Mondulkiri’s Indigenous Bunong People

After leaving the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh behind, I headed into the wilds of Cambodia to the eastern province of Mondulkiri. Best known as a coffee growing region, it is also home to the Bunong people, a local indigenous population who are believed to have lived in the region for around 2000 years. Traditionally, they have lived a subsistence lifestyle, although it is very apparent after visiting some of the villages that their way of life is changing and adapting to a more modern existence.

My guide for the day was Taik, who is Banong, and comes from one of three villages in the Dak Dam community about half an hour out of the town I was staying in, Sen Monorom. I met him at the Hefalump Cafe in town, which is the hub for a lot of tours in the area. We were both early and I was drinking a delicious Mondulkiri coffee. I offered Taik one and he said he would try it but he had never drunk coffee before. I’m not sure if he liked it or not, although he said he did and drank it all politely. It was now time to take off to the village on the back of his motorbike.

The scenery through the mountains was beautiful and Taik drove very carefully, especially once we left the bitumen road onto the rough red dirt tracks leading into his village. I was a little surprised to see many lovely wooden houses along the first road we drove along. Taik dropped me off and let me walk and take photos and said he would meet me at his house, wherever that was! I thought it was picture postcard perfect and i was perplexed as I was expecting something quite different.

Walking down this idyllic red dirt road, past well kept green pastures and quaint wooden houses was beautiful. I finally found Taik’s place and he was keen to show me the house he was building on his family’s land. He said it was getting a bit cramped living with the in-laws, and he and his wife and baby needed their own space. The house looked great but I still kept wondering, where were the traditional Bunong huts I had read about. After inspecting the house, Taik took me around the garden to see what they were growing. Lots of herbs and vegetables, cashew trees, and pepper, which I only thought they grew in Kampot.

After inspecting the house and garden, Taik took me on a walk through the rest of the village, and it was here I found a little of the traditional lifestyle I came here to see. While many of the families here have built wooden huts and newer houses, there were still a few of the traditional thatched huts the Bunong are known for. He took me inside one of them to meet a lady who lived there with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and their children. On entering, you need to duck under the low doorway into an open space with just one wooden partition behind which I wasn’t privy to (perhaps it was the privy).

Along one side of the hut was a raised platform where everyone slept on woven mats, just a few millimeters thick. I assume with the large ceramic jars of rice wine fermenting behind their heads. The floor is bare earth and everything is covered in soot, especially the mezzanine platform for storing rice above, which catches most of the smoke from the cooking fire inside. The lady of the house was smoking a hand rolled cigarette made from chopped tobacco and rolled in a whole leaf and she offered one for me to try. In return I offered the rest of my packet of tailor made Marlborough Lights, which she graciously accepted, apparently for her husband.

After a lovely 20 minute visit I took her never-ending home-made cigarette with me to take a look at the rest of the village. It really was picturesque, with pigs and chickens roaming freely. All the houses had gardens growing their own herbs and vegetables, and the village has built small dams for watering crops and for the livestock. After all the walking I had worked up an appetite and lunch was going to be cooked by a local lady whom, along with her husband, had built a new home to take part in the community homestay program.

On the way to lunch, we stopped off at another of the homestay houses to see one of the local women who weaves scarves and bags for extra income. Heavily pregnant with her first child, she sat on the ground, legs stretched out in front, and held one weaving rod with her toes and the other under her belly as she wove a bright yellow, green and blue scarf. I couldn’t believe that she did such intricate work this way, especially being pregnant. I was so impressed I wanted to buy the one she was working on and she toiled away all afternoon and finished it just before I left to go back to town. That was 2 days work for her and it cost a measly $8 USD.

So back to lunch, we had a Punong dish of pork and eggplant, and a Khmer dish which was pork and cabbage. Both were delicious and we ate it with rice, fish sauce and green tea. Taik then left me there to rest and said he would be back in 2 hours, which I wasn’t that happy about. As I had basically seen the entire village I spent the time downloading and editing photos which filled the time nicely. When he came back we went for a walk over a hill and down into a valley to see a waterfall.

The walk to the waterfall took us over a lovely hill with cows grazing on the green pastures. On the other side was a dirt road, leading down to the waterfall, past small farms that were neat and well cared for. The Bunong people seem to take great pride in their farms and everything seems to grow well in the rich fertile soil. Some of the fencing was even decorated by brightly painted old bicycle tires. At the bottom of the hill a small stream was flowing over what turned out to be about a 20 metre drop.

In order to view the waterfall I had to walk down a very steep and slippery wooden set of stairs, but the view was well worth it. The waterfall was beautiful, I mean its not Niagara Falls, but I find any waterfall both soothing and enchanting. It was cool, lush and green standing down there under a canopy of trees and bamboo with the sounds of the water gushing down onto the rocks. I could have stayed here for hours but it was time to push on to visit a local farm. Or was it?

So far, today hadn’t gone exactly to plan, in fact the itinerary had changed from the one I looked at on the internet when I had booked it. It was also slightly different than what Taik had shown me this morning before we left Sen Monorom. But now instead of a farm visit we were to climb a mountain, although my guide said the man who owned the land was a great farmer. I assumed there would be crops and all sort of things growing up there, but no, we just walked up the mountain and back again. I certainly was getting fit, and there was a good view at the top.

Although the day hadn’t gone quite as planned I did get an insight into the lives of the Bunong people. Most of them are Animist and believe that everything has a spirit and they bury their dead, unlike the Khmer, who are mostly Buddhist and cremate thier dearly departed. However, a small percentage of the population have converted to Catholicism and Buddhism. The Bunong have their own language, although it is only a spoken, there is no alphabet or written form and most also speak Khmer. But the one big thing I took away was that their traditional way of living is changing.

They are building more modern homes, by their standards, and you don’t really see traditional dress worn, although I was informed that during special occasions and ceremonies they will don traditional attire. Some homes now have electricity and even television and to be honest I don’t see why that is a problem. I know I would rather sleep in a modest wooden house with a floor and a roof that doesn’t leak than a hut with a dirt floor. While it is sad to see these traditional lifestyles die out you can’t blame someone for wanting a better life for themselves and their children.

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