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Highlanders: the myths in the forests

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

"do us").

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.

Social Organization

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


Agricultural Life

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

be ensured.

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

sometimes termed).

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.



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