Tourism is changing the face of Mondulkiri. But while increasing numbers of visitors
mean more money for this poor province, fears are that it is the ethnic-minority
hill-tribes who will pay the price.
Bearn, 14, is eager to see tourists in her village.
It is the rainy season and the landscape is at its most beautiful. The grassy hills
shine in lime-green, a vivid contrast against the dark-clouded sky. Bearm, 14, looks
out on her village, Pucham, 11 kilometers outside the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.
It is an isolated place, seemingly forgotten by time.
Everyone living in the village is Phnong, Mondulkiri's largest minority, a hill-tribe
people spread out in the jungles of Cambodia's northeast and across the border in
Vietnam, where the hill tribes are still generically known by the French-colonial
appellation Montagnards - "mountain people".
The first tourist is yet to set foot in the village, but Bearm hopes it will happen
soon. "I wish they would come," she says. "It would be interesting
to see them, to see their white skin and beautiful clothes. Maybe I can make friends
In a guesthouse in Sen Monorom, Orn Tina, 24, looks hopefully towards the future.
He has just graduated from Mondulkiri's first course for tourist guides. With 18
other guides from the province, he has learnt about environmental protection, local
history and English. Orn Tina is ethnic lowland Khmer, unlike the majority of the
35,000 people in the province. Originally from Kampong Cham, he has no plans to go
"[By working here] I can support myself and improve my English step by step,"
he says, revealing a dream of eventually ending up in one of the province's few foreign
Gnoeng Blong, 75, is unimpressed by development in Mondulkiri and says 'Nothing has changed since I was a child.'
And it looks like Tina will be busy. With the opening of the new road to Phnom Penh
last year; travel times have been cut from up to two days to just six hours - and
tourism is booming.
Whether it is the isolated jungle waterfalls, the elephant rides to the Phnong villages
or simply the cool air, people are coming in increasing numbers. Local tourism office
statistics reflect the changes: the 4,362 people who have visited the province during
the first half of this year already exceed last year's total figure of 3,027.
Nowhere are the changes more visible than in Sen Monorom. This once-sleepy market
town is coming to life. Two years ago, the town had four guest houses. Today, there
are at least fourteen, and this is only the beginning. By the end of next year, with
the new road to Ratanakkiri finished, local tourism office director Sam Chin expects
the figure to double again. Optimists are talking about Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri
together becoming Cambodia's center for eco-tourism, something that would turn the
northeast into a major tourist region.
When the Pewitts came to Mondulkiri two years ago there were no fences, they say. Now, everyone is marking up the land. 'From my understanding, they just put out fences and if it is far enough out, no one will care,' Braden Pewitt says. 'I am afraid that this could lead to land disputes.'
For the people living here, this is in many ways good news. Jobs are being created
and a new hospital is being built. Half of Sen Monorom is now connected to 24-hour
electricity, with the other half on its way. On the outskirts of town, popping up
along the Phnom Penh road, are new luxury houses built by successful guesthouse owners,
"Mondulkiri has changed a lot only over the last couple of years," says
Sam Chin. "Before, people up here used to live their lives without comforts
like electricity. Now everyone is thinking about how to make things better. It is
a new mentality. And it is good for Mondulkiri."
Deputy governor Nharang Chan agrees with Sam Chin but says there is a much bigger
potential if the infrastructure could be developed.
"There are so many beautiful places here, but most of them are hidden in the
jungle so we can't take tourists there." Chan is one of the few Phnongs holding
a government position.
As a consequence of this development, land prices in Sen Monorom have rocketed. Lots
that cost $150 two years ago now go for three or four times as much.
Braden and Johanna Pewitt - American Seventh day Adventists who live and work with
the Phnong - paint a picture of a speculation boom, where locals and people from
Phnom Penh hope to make the kind of money they hardly dreamed of before.
When they first came to Mondulkiri two years ago, there were no fences, they say.
Now, everyone is marking up the land. But no one seems to know who they should buy
the land from.
"From my understanding, they just put out fences and if it is far enough out,
no one will care," Braden Pewitt says, adding: "I am afraid that this could
lead to land disputes."
This means that the Phnong's traditional way of life - where they clear new rice
fields every few years - is likely to come under increased pressure. "My fear
for the future is that one day when the Phnong want to clear another field, someone
will show up and say 'This is my land'," Braden Pewitt says.
That day might not be far away. There is already talk circulating that some of the
guesthouse owners are buying up the land next to the most popular waterfalls, traditionally
hidden in the jungle. However, one of the guest-house owners, Long Vibol, denies
buying land himself and says he is unaware of others doing it.
Although the Phnong's unique culture is one of the attractions drawing visitors to
the province, most of them see very little of the money. All the guest houses are
owned by Khmers and there are few Phnong on the staff lists. Those fortunate enough
to own an elephant get some money from renting out their animals to the guest houses
for tourist rides. But once in the Phnong village, the huts where the visitors stay
overnight may well turn out to be owned by a guest house.
This situation is in many ways the result of the Phnong's tradition to stay out of
business. Apart from the occasional roadside stalls, everything is run by lowland
Khmers or the odd Vietnamese immigrant. For the Phnong, the concept of making money
from tourists is abstract.
Soon after their arrival, Braden and Johanna Pewitt asked if they could buy one of
the baskets the Phnong make. But the answer was clear: 'Make your own!' After that,
they understood why all the souvenir baskets at Sen Monorom's market were made in
Tourism office director Sam Chin says he thinks the imports are a shame.
"We have to take measures for this to change. As soon as we get the Phnong to
make enough baskets for the tourists, we will stop importing."
At the same time, Sam Chin says he worries that the tourist influx will destroy the
Phnong's traditional way of life. "If more and more people come, I am afraid
the Phnong will start following these people's lifestyle and in the end lose their
The Pewitts say they want to help the Phnong by making them face the changes in a
way that will benefit them. "We try to make them understand that the tourists
don't know how to make things out of bamboo."
Sam Chin talks about the need to educate the Phnong to make them realize the value
in their culture. He says he has an idea to start a project next year, aimed at making
village chiefs aware of the possibilities of tourism. It is all part of his plan
to develop ecologically sustainable tourism, he says.
"If we manage to develop tourism in a way that saves the minority people and
the nature, life up here will be much better in the future. Even for the Phnong."
Back in Pucham village, Bearm's 75-year-old neighbor, Gnoeng Blong, has more immediate
worries on his mind. With a few more weeks of rain, the dirt track leading to the
outside world will turn to mud, making it hard to get his sick 60-year-old wife Toum
to the doctor in Sen Monorom.
Sitting in their dark hut with his eyes on the glowing fire, he thinks of the village
where he has spent his life. Temporarily forgetting the few tin roofs and the odd
motorbike, he says in a low tone: "We live the same life here as then. Nothing
has changed since I was a child."