Ethnic Minority Villages of Ratanakiri
The north-eastern most province of Cambodia, Ratanakiri, is home to eight different hill tribes, in addition to some Lao and Chinese minority groups. These inhabitants account for approximately two thirds of the province's population, with the remainder made up of ethnic Khmer (Cambodians). Ratanakiri is the countries' most sparsely populated province with a density of only 17 people per square kilometre. I booked a tour to visit some of these villages with Rithy, a very jovial young man who loved to laugh, especially at his own jokes.
We set off around 9am for a very bumpy and dusty ride to Veun Sai District, a good hour away from Ban Lung, the capital. We stopped for a break about halfway to give my butt a break form the constant bumps in the road before arriving at the Tonle San River where our longboat awaited our departure. After boarding, we took off for the first minority village about 35 minutes upriver. The ride was lovely as we passed farmland and the lush green thickets of forest along the way.
The Village of Koa Pek is home to the Kachok people, an indigenous population of animists, who speak their own language, in addition to Khmer, and also have some spectacular graveyards that we came to see. Most indigenous villages in this area do not allow foreigners to visit their burial grounds, so I felt lucky to be able to visit the one near this village. After disembarking the boat we walked into the village to take a look around. Rithy too me to one of the village homes, friends of his, to see the house and garden and the expanse of green rice fields behind.
I was impressed with the garden and the wide variety of herbs and vegetables growing here, and it was very well cared for by the lady of the house. The three kids were less impressed to take a photo with me, although the older boy seemed happy enough to oblige. The lady's husband works out in the rice fields while she tends to the children, the house and the gardens. Out the back of the house were acres of green rice fields that would soon be ready for harvesting. After saying farewell to the family, Rithy took me via the local school, which was empty as apparently the underpaid teacher here is lazy, before we walked into the forest where the cemetery was located.
The burial ground had an eerie feel initially, with many of the gravesites covered in jungle vines and shrubbery. Some of them were quite plain, with just a thrown together corrugated covering, while others were quite elaborately decorated and colourful. The Kachok people bury their dead so they can reconnect between their earthly world and the spirit world. Their loved ones sacrifice an animal, which can be small or as large as a water buffalo, depending on what they can afford, and they leave things that the interred may find useful in the afterlife.
Usually these objects are things that they used in their daily lives when they were alive, such as bicycles, speakers, bowls, cutlery and even cigarettes. You can see the bicycle placed inside the smaller grave, obviously that of a child, in the second picture below. A male and female totem is usually carved and decorated, and then placed at the front of the grave. The roof is painted in bright colourful designs, some with a fabric valance draped from the edges of the roof.
There were hundreds of graves here, some older and in a state of disrepair, others more recent and in much better condition. Pictured below, is the grave of a former village chief which is one of the more recent graves in the burial grounds. You can tell this grave was built for someone quite important, due to the elaborate adornments of the structure. Although, one would hope that more care would be taken of your final resting place. I mean, there's a lot of weeding needed here! Nonetheless, it was a privilege to be able to visit here and very interesting to learn about their culture.
From here we walked through the forest and back to the river and did not return to the village. Being animists they are very superstitious, and apparently we are not permitted back into the village after visiting the graveyard, in case the spirits followed us back and caused trouble for the villagers. So we jumped into the boat and sped back down the river to where we had left the motorbike, hoping that we outran the trouble causing spirits.
Once back on dry land we rode down to a ferry crossing to get across the river to see a Chinese and Lao village. It turns out that the Chinese village is made up of Taiwanese people and their local school has lots of graffiti art with Taiwan and the national flag painted all over. Apart from the school and the Lao village temple there wasn't a lot to see there. You could tell the people in both villages were wealthier than the other villages around as the houses were quite big and well cared for. We didn't spend a lot of time there as it was getting late and Rithy wanted to show me an indigenous village close to Ban Lung, on the way back.
It was late afternoon when we finally arrived in the picturesque village of Phum Svei, home to an indigenous population of Kreung people. The village sat on the top of a hill and looked so beautiful in the fading sunlight. There was plenty of action that afternoon, with the kids playing soccer, some older guys playing volleyball, and some of the village men were working on a cement road to make the steep access up to the village easier, especially during the wet season.
Taking a walk around, what really struck me was that the village was so neat and tidy, with barely any rubbish to be seen at all. The red dirt was stark against the green trees and the mossy floors beneath them, and everything looked so cute. Especially the tiny huts that sat adjacent to some of the lager houses, which Rithy explained were the homes of the eligible young girls of the village.
The when the girls "come of age", and in this culture it is 14 or 15 years old, they leave the family home to live in the small huts where they will be joined by a boy who will live with her for a year. If, after a year, they decide they love each other, they will get married. Sometimes it doesn't work out, even before the year is up and the boy will leave early, paving the way for some other eligible young bachelor. Quite a good concept, except for their age of course. You can tell once they are married as a small kitchen is added to the side of the huts. I assume once they have children they build a bigger home.
The marriages and other ceremonies are all held in the village hall, pictured below. And if all this village cuteness wasn't enough, the final photos feature puppies and a lovely homemade village playground. The whole day had been rather fascinating, although you can probably tell, I was most taken by the quaint little village of Phum Svei. The final 1/2 hour back to Ban Lung was painful as I had sat on the back of the bike over bumpy roads for most of the day. I was glad to get back to the hotel to wash off all the red dirt and enjoy a well deserved beer.