Chan Pheakdey (left), 22, sits with a friend on the banks of the Sesan River in Stung Treng province. Lao is the first language of most villagers in the community. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post
Stung Treng province
On the banks of the Sesan River, a group of young Cambodian men mill about talking.
They converse about normal things – swimming, fishing and girls, mostly – but it’s how they do it that’s particularly striking: they speak a language many across the Kingdom would fail to understand.
These youths live in a remote village where every Cambodian – from the oldest grandmother to the youngest talking child – speaks Lao, even if not all know exactly why.
“Lao is my first language,” says Chan Pheakdey, 22. “Mostly we speak Lao in this village, but I can speak Khmer as well.”
Pheakdey and his friends, from Srekor I village, in Stung Treng’s Sesan district, consider themselves Cambodian, but have grown up speaking Lao.
They continue to speak that language routinely, even though it's one they can’t write and never learned at school.
“I don’t know if my grandparents were Laotian or Cambodian – many young people here are confused about this – but I certainly identify as Cambodian.”
So do Pheakdey’s friends, who share similar tales about being raised on the mother tongue of their northern neighbour, which lies some hours away.
“We don’t know any people from Laos, so we don’t know how different the Lao we speak in this village is from there,” Pheakdey says.
According to Souy For, director of Srekor Primary School, 100 per cent of the 469 families in the village speak Lao as their first language.
The village’s children, For adds, rarely utter so much as a single word of Khmer before they go to school.
“It’s very difficult to educate children in the first grade, because they do not speak any Khmer, just Lao,” For says, adding Lao is not on the curriculum and any teacher from further afield who arrives in the village finds it impossible to engage the youngest students.
“They’re trying to introduce a word like ‘banana’ and they do not know what that translates to in Lao, so, in turn, the children don’t know what object the Khmer word is referring to. The teacher needs an actual banana – but then they don’t have any actual bananas,” he says.
Stung Treng province has a border with Laos and, although once part of the Khmer Empire, was under the rule of Lao kingdoms as recently as the beginning of the last century.
It is estimated that more than 10,000 Laotians live in Cambodia, but some in Srekor village identify as Cambodian – because they’re not exactly sure what their family history is.
According to a recent study by the NGO Forum on Cambodia of areas in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces set to be affected by the Lower Sesan 2 dam, the presence of Laotians and the Lao language spreads much further than Srekor village.
“Lao is popular in daily use, although the majority of the population in the study area are Khmers,” the reports says, adding that most people surveyed in Srekor commune identified themselves as Laotian.
“Older people in many villages in Sesan district . . . can undersand some Khmer, but not much, and they cannot speak Khmer. On the other hand, teenagers or children can understand Khmer well, but they use Lao or an indigenous language for daily communication in their respective villagers.”
Had Mata, 31, who grew up in Srekor village speaking Lao, spent only six years studying Khmer at primary school, before dropping out because the village had no teacher for its junior high school.
“I wanted to keep studying, but no teacher came to take our classes. The students waited for two years, but nothing, so we decided to marry instead,” she says, adding she now speaks Khmer only on special occasions – when visitors come to town.
“We can write and speak Khmer, but every day, we speak Lao.”
Yim Chan Srey, director of kindergarten education at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport in Phnom Penh, says the government has focused on improving conditions for the youngest students in the Srekor area, including by employing more interpreters in classrooms.
“We try to encourage students to learn Khmer as best they can, so they can progress to primary school, high school and university. It’s there they can – if they want to – continue studying Lao,” she says.
“And ideally, teachers for the schools should be selected from the local community,” she says.
While some of Pheakdey’s friends are at a loss to explain why the older generation “has just always spoken Lao”, Lorn Yeoun, 53, knows for a fact that his family roots lie north.
“My great-grandparents were Laotian,” the fisherman says as he relaxes in a coffee shop on the banks of the Sesan River, a major tributary of the Mekong River, which flows down from Laos. “They could read and write the language. I don’t know exactly when they came here. They were fishermen.”
Yeoun can speak Khmer, but Lao comes more natural to him – though, in certain situations, speaking his village’s dialect, can make him feel a little out of place.
“When I was 32, I visited the Lao border. I had no problems communicating with them. Other times, though, I’ve found it hard to understand people from Laos. We speak differently.
“But people here always know what I’m talking about.”