Villagers in Ratanakiri make their way to a town meeting (left); relaxing in the villagePhotograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
Now we’re going to see the minority people’s house! The real one, made of bamboo!” With the enthusiasm typical of a well-trained tour guide, Mr Keo Soa hurries to the tourist center of Om village, one of many in Ratanakiri province where the ethnic minority of Kreung dwell.
“The Kreung minority is friendly people because they have freedom,” he adds for good measure as we maneuver through rows of stilted huts varying in size – based on the wealth of the owner.
Soa has been working for eight years to satisfy the foreign hunger to experience tourist appetites for jungle life and he’s no fake- he is licensed by the ministry of tourism he runs his Soa Tours under the governmental umbrella.
The agency offers visits to the waterfalls, a jungle trek or overnight stay with a tribe of choice, except those few who aren’t really impressed by tourists peering at them.
But the Kreung are welcoming and have become pivotal in growing industry of minority tribe tourism. Most speak their own dialect as well as Khmer, and have a famous custom of building ‘love huts’- small bamboo constructions allowing their daughters to spend the night with suitors. It’s a custom which has featured in stories around the world and is now local tour guides.
Two-hours long drive from Banlung, the capital of the province, a large raft equipped with an outboard motor ferries tourists, local vendors and visitors to a nearby temple across the Tonle San river.
Upstream from there lies Lao - a village with lush vegetation and modest houses lined up along a single countryside road. It’s practically deserted due to the rainy season when villagers work in the rice fields for days on end. Only a few women and children guard the households, and they aren’t used to discussing openly their way of the subject of love and marriage.
“Finally someone asks the question that even we forget to ask ourselves”, 26-year-old Potpram smiles, saying that she met her husband at a wedding party, fell in love with him and never needed a own hut to test out other candidates.
“Some people build girl houses (love huts), others don’t. It depends on the family.”,
Potpram was lucky, unlike her older friend who now has seven children with a man she has never had true feelings of love for.
“Even if I didn’t like him, I had to follow my parents’ will”, her friend says, chewing on a thick green cigar as her many daughters feasted on remains of rice and bamboo shoots.
Another factor, which makes the love huts less fashionable these days is “the new culture borrowed from the Khmer people”. They say it makes the villagers lazy.
For children from Nong leak, only 12 kilometers from Banlung, tourists are a potential source of candy, books and second-hand clothes. But if they don’t get a gift they soon lose interest and leave, unlike hawkers in busier cities.
17-year-old Barang lives here with her mother and sisters. She married a young man who used his mobile to photograph her after spotting her one day and tracked her down and, with the consent of her widowed mother, married her.
The wedding photos show Barang wearing a traditional Khmer attire because, despite her respect for Kreung tradition, her “husband wanted a Khmer celebration”. Contrary to the custom, the couple didn’t settle down in the bride’s hometown because the groom is has a job in his own village.
Barang looks puzzled and says that even though marriage usually means the end of education for local girls, she’s considering returning to school.
Both remote Kreung villages and those just a stone’s throw from Banlung now shows signs of foreign influences. At the entrance of Nong Lek, a glossy banner informs that international organizations, like ICC (International Cooperation Cambodia), Oxfam and Health Unlimited, are helping local people.
“Nowadays we have many NGOs and government projects here to support local people,” explains our guide. “We also have the Christians who come here to vaccinate the babies.
Many others settled here to fix the problems of the province’s poor through development projects, Bibles, Christian schools and churches.
“They try to spread the Christian faith, but the minorities are animists,” says Koa. “They believe in spirits of mountains, elephants, water and all other animals.”.
There are signs this activity has its good and bad side – such as a glue sniffing problem.
“Here, people worry about education, malaria, lack of food and money and the NGOs and Christians teach them how to take care of themselves,” Koa says. At the moment only some parts have been developed, but year by year, the people and their habits are being changed.”
With a mixture of ethnic minorities and a border with Vietnam, Ratanakiri is known as an unruly province. More uphill, in the village of Ka Vaeng, the older people still remember its turbulent past- from Khmerization campaign of King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s to Pol Pot’s guerrillas hiding in their forests.
Many methods were used to try and change the Kreung into more “civilised” people, but the village still uses customary law.
The chief of Ka Vaeng likes tourists. “We’re very happy to have foreigners visit our village because we can learn about their culture and show them ours. Now we see things we’ve never seen before”.
He doesn’t worry about losing traditional way of life because, thanks to improved literacy, “the young generations can now write” and preserve their tradition in books.
There is one TV in the village and it has led to conflict.
“The people started moving onto our territory,” he explains. Younger generations have no respect. The boys watch Chinese movies and behave like gangsters”.
Kreung girls find this change equally disturbing. “I don’t believe boys anymore because now they don’t love truly, they’re joking too much”, says Wana, 18, who isn’t looking for a husband but for a job with an NGO. “There are a lot of gangsters and glue-boys”, she adds.
Keo Soa confirms that she meant the practice of glue-sniffing.
“The road back Banlung is lined by fields of cassava, rubber tree plantations and army soldiers de-mining land for cultivation.
But lucrative rubber tree plantations don’t generate income for ethnic minorities. They belong to the government, or the Rich Man from Phnom Penh”.
With its 10 hotels, 36 guesthouses and 12 restaurants, Banlung attracts migrants from other provinces seek employment in the booming tourism sector which based largely on the ethic diversity of the region.
Keo Soa wears his uniform of a certified tour guide proudly and scorns unofficial guides, saying they’re unprofessional. “They take the money but know nothing about ethnic minorities and their traditions.”
Whole buses packed climb the hills to show the tourists how the “jungle tribes” live, or at least used to live. But local people seem at peace with this awkward symbiosis with only a few voices warning of extinction looming over the ethnic traditions.
To contact the reporter on this story:Dagmarah Mackos at [email protected]