
circle and are built in the vicinity of, and often facing, the larger houses. These
smaller houses are inhabited by pre-marital teenagers or individual nuclear families
of couples and their children who are still under the authority of the elders of
their family group.
The Jarai organize their villages in a different manner. They construct vast longhouses
inhabited by each extended family. The inner area of the house is divided into living
compartments for each couple and their children. Teenagers often stay together in
a designated area. The Jarai have a matrilineal clan system and it is forbidden for
those of the same clan to marry. According to Jarai mythology the clans are named
after the place where their ancestors were first born. Some of these clans also have
strict food taboos, the roots of which are detailed in their mythology.
While within villages there appear to be active allegiances between members of the
same clan, and the different clans have their own village clan elders who deal with
strictly clan affairs, there is no formal organization of clans above the village
Tampuan villages provide a unique case as village structure depends on the geographical
situation of the village. Those villages situated near Kreung settlements are built
in a similar manner to the Kreung, whereas the Tampuan in the south-eastern areas
of Ratanakiri, bordering on Jarai communities, construct family longhouses like their
Jarai neighbors. This latter group situated near the Jarai is defined as the Tampuan-loeu
(which means "upper" Tampuan, meant here in a spatial geographical sense).
All Tampuan clans follow the same matrilineal clan system as the Jarai and even share
some clan names.
Further, some of their religious behavior depends on their geographical situation.
Tampuan villages neighboring on Kreung communities have female spirit mediums with
the power of spirit possession like those found in Kreung communities. Tampuan settlements
further to the east, however, have spirit mediums who follow a different process
of divination similar to that use in adjacent Jarai villages.
This reveals the dynamic influence neighboring groups have had on each other over
time. Interestingly, in terms of their ethnic identity, both these "faces"
of the Tampuan considers themselves to be original Tampuan, although some of the
Tampuan in the south-east describe the other Tampuan villages as "doing Kreung",
in other words following the Kreung social system.
Very little time was spent in Phnong villages, so an in-depth study was not possible,
but it appears that teenagers remain living in the same house with their parents
until well after they marry and make their own home. Phnong traditional houses are
very distinctive from those of other groups as they are constructed in a circular
fashion, and are not built on stilts but on ground level with a roof made of large
leaves. Villagers are divided into several groups (kroms), which occupy slightly
separated areas of the village and which are in fact large groups of families organized
according to kinship affiliation. This appears to be the legacy of the People's Republic
of Kampuchea which the Phnong have retained.
Although the above descriptions reveal some of the substantial differences in social
organization, shared patterns of behavior and organization can also be discerned.
For example, all of the groups studied share a matrilocal marriage system. Amongst
the groups in Ratanakiri this is organized through a process of marriage bi-locality.
A newly married couple first spends several years living and farming with the bride's
parents, then moves to the home of the groom's parents, until finally settling in
the bride's village (the time lapse between moves and before settling varies and
is negotiated between the two sets of parents). Amongst the Phnong in Mondulkiri
there is no bi-locality: the groom moves directly to live with the bride in her parental
Amongst all of the groups, respect for the family elders is fundamental. These individuals
steward religious ceremonies such as ceremonial feasts in the fields, ceremonial
offerings in the house for the ancestors, or healing ceremonies for family members.
It is their responsibility to manage these proceedings and begin ceremonies with
an open prayer (sen) to the spirits over rice wine jars, inviting them to feast.
These elders may also be called upon to mediate intra-family disputes. They play
a role in reminding the family of obligations to the ancestors and in preserving
the family oral history. Villagers described how within some families the elders
are careful that younger family members are taught the names of their recent ancestors
in a chronological sequence which they learn by rote. The Phnong call this form of
oral history gayow and are locally renowned for being able to recount many previous
According to traditional upland rice cultivation, forest areas are cleared by
family groups and burnt to establish plots of land which are farmed for several years
and provide families with their food staple of hill rice, together with fruits and
The pace of village life is governed by the agricultural cycle. Although villagers
talk in theory of lunar months, in practice the different months are invariably defined
according to the agricultural work in hand.
Some families also cultivate paddy rice, sometimes due to past contact with Lao lowlanders,
due to contact with Khmers during the Sangkum or Pol Pot periods, or more recently,
due to government encouragement, but in all of these cases this is only in addition
to farming upland rice.
The importance of retaining at least a dual system is perhaps exemplified by the
practices of one Kreung village in Veun Sai district, Ratanakiri, where families
farm paddy rice on one side of the Sesan river while farming hill rice on the other,
necessitating regular crossings of people, goods and livestock.
The traditional system of upland rice cultivation is part of the long-term cycle
in which new plots of land are cleared every year, allowing previously farmed plots
to remain fallow until the forest cover regrows, and they regain their fertility
and are fit to be reused.
Before clearing new areas of land for hill rice cultivation, spiritual approval must
The head of the family group that wishes to cultivate a new area must first visit
the site and make a few cuts on the trees there. His/her dream the night after this
visit is interpreted as a sign as to whether it is acceptable for the plot to be
farmed. For instance, a dream of catching many fish is seen as a good omen; a dream
of fire is bad. The signs in the forest around the proposed field are also taken
into account, so if a snake is seen or the cries of a deer are heard then the land
will not be taken. Such signs inform much of the villagers' time in the forest. The
Jarai, for example, described how they listen to the call of certain birds when walking
through the forest. If the birds are "singing badly" then this is a bad
omen and they will not stay in the forest.
Other groups described how if a tree falls on the path in front of them they cannot
continue walking in the forest but must return to the village and make a spiritual
offering. One Jarai villager made an analogy between this indigenous system of interpretation
and that of the Khmers who visit fortune-tellers. In the same way that Khmers seek
the fortune-tellers' advice to decide their actions, the highlanders rely on their
own trusted system of divination.
If there is a positive dream regarding the use of a proposed new field plot then
it will be cleared and cultivated.
According to traditional law, families hold the rights over the land they farm. Every
year, at certain stages of the agricultural cycle, different rites are performed,
first to ensure the forest spirits are pacified and the work will therefore run smoothly;
and then when the rice has been planted to ensure the soul of the rice is called
to the field so a good harvest will be ensured. These rituals vary from community
to community; the Kreung appear to have the most sophisticated series of rituals,
with some villagers holding up to eight in one year.
Many of the Phnong hold three ceremonies while some of the Jarai hold even fewer,
although the ceremony carried out when the rice is about half a meter high in the
fields appears to be carried out by all groups. This is considered a crucial stage
which can define the success or failure of the future harvest and so the soul of
the rice must be made an offering (even the Jarai villagers who cultivate paddy rice
still practice this ritual).
Another key ritual is when the first harvest is taken in: villagers pray to the soul
of the rice to "stay" in the field and ensure a bountiful harvest.
Among the Phnong, when it is time to harvest the staple variety of rice, the family
assembles at the rice field and makes an offering of the blood of a chicken and rice
wine, firstly in the fields and then at the site of the rraay tree (a sacred tree
which is transplanted from the forest and is where families tie cows or buffaloes
when making large animal sacrifices; one is placed in the rice fields and one outside
family houses at the time of a couple's marriage). After making these offerings the
older women of the family sing to the soul of the rice, asking for a good harvest
and for the family to work well together in their farming. After a small feast, the
rest of the day in spent harvesting.
Slash and burn: sustainable agriculture?
It may be worth clarifying a few stereotyped ideas about the nature of the swidden
agriculture practiced by the highlanders (or "slash and burn", as it is
One widely-held notion is that this method, by its very nature, is damaging to the
The most pervasive contemporary theory, however, appears to be that is technique
is perfectly sustainable and is, in fact, environmentally-sensitive given that population
pressure on resources is limited; in other words there is no drastic reduction in
the land available or a sudden increase in the population utilizing a given area
(as has been the case to date).
Another idea that appears to be held by many Khmers is that this system of agriculture
is so low-yielding that the highlanders who practice it are all starving or at least
suffering from severe malnutrition.
From the research carried out this is not the case, and many villagers described
how they were often in a position to sell surplus rice.
The year of this study was, in fact, atypical as the preceding year's harvest had
been disastrous in many areas. Villagers in Ratanakiri attributed this in dual terms
both to the loss of the soul of the rice and to the uneven weather conditions at
a crucial stage in the rice plants' early growth: heavy rainfall was interspersed
with prolonged hot periods which killed many of the plants.
However, it was not only those farming hill rice who had a bad year, but floods in
many areas had also ruined crops of paddy rice.
Highlanders' food security
Contrary to popular perceptions, the highlanders' way of life can be seen to offer
substantial food security as various vegetables and fruits are cultivated on hill
rice plots and other dietary supplements can be obtained from the forest by gathering
leaves, plants and wild fruits, by hunting and fishing.
The regular religious feasts which are held also offer the whole community access
to a regular source of protein (at large animal sacrifices of cows and buffaloes
the meat is distributed amongst every family in the village).
At times when rice stocks fall low villagers eat tubers and corn which they cultivate,
or wild tubers from the forest, and in severe times of need there are often traditional
methods of security. In short, ideas that the highlanders are desperately poor and
starving are dangerously misleading.
Their traditional way of life is not one of impoverished basic subsistence. As in
any society, there are distinctions between rich and poor, as one Phnong woman described
it: "There has always been rich and poor." But what is also true about
the highlanders is that they have traditionally shared equal access to the forest
and have shared a set of attitudes about the forest that has helped to preserve it.
Of buffaloes and mountains
"Before, people used to live in caves in the Namloeuw mountains. They saw the
new forests which were created by the gods. Old father Lenoy came out from the cave
and told his people to follow. They brought their buffaloes with them. Some of the
buffaloes got their horns stuck in the trunks of trees in the forest and so this
blocked the way for everyone else. This is why today the Phnong people live in the
forest but some still live far away deep in the mountains... People also say this
about Rronorr mountains here. When people play gongs in their villages the ancestors
at Rronorr also play the gongs; when people feast so do the ancestors. They do the
same as us."
- Phnong elder, Mondulkiri
The tale of cotton and cow
Some of the Chom clan are forbidden to eat beef, and some to eat pork. This is because
of a story from the past. There were two sisters living together. One day the older
one was drying her cotton ready to weave and a cow came along and ate it. When the
older sister came back to the house and found that her cotton had disappeared she
was very angry. In the house the sisters kept a bird which knew how to speak but
not very clearly. The bird tried to tell the sister what had happened but as it could
not speak properly the sister misunderstood: the Jarai words for cow (mnoh) and younger
sister (mmo) are very close and so she thought the bird was telling her that her
younger sister had eaten the cotton! When the younger sister returned from the forest
the older sister was very angry with her. "It was not me, it was the cow,"
said the younger girl, but the oldest would not believe her and beat her very badly,
forcing her to run away in fear. Later, when the cow was killed, the older sister
found her cotton inside its stomach. She realized her mistake and felt terrible pity.
She missed her younger sister very much and went to look for her in the forest. She
took a pig and made a ceremony to the spirits praying for the return of her sister.
When she found her sister, she begged her to return home and offered her some of
the pork. The younger sister could not accept this offer of reconciliation. She said
she could not eat the meat of the sacrificed pig as she was afraid it would make
her die. She refused to return to the village. From this time on the older sister
swore never to eat the meat of cow again because of her mistake while the younger
sister never ate pork. These taboos have been handed down from generation to generation.
The descendants of the younger sister are the Chom people who speak the same language
as the Jarai.