province, rather than measuring distances in kilometers, you could
measure by the number of diverse cultures you passed along the way.
We were headed to the Saison River, to visit a Tombon burial ground.
Along the way, my 25 year-old Khmer guide, Hao, took me to a Krem
minority village, and told me about their way of life.
The Krem used slash and burn agriculture, planting dry rice, in a
Each time they plant rice, they sacrifice a chicken, pig, or other
animal to make food for the spirits. Afterwards, they invite all of
their friends to eat the animal, and drink rice wine, from a large
stone jar. After the party, a shrine is built, with the head of the
slaughtered animal suspended on bamboo poles. They would make
another sacrifice when the rice harvest had ripened. Scarcity of
land has forced the tribal people to travel further and further to
till their fields. For this reason, Krem families maintained one
house in the village and one near their rice fields.
When working in the field, the men go in to the jungle and hunt for
They use a crossbow, similar to many other tribes. But different
from the Tombon tribe, they use poison tipped arrows. The poison is
made from cobra venom, mixed with tree resin. They would also catch
cobras to sell to the Vietnamese in Banlung. But now the cobra is a
protected species, so it is illegal to hunt them. According to Hao,
the Vietnamese use the skin to make leather goods. The blood is
often mixed with alcohol and drunk. But only rich people can afford
that. Said Hao.
A few miles up the road, we mounted a boat, which took us a long way
up the Saison River to Ganjon Tombon village. The way was scenic and
quiet. The thick green jungle was only occasionally broken by the
appearance of a tribal village. Although the river is quite wide,
there is very little traffic. Tribal people use canoes extensively,
but never venture far from their home village. The head man, Dam Gam
Pun, told us that he was 75 years old. I asked about the two coffins
under his house.
One of those will be for the old man.¡¨ Explained Hao. ¡§They get
the coffin while he is still alive, so no one has to go into the
jungle to cut wood, and miss out on the funeral party.
Dam Gam Pun was
typically slim, but tall for a Tombon. Obviously happy to hav
evisitors, he instantly became a ball of energy, running around the
village, demonstrating every facet of their lives, from the use
Tombon cooking pots to showing us the use of fish traps. He
particularly enjoyed showing us how they drink rice wine from large
stone jugs, and he reeked of alcohol. But at 75 I think he ws
people are quite shy. But lukily, Dam Gam Pun was open, and answered
all of my questions. He told us that during the Khmer Rouge time he
left, to live in the forest. This corroborates the story of much of
my research. Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri came under Khmer Rouge
control first, years before the fall of Phnom Penh. Some of the
earliest recruits were among the hill tribe people, who had been
turned against the west by Nixon¡¦s constant US bombing raids into
Cambodia. But, once the Khmer Rouge began tightening the screws,
eradicating languages and cultures which differed from the Khmer
ideal, many hill tribe people ran off into the jungle to wait out
and later, republican Dictator, Lon Nol, also invested great effort
in recruiting tribal soldiers. Dam Gam Pun told us that two people
from the village had served in Lon Nol¡¦s army, but returned
unharmed. It was a direct result of these recruiting and integration
efforts that the Cambodia¡¦s tribal people were given citizenship
cards and passports.
Although they are
facing the same issues of land grabbing, poverty, illiteracy, and
cultural annihilation as tribal people everywhere, citizenship is a
decided advantage over the tribal people of Thailand and Burma who
are stateless persons.
didn't have a school, but some children could take a boat, and
attend the school on the other side of the river. According to Dam
Gam Pun the only job in the village was farming. They supplemented
their diet with hunting.
As soon as I
expressed an interest in hunting, Dam Gam Pun began laughing like a
child. He called all of the village boys to help him set up the
nets, so he could show me how they killed wild pigs. They strung up
a strong net between two trees, tying it off only lightly at the
ends, with plenty of slack in the middle. Next, they proped up the
net with tall sticks stuck in the ground.
Dam Gam Pun
handed out long sharpened sticks to all of the boys, who got on
line, and began marching towards the net.
They will scare
the pig.¡¨ Explained Dam Gam Pun. ¡§And he will run into the net.
Once the pig was
tangled in the net, two men, armed with harpoons, would leap out
from behind the trees, and stab the pig to death. It didn't seem
like a pleasant way to go. I was never so glad that I was not a pig.
harpoons, they were about two meters long, with a cruel looking
eighteen-inch metal blade at the end.
Dam Gam Pun
looked extremely happy. I wondered if maybe at his age this was as
close as he would get to hunting. Perhaps showing me his toys was
like a trip down memory lane for him. Dancing about on unsteady
feet, he waved his harpoon at me. I wanted to remind him that
alcohol and spears don't mix, but he was really the one in control.
harpoons in his hut, Dam Gam Pun showed me the knife they used for
sacrificing buffalo. It was a long metal blade, attached to a curved
stick, designed for hacking. He was explaining the funeral rights to
me, in general, but on some level, he was explaining what the
villagers would do when he died, which he believed to be very soon.
When a buffalo is
killed at a funeral, the knees are cut first, forcing the animal to
drop to the ground. Finally, the neck is cut. Everyone in the
village helps to cut and clean the meat. A feast is called, and it
usually takes two nights for an entire buffalo to be eaten. Hao told
me that since it is the deceased who is paying for the party, when a
rich man dies it could last much longer.
Depending on how
rich he was, it could be three nights or even two weeks.
For the rich man,
they would kill a lot of buffalo.
On the way to the
graveyard, Hao stopped to show me a separate, smaller burial area.
If someone dies
outside of the village, the funeral and party would be here.¡¨
Explained Hao. The main cemetery is only for people who died in the
The main cemetery
in Ganjon Tombon village was truly amazing. Some of the villagers
nearer to Banlung are slowly loosing their customs. They are also
loosing land through illegal sales and grabs, forcing them to do
away with their elaborate burial procedures. But the graves in
Ganjon village were perfect examples of the true tribal culture,
right out of a textbook.
Each grave was
covered with a roof, to keep the spirit of the dead from flying
away. All of the villagers are buried in the same area, so that they
can rebuild the village in the spirit world. The roofs and supports
were decorated with motifs from the life of the deceased. For
example, one roof bore a tremendous carving of ship, signifying that
the deceased had been a fisherman. One of the best decorations was
on the grave of a policeman.
There was a huge
carving of a man, with sunglasses, a hat, and a walky-talky.
A small shrine
was built on the grave, displaying the head of the buffalo
slaughtered at the funeral. On the grave of a dead man, there was a
carving of a girl, so that he could have a girlfriend in the next
life. Further along in the quest for equality, the graves of women
were also adorned with carvings of men. Once the roof was built,
then the grave would be covered with all of the things that the
person had used in life. But, the objects had to broken first. The
graves were covered with shards of pottery, to symbolize that this
life was bad, but the next life would be better.
Two people can
occupy one grave.¡¨ Explained Hao. ¡§If a husband dies first, he is
buried on one side, with a girl statue. Then when the wife dies, she
is buried on the other side, with a boy statue.
One grave had
elephant tusks, made of wood.
¡§Elephants were once very important to the tribe, used to take
their goods to market. But now only one local village has elephants.
people use a motorcycle.
The Tombon plant
banana trees on the grave. If the trees grow, they he will be happy
in next life.
called tribal people primitive. But in actuality they have a strict
set of rules and codes, which they would never violate. Hao
explained that if the roof breaks, they cannot fix it unless they do
Dam Gam Pun
explained the native people¡¦s love of the forest. ¡§Before we cut
the tree we ask the spirit for permission. Before we plant rice, we
sleep here. If, in the dream, the spirits give permission, then you
can cut the trees and plant. If the spirits say no, you must find
another place. If the spirits are unhappy, then you must kill an
animal and make a sacrifice.¡¨
never repair the graves because they are too poor.
the jungle, hundreds of nautical miles up river from the nearest
city, I was beginning to feel like Sir Richard Francis Burton,
searching for the source of the Nile. But my fantasy was shattered
when not one but four groups of tourists appeared on the trail both
behind and in front me.
I came to the end
of the world and found people on guided tours.
Cambodia is still in its infancy, and you can be the first person to
do a particular tour, or the first person that year, or at least,
the only one that day. But, an end to the wild adventure is coming.
A major highway is planned, connecting Ratanakiri and Vietnam. The
small airport, with the unpaved runway is about to be replaced by an
I found myself
surrounded by French and Germans. Soon, I would be escaping to the
sanity of Phnom Penh. But for the tribes, there was no escape. And
the constant march of digital cameras, US Dollars, and
handkerchief-sized swimsuits on corpulent German men was going to
eradicate their way of life.
Wen Sai Chinese
village is home to only 150 people, from 25 Kuo Ming Dan families,
who came to Cambodia, from Guangdon Province, to escape war with the
Japanese and with the Communist forces of Mao Tse Dong. The village
is locate only a few meters from Ganjon Tombon village, but the
difference between the two was instantly noticeable.
and played in the Chinese village. They looked healthier, well
nourished and more alert. I got a more playful laughs and giggles
and children coming out to greet and joke with me than I did in
tribal or Khmer villages. The poverty of the Khmers and tribal
people results in malnutrition, which in turn makes them less
productive, and less alert. It is a vicious cycle, which drives them
deeper into poverty. The Chinese seem to be the only ethnic group
who have managed to avoid sinking into this trap.
houses were all painted blue, and stood two stories tall, whereas
Khmer and tribal houses are all one story, up on stilts, and made of
unfinished wood or bamboo. The houses were neat, and tidy, with
living space upstairs, and a shop downstairs.
All of the
Chinese are businessmen.¡¨ Explained Hao, using the Indochinese
word, which means both merchant and businessman.
In addition to
the cleanliness, the wealthy houses, and the happy healthy children,
there was something else unusal about the Chinese village.
It's the men.
Said Hao. There are men in a Chinese village.
That was it! In
Khmer and tribal villages we had only seen children and women. If
there were any men at all, they were very old.
Normally the men
go to work in the rice fields, so there are only old people and
children in the villages. Explained Hao. ¡§But because the Chinese
are businessmen, they are home all day.
Men sat at
tables, sharing fruit or drinking glasses of tea, talking about the
price of rice and fish.
I had no idea how
one could earn money with an office so far from Wall Street. So, I
asked Hao exactly what business the Chinese were doing in this
They buy rice
from the Lao village next door. But they pay a cheap price. Said Hao.
Then they take the rice to Banlung and sell it a t a profit. After
the Lao people sell the rice to the Chinese they buy all of the
things they need in the Chinese shops.
So, the Chinese
even get back the small price they paid for the rice. I concluded.
Yes, but not
finished. Said Hao. ¡§Because the Chinese pay them so little for the
rice, they need money during the growing season, so they borrow from
the Chinese. They have to pay 100% interest, and they pay back with
rice instead of money.
The story went
When they have a
failed rice harvest, the Lao have to buy back their own rice from
the Chinese at a higher price, in order to survive.
No wonder the
Chinese didn't have to break their backs out in the fields, they had
the entire Lao community in debt servitude.
When I used a ten
dollar US note to buy a coke in a Chinese shop, the worker, the
owner's son, gave me my change in Riel (Cambodian currency). In the
capital it was the common practice that you would not usually be
given more than one or two dollars in local currency, and the rest
in US dollars.
exchange rate used in shops throughout the country was 4,000 Riel to
the dollar. But at banks the exchange rate had crept up to 4,200
Riel to the dollar. By giving change exclusively in Riel, the
Chinese family was shoring up their familiar reserves of hard
currency. And on my transaction alone, they had earned 2,000 Riels,
or fifty cents, by playing the exchange rates. Most of Cambodia's
poor labourers earned about a dollar per day. Aside from the fact
that a rural Khmer business would have lost the sale, because they
couldn't change a ten dollar bill, just by making change in Riel,
the Chinese had already earned half a day's wages.
As always in
Indochina, and particularly in Cambodia, I was impressed with the
Chinese. They were the merchants of Asia, and would probably become
the merchants of the Earth. In 1975, under the Pol Pot regime, they
were singled out, hunted and killed. In 1979, when Cambodia was
starting over again from zero, the Chinese were starting over from
minus. And yet, today they were the owners, the bosses, the
landlords, moneylenders, and business people just as it was thirty
years ago. The Pol Pot regime had been intended to end Cambodia's
subservience to foreign governments and foreign culture. And now,
they had come full circle. Millions of people had died needlessly,
but things were right back to where they started.
Some thing else I
had noticed in the Chinese village was the absence of pigs.
Normally, pigs and chickens ran freely through villages.
Knowing how much
the Chinese enjoy eating pork, Don't Chinese people have pigs. I
Oh yes, some of
them do. But they make a business, raising large numbers of pigs in
an enclosure. When the pigs are big enough, they sell them in the
Khmer, hill tribe
and Lao families just have a few pigs. And when the pigs are large
enough, they slaughter and eat them.
Outside a shop, I
met one of the villages two Chinese teachers. Pleased to discover
that he spoke Mandarin, we continued in that language, and he told
me about life in the village.
twenty-four years old. Although he was born in Cambodia, he had
attended Chinese school, and now worked as a teacher. He said that
all the other families came from Guangdong, but at home they spoke
Tchiew, the predominant Chinese dialect in Indochina. Throughout the
world, Cantonese, Fukinies, Hokien, and Tchiew seem to be the most
common dialects spoken in overseas Chinese communities. But there is
a movement among families to have their children learn Mandarin at
private Chinese schools.
The teacher told
me that the students went to school in the morning to do state
schooling, in Khmer, with a Khmer teacher. In the afternoon, they
went back to school, but this time all of the subjects were taught
The children were
learning to write genti ze, simplified Chinese characters, which
were now the standard used in Beijing. Two of the children showed me
their homework, and I marvelled at the countless hours of practice
that were required to learn to write Chinese. I told the teacher
that although I could speak mandarin well, I had given up after a
few hundred characters. The teacher laughed, saying You are just
being modest. I carefully wrote out a few characters to show him. He
laughed again. More beautiful than my letters.
No, they aren't.
write slowly and beautifully, concentrating on their letters. He
explained. But the older you get, the faster you write, and the
uglier your characters are, until no one can read them. I went to
the school to meet the other teacher, an energetic, bright, and
beautiful young lady, from community of Chinese Diaspora in
I think they pay
her a lot of money or she wouldn't come here. Said Hao. ¡§The Khmer
teachers are paid by the government, and their salary is about $25
per month. But this girl is paid by the parents who all contributed
to her salary.
This was so
typical of the Chinese. Among Khmers Chinese had a reputation for
being skinflints. But the one area where they spared no expense was
in their children's education. In Phnom Penh, it was very common
that Chinese children attended Khmer school, Chinese, and English
school all at the same time. Some high school and university
students had already completed their private English school and
English proficiency exams, and were attending Australian Polytechnic
at night, while finishing high school or university during the day.
Everything in the
village was clean, neat, and orderly. The shops were well appointed,
and filled with colourful merchandise. Many of them looked better
than the average shop in Phnom Penh. But the school building was
particularly nice, with a bright blue sign out front. The children
all wore their neat, spotless school uniforms, dutifully following
their lessons. I happened to walk in the middle of the English
class, and was happy to find that the base medium of instruction was
Chinese. Children can learn faster using their own language as a
base. Also, Khmer lacked the terms to explain the English grammar
and lacked the vocabulary to do translations. But Chinese has a word
On the board the
teacher had written out the Chinese characters for count and
non-count nouns, and under each had written a list of English
All of the
children in Wen Sai were fluent in both written and spoken Khmer,
which set them ahead of 87% of the population of Ratanakiri and 54%
of Cambodians. They spoke Tchiew at home, were fluent in written and
spoken Mandarin, and were learning English, four languages, not bad
for a 125 person village in the middle of nowhere, down a river in
That morning at
breakfast, Mr. Sompong, the owner of the guesthouse where I was
staying, had told me that the Chinese dominated the entire economy
We walked only a
hundred meters further, to the Lao Village.
You see, it looks
like a very poor Khmer village.
The Lao house was
a normal, unpainted, one story house on stilts. There were pigs and
chickens, and small, mussy children running naked in the unkept
You see,¡¨ Said
Hao. There are no men in the Lao village, because they are farmers,
they are all out in the fields. The Chinese don't farm, they sit all
day in their shops and do business.
As we headed back
to our boat, and the end of our tour, I thought that I had built
enough rapport with Hao that I could ask him the question that had
been burning in me for the last eighteen months, since my arrival in
What do you think
about the Chinese? I asked.
I think they are
good and hard working. I think they do everything legally. When
Khmer are rich, they do corruption. But Chinese get rich by making
How did they get
rich? I asked. Were they rich when they came here?
No, they came
from the war. Said Hao. They had nothing. But when they came, they
don't care about shy. They do every job just to get money. Then they
use money to make a business. And when they get money form the
business. They don't spend the money, they use it to make the
was surprisingly well thought out. Often, when questioning Khmers on
cause and effect relationships of why this or that happened in their
lives, I had the impression that they didn't know. Much of what
happens to them is attributed to karma. But Hao's answered seemed
both reasonable and right. So now, I asked the real question.
If you know how
they did it, why can't you do the same? and by you, I meant all of
There is no
opportunity in Cambodia. Said Hao, parroting the party line.
ut you just told
me that the Chinese were refugees when they came here. I find it
hard to believe that a refugee has more opportunity than a Khmer.
But I have no
money to start a business. Protested Hao.
But you just told
me that the Chinese had no money when they came. I pointed out.
Hao just shook
his head in that Does not compute, kind of way that people do, when
you challenge their core beliefs.
The Chinese are
hard working. They work every minute. Said Hao, as if this were a
reason he couldn't emulate them. But Khmer and Lao, we like to lay
in the hammock and rest.
Once again, if
you know this is the problem, why can't you just overcome it?
Hao ignored my
comment and kept talking. The things he said were all true, and all
reasons why it would be difficult to do what the Chinese had done.
But he spit them
out like ready-made excuses.
When Khmer have
money, we spend it. The Chinese like to make their business bigger.
But we like to buy a new cell phone or a motorcycle, so our friends
will know that we are rich.
His final answer
may actually have been the core problem. The Chinese follow Mahayana
Buddhism, whereas the Khmer follow Theravada.
The Khmer believe
there is no point in earning so much money, because we can't take it
with us when we die. But the Chinese believe they can.
that I wasn't going to solve Cambodia's poverty in a single
discussion, I let young Hao off the hook. When we arrived at the
guesthouse, I paid him a generous tip for the mental anguish I had
subjected him to.
economic progress of the Chinese, I remembered the proverb, which my
Tombon friend, Noeuke had taught me.
The Chinese chase
the Khmer. The Khmer chase the tribes. The tribes chase the spirits.
And the spirits live in the mountains.
The Chinese were
clearly taking over Ratanakiri. Maybe the world was next, and we
would all become Chinese. And as we moved closer to urbanization and
capitalism, we were moving away from the farming land, living in
commune with nature, and moving away from the mountains, where the
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