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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Old and happy in the far northeast

Old and happy in the far northeast

K U CHUNG VILLAGE - Bent almost double under the weight of a basket of grain for rice wine, the old lady accepted a cigarette from her foreign visitors, took a couple of puffs and then tore off the paper and popped the tobacco in her mouth.

The Krung tribeswoman in northeastern Cambodia's neglected Ratanakiri province - who introduced herself as Chhang and claimed to be 150 years old but could be anything between 50 and 100 - had clearly not fully come to terms with the modern world starting to touch on her life.

Ratanakiri's minority groups, such as the Krung, Jarai, Brou and Tampuan, are a complex and sometimes contradictory lot.

Western dress exist side by side with traditional loincloths, animist beliefs and rituals, a subsistence economy and slash-and-burn agriculture.

The old lady, bare-breasted like many other young and old women in this village of around 40 families, could not utter a word of Khmer - nor could many of the young children.

Among a small group of young men who spoke Khmer in the village, none had heard of Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk or Khmer Rouge rebel supremo Pol Pot, who used Ratanakiri as a base in the early 1970s.

Politics is not an issue in the villagers' daily business. For most, life goes on in the village, in thickly-forested hill country 25 kilometers from the provincial capital of Ban Lung, as it always has.

A recent visit found most of the inhabitants of the bamboo and thatch stilt houses out in the fields gathering the important rice harvest.

Others were preparing a two-day animist ceremony to help cure a young man who complained of "feeling pain in my bones."

"We believe that when someone is sick we should hold a ceremony to pray to the spirits to help him," said 25-year-old villager, Budu.

One villager carried a large earthenware jar of rice liquor, while others prepared a pig for slaughter, as a beautiful pipe-smoking young girl watched from one of the score of houses, which form a ring around a larger long house that serves as a ceremonial hall.

An inner ring of smaller huts is used for guests or for the unmarried daughters of the village.

A hunter came in from the forest carrying a powerful wooden crossbow - which he used to kill small animals, including forest rats, for eating or use in ceremonies - before helping prepare bamboo decorations for the healing ceremony, which promised to be a boozy affair.

Another highlander, met as he was setting off for the hills near Ban Lung, said he could catch as much wildlife as he wanted and pulled out a razor-sharp bamboo arrow tipped with poison, boasting that it could kill a buffalo.

The inhospitable region is home to a number of minorities who help make up Ratanakiri's 72,300 population, 80 per cent of them highlanders.

While traditional ways are still prevalent, change is always approaching - and not for the first time.

A 1992 United Nations report said the encroachment of modern life upon highlanders' cultural identity was, in part, due to the long years of civil war. Many were forced to live in the forest, with their children being brought up without traditional village life.

Ratanakiri's Second Deputy Governor Bunhom Ounmany, in a recent interview, said the government wanted to help the tribe people and noted that education and health were the most urgent needs.

He said literacy was a key to progress and pointed out that while the toll from malaria was decreasing in most districts, "the death rate in remote areas is going up because there is no health service".

Others claim the government is not that interested in the welfare of the minorities, though it seems some village elders are against the idea of outside interference.

"The government wants to help us but - I don't know why - the village chief did not accept the government assistance," said 50-year-old Krung tribesman Sompang.



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